Opinion: Columnists

Sunday Reflection: How Harry Reid has muzzled the Senate

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For 12 hours and 52 minutes, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., held the Senate floor, with occasional help from a handful of Republican and Democratic colleagues, delaying the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Paul admitted early on that he didn't have the votes to derail the nomination. But his decision to exercise a senator's right to speak without time limit forced the Senate, and the press covering it, to focus on a controversial issue.

Paul's filibuster was motivated by Attorney General Eric Holder's controversial claim that the president has the authority to kill American citizens on American soil without due process of law. It also showed Washington what a real filibuster looks like.

For the past several years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has complained that Republicans prevent the Senate from getting anything done by filibustering every significant piece of legislation Reid brings to the floor. But until Paul stood up to speak on Brennan's nomination, Republicans hadn't actually filibustered anything in years.

The Senate is supposed to work mostly under "unanimous consent." As long as no one objects, strict Senate rules on consideration of bills and amendments and limits on debate can be set aside. The majority and minority leaders typically develop unanimous consent agreements before a bill comes to the floor, laying out which amendments will be debated, how much time senators have for each and when the bill will come up for a final vote.

When party leaders have the rough outlines of an agreement in place, they circulate it, and other senators have a few hours to register any objections. Some may ask to have a minor amendment adopted or to get a vote on a more controversial amendment. Once every senator is satisfied with how the debate will proceed, the majority leader seeks unanimous consent from the floor to proceed under the agreed conditions. In exchange for consideration of their amendments, the minority surrenders the right to filibuster, and all senators know that the legislation will soon get a final vote. That's how the Senate is supposed to work.

Harry Reid has abandoned this practice. Instead of agreeing to the terms of debate at the beginning, Reid has consistently sought to silence debate on major issues and prevent Republican amendments from ever reaching the floor. Under the strict Senate rules that govern in the absence of unanimous consent, Reid offers a series of dummy amendments to each bill -- a practice known as "filling the tree." No new amendments can be offered until one of Reid's amendments is considered or withdrawn, and by design, Reid never actually brings any of his amendments up for consideration. Simultaneously, Reid files a cloture motion to close debate on the bill that hasn't even been debated yet.

Until a century ago, a lone senator could hold up any legislation indefinitely. In 1917, the Senate adopted its first cloture rule, allowing senators to end debate with a two-thirds vote. In 1975, the Senate reduced the threshold for cloture to three-fifths, so 60 of our current 100 senators can end any filibuster.

Reid has been filing cloture motions against filibusters that don't exist. Republicans haven't been clogging the Senate floor, or staying up all night reading from phone books. They've voted against closing debate before it's even started. They've insisted on their right to offer amendments to pending legislation. Reid has refused because he doesn't want to expose his Democratic colleagues to tough votes on Republican alternatives. The obstructionism he decries is entirely his creation. And in the long run, he'd like to abolish the supermajority rules that prevent him from wielding the same strict majoritarian power as the speaker of the House.

Sen. Paul's filibuster showed why Senate traditions need to be protected. He and a few colleagues forced the Senate to consider a complex issue in a thoughtful way, and they made the president wait one day to get his new CIA director.

It's entirely fair to blame many of Washington's problems on both sides of the aisle. We've had a long-standing bipartisan agreement to spend more money than we actually have, to ignore mounting entitlement insolvency and to not enforce our immigration laws. But the Senate's failure to pass a budget, or get much of anything done, is entirely the fault of Harry Reid's inability to manage the Senate, and of Senate Democrats, who continue to support him as their leader.

Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy. He previously served as legislative assistant to former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu.

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