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Public Statements

The Most Dysfunctional Senate

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. MERKLEY. I appreciate my colleague coming to the floor and starting to talk about rules. As I was listening back in my office to the Senator's presentation, and he may have enhanced it while I was walking over here, but the Senator was noting, essentially, what sounds like a very one-sided piece of the puzzle; that is, that the majority leader or the floor manager is in a position of negotiating or restraining what amendments the minority does. However, the Senator might be unaware that it is actually two-sided in that it is traditional for the floor leader on the Senator's side or the minority leader, the Republican leader, to also veto the Democratic amendments. Of course, I have had untold dozens of my amendments vetoed from being presented.

So you have this negotiation that is taking place between the leaders on the two sides over what they will admit. That hits both sides equally, basically, because your amendments may be ruled out; my amendments may be ruled out. Your leader may actually not like your amendment, and may say to you: Well, the other side will never agree to your amendment. Actually, it may be your own leader killing it. That may happen on my side too; my leader saying: Oh, no, the other side will never negotiate over your amendment. They will never agree to it. Maybe it is on my own side.


Mr. MERKLEY. We heard a few moments ago from our colleague from Alabama that the problem of the Senate being able to process bills is completely as a result of the inability to offer amendments. There are certain things that don't seem to quite square with that.

For one, is my recollection correct that we have had quite a few filibusters on judges where no amendments are relevant?

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Yes; that is absolutely true. It is hard to amend a judge.

Mr. MERKLEY. Is the same true of efforts to get to a conference committee after we have already passed a bill and all the amendments have been previously considered?

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. That is also true. In fact, I believe there have been multiple filibusters of the various steps on the way to a conference committee, even after all amendments have been considered. So the Senator, I believe, is correct.

Mr. MERKLEY. Is the same true on both conference reports and final passage? Neither of those involve amendments, but have there been extensive filibuster efforts to keep this body from ever being able to complete one piece of business and move on to the next?

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. I think that is true, and nobody is more alert to this than the Senator from Oregon, but it is my belief there has been a little transformation in the nature of the filibuster. It always used to be the individual right of individual Senators to get up on their feet and to say their piece, to hold the floor for as long as they needed to and to speak themselves--to read the Bible, to read the Constitution, to read the phonebook--into exhaustion. They did so when they felt deeply about an issue, when they were deeply opposed to something on the floor.

Then cloture came along and it established a 30-hour block of time for debate. But, tellingly, it didn't require anyone to do any debating during those 30 hours. My belief is the minority party figured out if they filibustered everything, including very popular bills and amendments and judges that normally pass with huge majorities--up in the nineties--then each time the majority leader has to file cloture we end up with another 30-hour block of floor time that can't be used for anything productive. If that is done hundreds of times, that becomes thousands of hours of floor time, and it is very often why people who are watching us, expecting to see debates on the floor, see the tedious quorum call. They see our wonderful floor staff quietly reading the names of the Senators as the quorum call drones on and nothing is happening.

That puts immense pressure on the majority because they now have less and less and less time to work with because these 30-hour bites of time over and over again have been taken out of the year and it makes doing business very difficult.

That, I believe, has been the transformation. We have changed from being a Senate where an individual Senator has the right to get on his or her feet and oppose anything with a filibuster for as long as they can stand on their feet to a Senate where the minority filibusters everything, creating these 30-hour blocks of dead time which puts great pressure on the body to try to get things done in the time that remains. That is my view of why we are where we are and why it is important to change the rules.

I will yield after saying I do think the Senator from Oregon and the Senator from New Mexico have done this body a great service by their leadership on pressing forward on rules changes. I think it is very clear that however this ends up turning out, the majority leader has 51 votes for a change to put the Senate back on a footing where it is behaving as a Senate again and we are not spending our time in the dead zone of endless quorum calls.

I yield the floor.

Mr. MERKLEY. I thank my colleague from Rhode Island for his very lucid commentary.

We do have a responsibility to enable this body to debate and decide issues in order to address the big issues facing America. It certainly is not the case that we have been fulfilling that responsibility. This is why the popularity of the Senate and the House has dropped to incredibly low levels, because people see there are big challenges in America--big challenges about investment and infrastructure, big challenges about the management of our military policy and our military provisioning, big challenges in regard to the environment, in regard to health, and certainly big challenges in regard to education. So no matter how long the list gets, we just get more and more and more paralyzed and unable to address anything in this body.

Tomorrow is the first day of the next legislative session and my colleague from New Mexico has arrived and I ask unanimous consent that we be allowed to engage in a colloquy.


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