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Blog: Senate Rules: Common Sense Reform


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In 2009, I took my seat in "the world's greatest deliberative body" as the 17th U.S. Senator for New Mexico. The respect that I hold for the institution of the U.S. Senate is immeasurable, as is the pride with which I serve.

But in the past several years I have witnessed an assembly that seems more dysfunctional than deliberative - where partisan rancor and the Senate's own incapacitating rules often prevent us from conducting our business. Many of my colleagues and I were elected to the sound of a call for change. The American people sent us to Washington to put partisanship aside and take the country in a new direction. Unfortunately, self-imposed rules - like the filibuster - that govern the Senate have stood in the way and made the institution become a graveyard for good ideas.

That's why for more than two years, I have been working to shine light on a solution to help end the dysfunction that is paralyzing the U.S. Senate and preventing us from doing the work the American people demand: The Constitutional Option.

The Constitutional Option

Article 1, section 5 of our Constitution states that, "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member." As you can see, when the Framers required a supermajority, they explicitly stated so, as they did for expelling a member. On all other matters, such as determining the Senate's rules, a majority requirement is clearly implied. At the start of the new congress, a simple majority of senators have the power to revisit the rules of the chamber and help restore the Senate to the deliberative body our Founding Fathers intended.

In my first floor speech in 2010, and in testimony during the Senate Rules Committee hearings on this issue, my colleagues and I have explored the Senate's long history of using the Constitutional Option to reform its rules.

In 2011, because of our efforts, we took the first vote on amending the Senate filibuster rule in more than 35 years. Though we were not successful in our attempts to reform the filibuster, our efforts sparked a spirited debate that has reached a tipping point today.

Ending Filibuster Abuse

As the 112th Congress comes to a close, it will be remembered as a 21st century "do nothing Congress." The Senate has passed the fewest number of bills in a generation. Non-controversial government nominees have been senselessly delayed and countless judicial posts remain vacant. And there have been more filibusters since 2006 than the total between 1920 and 1980.

As Majority Leader Reid noted on the Senate floor this past summer, "If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it's the filibuster rule, because it's been abused, abused, and abused."

Under the "filibuster rule" (Rule XXII), it is not possible to limit debate, or end a filibuster, without three-fifths, or 60, of all Senators voting to do so. In the past several years, the use - and abuse - of filibusters by both parties to obstruct the Senate from functioning has become the norm. But it hasn't always been this way. Cloture motions - a motion for the Senate to vote to end debate - used to occur perhaps seven or eight times during a congressional session. But since Senator Reid became the Majority Leader in 2006, he has faced almost 400 - most occasioned simply by the threat of a filibuster. The use of the filibuster today dominates the Senate's business at an irresponsible level, threatening our ability to operate.

Dysfunction in the U.S. Senate affects every issue facing the American people. The economic prosperity of our country is on the line, as is the trust and faith the American people have put into us as elected officials. We cannot go on like this. The time for reform is now. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution provides that solution.

The Constitutional Option has been supported by conservative scholars, legal experts and by Republicans and Democrats alike. It was used with bipartisan support to compel the Senate to amend the filibuster rule at the beginning of the congress in 1917, 1959 and 1975.

Common sense reforms are what we seek today.

Restoring Real Debate

At the heart of restoring debate in the Senate is filibuster reform. Senators Jeff Merkley, Tom Harkin and I want to reduce the constant abuse of filibuster threats by instituting what we call the Talking Filibuster. Today, all it takes is a phone call threatening to filibuster to tie the Senate into procedural knots. By mandating that members must hold the Senate floor and explain to the American people and their colleagues why they are against a bill or nominee, we can reduce its use.

Opponents will say this is a partisan power grab that destroys minority rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. We seek to preserve the filibuster and restore it. As I have said before, my party is currently in the majority, and one day it will be in the minority again, but my position on this issue will not change. The rights of the minority must always be protected, but we cannot allow the minority to completely obstruct a majority from getting things done.

Now is the time for the Senate to have a thorough and candid debate about our rules, identify solutions that will allow the body to function as our founders intended, and amend its rules with an up or down majority vote.

During the next several weeks, I will continue making this case to my colleagues in the Senate and to the American people.

In the meantime, below is some additional background on my previous rules reform statements and resources that have helped guide my positions.

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