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National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 - Motion to Proceed - Resumed

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. MERKLEY. Madam President, I am pleased to be here with my colleague from New Mexico, Senator Tom Udall, to talk a little about the issue of how this body, which was once considered the world's premier deliberative body, can actually discuss and decide things in this modern era--a modern era that has seen unlimited paralysis, with huge hurdles placed in the way of addressing the large issues facing America.

The last couple of days we have heard a lot of passionate terms--terms such as power grab and suppression of minority rights, broken promises or abuse of the rules. I must say all of those allegations create a smoke screen designed to take away from thoughtful conversation about a broken system, about the dysfunction of the Senate. So let's take a step back and recognize that the goal of this discussion about rules is to simply enhance or restore the ability of this body to deliberate and decide issues.

Perhaps during the time we have the honor to serve in this body we will be able to once again claim that we are the world's greatest deliberative body. The conversation often starts with the Constitution and about the design of this body as being the cooling saucer, as President Washington was alleged to have claimed. And, indeed, the early debate over this body did say let's take a longer term for Senators--6 years rather than 2--so they are more insulated from the public debate. Let's have the indirect election of Senators. States used to have a legislative process to decide who would represent them in the Senate rather than direct election. Let's do that so there is a little more insulation for Senators to be able to thoughtfully consider issues, whereas the House might be a little rash.

But, colleagues, there is a huge difference between being a cooling saucer and a deep freeze. Indeed, we have become a deep freeze.

Let's take a look at this first chart. This chart essentially shows the rise in the number of cloture motions. If you can't see the details, what you can see is the trend of this great soaring number. I think what captures attention is that during the 6 years Lyndon Johnson was majority leader in this body he had to file just one cloture motion--just one--in order to get to a final simple majority vote.

During the 6 years that Senate Majority Leader Reid has presided here we have had 386 filibusters. Realizing that each one can consume a week of the Senate's time, we quickly see the paralysis that has invaded this body.

When Members talk about the frustration of not getting to appropriations bills and how few of them we have considered and debated, we know why. It is because of the incessant, day-in-and-day-out filibusters launched by members of the minority. This must be addressed.

I first came to the Senate to observe this Chamber in 1976. I was an intern for Senator Hatfield. I sat in the staff gallery and covered the debate that summer over the Tax Reform Act of 1976. There were no cameras on the Senate floor, no e-mail, so I would run down and meet Senator Hatfield outside of the elevators and brief him on each amendment. I watched as every hour or hour and a half an amendment was brought up, it was debated in this body, and it was voted on. There was no filibuster of a motion to proceed. There was no filibuster of amendments. There was no 3-week deep freeze during the negotiation of what amendments would come up because it was understood we were here as a majority body to debate issues.

The filibuster would be a rare exception, occurring once or twice in one's career, when someone would stand and say: There is a principle so profound at stake, an interest of such concern to me personally, to the Nation, or to citizens of my own State that I am going to break and interfere with the majority decision and hold this floor and make my case before the people. But that is not what we have now. So there are various ideas being put forward on how we can restore the filibuster as something that happens in front of this Chamber, in front of the public; that there is accountability and transparency that facilitates debate. Rather than throwing accusations about abuses of power, let's just have a thoughtful debate about how to make this Chamber work.

One question is whether we should have filibusters on the motion to proceed. I have a little chart that shows what has happened. It used to be unheard of that the motion to proceed was filibustered. In the time period between about 1930 and 1970 the motion to proceed was only filibustered 12 times or roughly once every 3 to 4 years.

What we have here is 57 filibusters in 2007-2008 of just the motion to proceed. In other words, we see this growing trend of trying to paralyze the Senate from even getting to a debate on an issue. This makes no sense because whatever one is filibustering at the front end one can do at the back end. So we need to consider the possibility of saying, no, this does not enhance debate.

Filibustering to prevent the Senate from debating cannot possibly enhance debate. So we need to be thoughtful about whether we continue this change, this change that has emerged since 1970.

We need to look at the problem of motions being filibustered going to conference committee. A conference committee is a chance to negotiate with the House on a bill that has been passed by both bodies. Why should we possibly obstruct a bill from getting to conference committee? Yet we rarely have a conference committee now because of the routine threat to filibuster the motions necessary to get to conference committee. Yes, we should still be able to debate and filibuster what comes back from conference committee. Absolutely. But to prevent negotiations--again, that doesn't seem reasonable in any frame other than to paralyze this body, which is paralysis not about debate, it is about preventing debate.

I put forward the notion of the talking filibuster. That is simply to say that the American people believe that if you are going to object to a simple majority vote and say there should be more debate, then there should be more debate--more debate on this Chamber floor. So I am proposing that after cloture, when you have a majority but not a supermajority, that Members be required to actually debate. I can tell my colleagues that the public reaction to this is so strongly in the affirmative. And there are other ideas being put forward that merit thoughtful consideration.

Today the minority leader said the test should be whether you feel as though a proposal would work when you place yourself in the minority. Both Senator Udall and I have expressed that very position from the beginning of this conversation 2 1/2 years ago, that whatever we support on this floor needs to be something we would accept in the minority, and that means it enhances debate and dialog without crushing in any way the right of the minority to be heard.

Madam President, at this moment I yield the floor for my colleague from New Mexico, who has done a spectacular job at framing that we have a responsibility to American citizens to enable this Chamber to work and that we have an opportunity at the start of every 2 years to have a thoughtful and considerate debate on how to fulfill that responsibility.


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