Heritage: Will the Senate Minority Be Silenced?

Heritage: Will the Senate Minority Be Silenced?

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Originally posted at The Foundry by Amy Payne

Life is good when you’re in the majority—and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) seems to believe he’ll be there forever.

Reid has already effectively shut down the opportunity for minority Senators to offer amendments to bills. Now he is angling to change the Senate’s rules so that minority members cannot filibuster a bill.

The way the Senate is set up, every Senator has the ability to debate legislation. But as Heritage senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky notes, “If members lose these abilities, the majority party will have the unchecked capability to shut off debate and pass legislation without opposition.”

The filibuster—famously depicted in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—actually doesn’t happen that often. As Senator Jim DeMint wrote for Heritage in November, “The last person to engage in a genuine filibuster was the ultraliberal Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In 2010, He spoke on the Senate floor for eight hours straight in an attempt to defeat legislation to extend tax rates.”

In recent years, Republicans have not filibustered legislation, despite Reid’s current crusade. DeMint notes that “filibusters have not prevented the Democrat-led Senate from passing a budget over the past three years, preventing the so-called ‘fiscal cliff,’ or taking steps to reduce our $16 trillion and rising debt. Harry Reid has.”

To shut down debate takes a vote of three-fifths of the Senate. But Reid wants to change longstanding Senate rules so that a simple majority of 51 Senators could end any debate. This has been called the “nuclear option.”

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Of course, Reid seems to assume that his party will never lose the majority, and this rule change would work forever in his favor. Both Reid and President Obama have previously argued against changing the rules when it wouldn’t benefit them.

In 2005, then-Senator Barack Obama correctly argued:

what [the American people] don’t expect, is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet…everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster—if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate—then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.

Reid isn’t the only one looking to change the Senate rules. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) are now claiming that their plan for a bipartisan “reform” of Senate procedures is a better idea. But von Spakovsky explains that it would “create a new category of super senators who will be empowered to participate in the legislative process to the exclusion of rank-and-file members.” It would concentrate power in the hands of only four Senators, excluding the other 96 from being able to offer amendments to legislation.

“This proposal may be worse than Reid’s because it would empower the leadership of both parties to the detriment of open debate and a free amendment process available to all members,” von Spakovsky writes.

The Senate’s rules were set up for very good reasons. Von Spakovsky reminds us that “George Washington told Jefferson that the Senate was intended to ‘cool’ House legislation in the same way that a saucer was used to cool hot tea.” Unlike the House, in the Senate, every state has equal representation, and every Senator should have a voice. If the rules change every time the majority party changes, the Senate will lose its ability to deliberate in the way it was designed.