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The Decline of the Senate

How do you know that your country is in sad decline?  Just check the Senate.  The once proud body has fallen on hard times or, more appropriately, it has fallen on bitterly partisan times.  A legislative body which has long-prided itself for collegiality finds that quality is not surviving the onslaught of conservative Republican orthodoxy.

The latest test to collegiality was the inability of the Senate to confirm several of President Obama’s nominees to senior administration positions. According to arcane practice that has developed over many years, any Senator can delay an appointment by simply putting a hold on the nomination.  This is ridiculous enough. However, in those cases where an individual Senator or group of Senators, cannot be bought off, the Senate has allowed its filibuster rule to apply. This means that if a Senator simply says he or she will filibuster, then it takes 60 votes of the total 100 in the Senate to overturn the filibuster and allow a vote to proceed. In the case of President Obama’s nominees to such positions as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and head of the new Consumer Protection Agency, Republican leadership acted in a pure partisan play to prevent the President from getting his nominees to a floor vote.

The non-partisan group No Labels, whose motto is “Tell Congress:  Stop fighting and start fixing”, has proposed a twelve point plan to make Congress work.  The second point in this plan is an “up or down vote on Presidential appointments” – all Presidential appointments should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination.

This common sense proposal ran up against the Senate’s not so common sense procedural rules.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed simply to allow the Senate to bring such nominations to a vote with a simple majority (51 versus the current 60).

So what’s the big deal?  This was called by Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell a “Nuclear Option” because it would overturn current Senate procedure with a majority vote – using an unusual parliamentary procedure to circumvent current practice. I would call this approach a way to maintain the relevance of the Senate.  It allows the business of the country to move forward and not to be held hostage to a vocal minority.

Moreover, in limiting this approach only to the curtailing of filibusters regarding presidential nominees, Senator Reid was not trying to broadly curtail the Senate’s filibuster power- though, indeed, this would be worth considering.  Overall, Reid’s approach to limiting the filibuster ability for Presidential nominees was a limited and practical one. It was hardly a “Nuclear Option”, except in the overblown atmosphere of our Senate.

At the 23rd hour, Senator John McCain brokered a deal in which the Republicans agreed to allow votes on all of the pending Obama nominees and the President agreed to change his two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board- nominees who were particularly partisan to labor. Senator Reid agreed not to change the filibuster rules.

So we are really back to square one. The President got votes, this time, on the most prominent of his nominations, but Republican Senators may still filibuster any subsequent Presidential nomination.

Senate rules must be changed if the Senate is to remain relevant. Without a Senate that is capable of moving significant business forward the country is slowing slipping into ungovernable territory.

Majority leader Reid should propose changing the rules to limit the ability to filibuster a Presidential nominee. It is time for the Senate to have the courage to join the new century.