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Why the Senate is Broken

Unfortunately the US Senate, the world’s greatest deliberative body, no longer deliberates and seldom votes. And this is heart of the problem.

It wasn’t that long ago that regular order for the Senate was a very open, deliberative, democratic process. Just look back at a typical tax bill in the 1970’s. The Finance Committee would have hearings and several weeks of meetings to prepare for a committee mark-up. Every Senator on the committee was then allowed to offer amendments during the mark-up. More often than not, these amendments would be adjusted and be added to the legislation or be defeated. The result was a committee product that was reflective of the majority party’s proposal, but offered the minority a real chance to discuss and amend the legislation.

This committee bill was then brought to the floor of the Senate where Chairman Russell Long and ranking member Carl Curtis would manage the bill. There was never an attempt at the beginning of the process to limit amendments or to cut off debate. Given the rules and customs of the Senate, every senator had the chance to come to the floor to offer amendments and to get a vote when they believed it was necessary. It took weeks to complete action on tax bills.

Carefully notice the result. Senators had a chance to offer their amendments, to have them debated and to get an up or down vote on the substance of their amendments. Sometimes they worked with Senators Long and Curtis and changed their amendment so that it was accepted by the Senate. Sometimes they asked for a vote and won., Sometimes they asked for a vote and lost. In the end, the debate and the opportunity to vote on amendments resulted in a product that had the respect and support of a strong majority of senators.

The regular order had shaved off the rough edges and brought about a result. Democracy had produced an agreement. No one was denied their rights as a senator.

Compare that with today’s process. Often legislation is written by a select few members of the Democratic leadership. Sometimes the committee chairman is part of the process and sometimes not. This legislation is then introduced by the Majority Leader and brought to the Senate floor with little notice. If Republicans want to offer amendments, they have to bargain with the Majority Leader to get on his approved list and to do it in the approved amount of time. Deliberation, debate and votes are strictly limited to the amount of time the Majority Leader thinks is necessary to complete this piece of legislation. Quite often, the result is that Republicans won’t agree to be limited in this way. That’s when the Majority Leader shuts off all amendments and debate and votes. He files cloture on a piece of legislation that has not been through any process where the minority (and most of the majority) has had a chance to debate or vote on their amendments. The Majority Leader has effectively filibustered his own legislation. Either he passes a bill with no discussion and no chance to offer amendments or he loses the cloture vote and blames republicans for being obstructionists.

The real loser in all of this is of course the American people. But the Senate is also being harmed.

The natural process of investigation, debate, deliberation and votes never happens. The rough edges of partisan legislation are never subjected to the file of democratic action. The result is second rate legislation that exacerbates the differences rather than bringing the parties together.

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