James Madison explained his vision of the Senate as the “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” that often influences the way the U.S. House of Representatives operates.
George Washington likened the House to hot tea, and the Senate was the “saucer” that cooled it.
On the first day of the new Congress, many Senate Democrats want that saucer shattered.
One of the most important differences between the Senate and House is that the Senate’s rules allow the senators of the minority party to have a say in the legislation Congress approves. The House’s rules, by contrast, allow the majority party almost total control over the legislation it produces, with little to no input from the minority party. The uniqueness of the Senate ensures that the voice of all Americans are heard, and not silenced by the unilateral — and temporary — will of whichever party may be in control of the Senate at the time.
Senate Republicans understood this when, in January 1995 — after gaining the majority for the first time in 40 years — we rejected an attempt to rewrite the Senate rules and diminish the role of the minority by making it easier to end a filibuster. While a rules change would have greatly advantaged Republicans, we knew it was not the right thing to do.
Democrat Leader Harry Reid argued at the time that “the full-scale elimination of one of the most sacred rules of the Senate — the filibuster — will not result in a more efficient Senate. In fact, it has the potential to result in the tyranny of the majority.” He was right.
Later in 2005, with Senate Republicans still in the majority, then-Senator Barack Obama declared, “What [the American people] do not expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.” He too was right.
Now, however, there’s an attempt by some Senate Democrats to change Senate rules so that it would be easier to ram through legislation — like ObamaCare — on purely partisan votes. By doing so, they would prevent the minority from offering amendments to improve legislation and reach true bipartisan agreements that the American people could support.
Senate rules that allow open debate are not the problem. The problem is the attempt of the Democratic leadership to stifle debate and, as with the case of ObamaCare — which was opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans — ram unpopular legislation through the Senate. The Democratic leader does this by employing once-rarely used procedures known as “filing cloture” and “filling the parliamentary amendment tree,” often on the very same day he introduces legislation. In other words, he calls up a bill and immediately closes the opportunity for amendments, and ends debate before the debate even begins. And then they feign surprise when Republicans cry foul.
Indeed, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the current majority leader has used his power to cut off amendments and debate on the same day legislation is introduced more than three times, on average, than the last six majority leaders!
So it isn’t that the rules need to be changed. What needs to change is the way the rules are used. The Senate must return to the way it has operated over the past two centuries, where legislation is considered in an open, deliberative way and senators are permitted to amend it. Otherwise, by changing the rules to silence the voice of the minority and the millions of Americans they represent, we’re relegating the Senate to nothing more than, as Democrat Senator Ben Nelson once put it, a “smaller version of the House.”
Let’s not take away the “saucer” that’s meant to cool the tea. After all, it’s the American people who’ll get burned.