In the last several years, the World’s Greatest Deliberative body has done little deliberating. Instead, the Senate has been a shadow of itself. Committees have often been by-passed. To a greater degree than ever before, Majority Leader Harry Reid used Senate Rule 14 to put measures on the Senate Calendar never reported from committee.
The two great rights of Senators are the right to debate and the right to amend. But the right to debate has been squeezed by unprecedented numbers of cloture motions. And the Leader has used his power of preferential recognition to block amendments from other Senators.
Senator Reid did not invent the tactic of “filling the amendment tree,” but during his tenure, he used it some 90 times. That exceeds by four times the total from all previous Majority Leaders combined. Not only minority Senators were disadvantaged by these changes. In six years, Senator Mark Begich did not secure a vote on a single amendment. Many of his Democratic colleagues were in nearly the same position.
Moreover, in November 2013, Senator Reid exercised the nuclear option to end the possibility of filibusters on nominations except those for the Supreme Court. Senate rules providing for cloture by 60 votes were overridden by this precedent which, for the first time in Senate history establishes majority cloture for anything.
A defense can be made that such moves were necessary to respond to obstructionism and nuisance tactics. Regardless of whether one accepts that justification, or where one wants to place blame, these changes have rendered the Senate dysfunctional. The Senate has done little more than vote on cloture and process nominations. Senators from both parties yearn to legislate again.
Anticipate that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will enhance the role of committees by reducing use of Rule 14 to by-pass them. A bi-partisan consensus on legislation is most likely to materialize in committee. If it doesn’t happen there, it’s much harder to find at later stages. Further anticipate the opening up of the amendment process and more robust floor debate. The budget reconciliation process is likely to be used for healthcare legislation and perhaps tax provisions. Whether the nuclear option on nominations will be reversed is unclear. Also count on a longer work week on the Senate Floor, at least in 2015.