Here’s a rule of thumb: when you’re in the minority in a legislative body, but enjoy some sort of a check on the majority to lock up legislation, you never surrender your key – certainly not for a worthless promise from the majority. Unfortunately, Senator Lamar Alexander has not internalized that lesson. Evidently, he was serious when he said he wanted to resign from leadership so he can be more “independent.”
Last week, Alexander penned a joint op-ed in the Washington Post with Carl Levin advocating that Republicans relinquish the right to filibuster the motion to proceed with debate on bills. At present, the minority has the power to block debate on bad legislation through the use of the filibuster by denying Harry Reid’s unanimous consent requests, unless Democrats have 60 votes to proceed with debate. This has been an effective tool in preempting bad legislation from getting off the ground. All too often, once bad legislation is allowed to be debated, enough Republicans are enticed into supporting it, especially after they receive a worthless vote on their choice amendments.
Now, Senator Alexander wants to give away the keys to the Senate:
We propose an approach that should be useful on many pieces of legislation: If the minority members would allow the majority leader to bring a bill to the floor for a vote without the 60-vote process, the legislation would be open to all relevant amendments but not to nonrelevant amendments.
Last week’s action on postal reform shows how our approach works. The minority joined the majority in bringing to the floor legislation to resolve the U.S. Postal Service’s substantial problems. The majority leader asked for unanimous consent that all amendments to the bill be relevant. One senator objected because he wanted to offer an amendment on Egypt, a serious matter but one not related to a discussion of the Postal Service.
Alexander and Levin’s example of the postal bill proves our point. Republicans allowed the debate to proceed and ultimately passed a bad piece of legislation without passing a single prudent amendment. They did the same thing with the highway bill and Violence Against Women Act, and will continue to do so on many more pieces of legislation.
This proposal is not a fair deal. When you are in the minority, you have no ability to pass good legislation anyway. The best you can do is block bad legislation. Republicans have a real tool to block bad legislation by refusing to even consider debate. On the other hand, even if Democrats afford them a vote on their choice amendments, they will be defeated. So Republicans would be exchanging a consequential tool to block passage of bad legislation in favor of a promise for a vote on amendments that will be defeated anyway.
Moreover, this agreement would only allow an open amendment process on germane amendments. To the extent that Republicans would want to force a vote on good legislation, it would be through non-germane amendments. After all, why would you want to submit a relevant amendment to a bad piece of legislation? You can’t fix statist legislation.
As such, why would Republicans agree not to offer non-relevant amendments? Nothing in the Senate’s rules prevent non-relevant amendments. Many times that is the only way for Senators to legislate. Republicans have had their rights severely restricted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who has used a parliamentary maneuver to block all amendments to bills on numerous occasions during his tenure.
According to a Heritage Foundation report, Reid has done so more than any of his predecessors to protect senators of his party from votes on non-germane politically charged amendments. Why would Republicans give up that right? For what end?
Take these two examples of how both parties have used non-relevant amendments to make law. First, the Guns in Parks legislation passed by Senator Tom Coburn. In May of 2009, Coburn offered an amendment allowing concealed guns in national parks by a 67-29 vote. That amendment was added to the “Credit Card Reform” bill that eventually became law. But for Senator Coburn’s right to offer a non-germane amendment to the credit card bill, the ban on guns in national parks would stand today.
And liberals have also used the tool of non-relevant amendments to bills. Every year the Defense Authorization bill becomes a Christmas Tree of legislation unrelated to defense. The late Senator Ted Kennedy would use the Defense Authorization bill every year to offer his bill to federally criminalize hate crimes. In 2009, liberals forced a vote on the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill for that year. The amendment passed the Senate on a 63-28 vote. Why would Republicans give up a tool that Democrats used so effectively in 2009? Seems like pre-emptive surrender of the rights of Republicans to fully participate in debate.
Why give away the keys to the Senate in exchange for a promise to vote down a germane amendment? If Republicans really want to vote on bills that will fail anyway, they have ways of forcing those votes without giving away their trump card or their right to offer non-germane amendments. Then again, even if we retain the filibuster at every stage of the process, Republicans have to be willing to use it. They will take a cadre of new senators in the conference.