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  • Dysfunction of the Senate

    by Senator Jeff Merkley

    Posted on 2013-01-04

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    MERKLEY. Mr. President, I rise today to talk about the dysfunction of the Senate, the rules of this governing body, and what we need to do to change them in order to take on the big challenges we face as a Nation.

    These last 2 years have created an unprecedented sense among the American people that Congress isn't measuring up to the needs of our time.

    This is especially troubling when we are up against tremendous challenges: the most profound jobs crisis in a generation; skyrocketing income inequality; and a tax system that unfairly rewards the wealthy and well-connected over working Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

    But unfortunately, we can't tackle this jobs crisis or the problem of inequality until this body, our revered Senate, restores the ability to debate, deliberate and decide on strategies to take our Nation forward.

    I believe that reforming the filibuster is one of the most critical steps we can take to repair the Senate and rebuild confidence in Congress's ability to govern.

    When I first came to the Senate, it was 1976. What I saw then could hardly have been farther from the Senate of today. Routine use of the ``filibuster''--or to put it differently, a routine use of an objection to a simple majority vote--has turned the U.S. Senate into a supermajority body.

    In short, the U.S. Senate, which once claimed to be ``the world's greatest deliberative body,'' has possibly become ``the world's least deliberative body.'' The institution of the Senate will not function again until we end the abuse of the filibuster. We must put an end to the silent, secret filibuster that is paralyzing the Senate.

    The use of this objection has expanded dramatically in recent decades. What was once used only to block legislation that conflicted with deep, personal principles is now used as a routine political strategy for deliberate paralysis. In the 6 years Lyndon Baines Johnson was majority leader, he dealt with one filibuster. Leader Reid during his 6 years as majority leader: 391.

    One casualty of the partisan filibuster is executive branch and judicial nominations. The Senate's power to advise and consent, as provided in the Constitution, was never intended to enable the legislators to inflict deep harm on the other branches of government. Yet that is exactly what has happened. Nearly one out of every eleven judgeships is vacant--triple the rate of 8 years ago. Our court systems are severely strained, with 27 vacancies rated as ``judicial emergencies'' at the end of 2012.

    This is deeply damaging, for several reasons. It prevents the legislature from responding to the Nation's pressing problems and severely hampers the executive and judicial branches, which rely on the Senate to confirm their leaders. Because the Senate is unable [[Page S22]] to fulfill, on a timely basis, its constitutional responsibility to ``advise and consent'' to nominations, judgeships and executive branch management positions simply go unfilled.

    Now, you may wonder, if this system is so dysfunctional, why did our Founding Fathers ever design the Senate like this? The answer is that they didn't. The Founders envisioned the Senate and House passing legislation and confirming nominations by a simple majority, reserving supermajority for special purposes such as constitutional amendments and overriding a veto.

    Alexander Hamilton, in fact, foresaw the current state of affairs in the Federalist Papers, observing that a supermajority requirement would have the ``tendency to embarrass the operations of government,'' and would create ``tedious delays, continual negotiation and intrigue, [and] contemptible compromises of the public good.'' As a result of the Senate's silent filibuster, the Senate failed to pass almost all of the appropriations bills in the last Congress. The number of bills the Senate passes has hit new lows, with fewer than 3 percent of bills introduced in the last Senate ever passing.

    That is why yesterday, with my partner, Senator Tom Udall, I introduced a resolution that will enhance debate and limit obstruction.

    Core to these reforms is the ``talking filibuster.'' A Senator can still object but she or he must be continuously on the floor maintaining a debate on the subject. This still allows Senators to block a simple majority vote on a bill of profound consequence, but they have to spend a lot of time and energy to do so.

    This reform would have two major consequences. By requiring time and energy to filibuster, it would strip away filibusters on noncontroversial issues that are currently used just to obstruct and delay, allowing the Senate to debate and decide issues. Second, it puts the filibuster on display before the American people, increasing transparency and accountability. If you filibuster, you must make your case before your colleagues and the public, so they know who is obstructing and what your arguments are, and allow the people to judge if you are a hero or a bum.

    Senate dysfunction is compromising the Senate's ability to respond to major issues facing our Nation. I want to thank Leader Reid for reserving the right to not adopt the rules of the previous Congress, so we can have this important debate on the rules of this body when we come back from the State work period.


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