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Senate rules: Not as important as some would have you think

Paul Kane has a great piece on the freshman Democratic senators who're tired of serving in a body that functions like a cross between Robert's Rules of Order and an SNL skit. But most telling are the sage warnings of the Senate elders. "Extended deliberation and debate -- when employed judiciously -- protect every senator, and the interest of their constituency, and are essential to the protection of the liberties of a free people," responded Sen. Robert Byrd.

Say what? Have we seriously just defined citizens of England, Canada, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and a host of other countries "un-free" because they don't allow legislators to slap anonymous holds on mid-level presidential appointees? Or given that such tactics are not be employed judiciously in our system of government right now, have we just defined ourselves as an un-free people? The Senate needs to get over itself. Its inane and increasingly misused traditions -- some of which are accidents created by a shoddy edit of the rulebook -- are not some lonely bulwark standing between us and tyranny.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 26, 2010; 6:19 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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It doesn't matter whether it is an all Democrat or Republican Hill, we need some safeguards to keep us on a steady course. The current "single party system" when either the Dems or Repubs hold all the cards is bad news to the taxpayers!


Posted by: my4653 | March 26, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

England is not a country.

Posted by: DMD41 | March 26, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Again, which rules are accidents? If my reading is correct, it was decided on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, (and in subsequent years) that "[3] Resolved, That no question shall be determined the day, on which it is agitated and debated, if ANY ONE of the Colonies desire the determination to be postponed to another day." Ye olde English is at times difficult to read; however, the sentiment of the foregoing sentence seems clear.

Some neophytes have incorrectly purported that certain Senate rules of debate are accidental when, in fact, such rules actually gave rise to the Convention which created the nation. Other legislatures around the world -- England and France, in particular -- have hailed the Senate rules and have attempted (with passing success) to incorporate them into the treaty of the European Union.

It's certainly a topic for scholarly study and I hope that some future scholars of history, politics, mathematics, and logic will be able to accurately report on the effectiveness of Westminster democracies versus the American republic. If any scholar has a fact-based comparison handy, I'd certainly enjoy reading it: to date I've seen only one such comparison.

Posted by: rmgregory | March 26, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

@Ezra, there was a time when I was worried about changing the rules to reduce minority powers, but at this point, how could it possibly get worse? When the elder statesmen of the Senate share their concerns about changing the rules, I want to hear someone ask them, "How could it possibly get any worse?"

@rmgregory, any rules adopted in 1773 would be irrelevant to the Senate created by the new US Constitution in 1787.

Posted by: newsjunkie10 | March 26, 2010 10:06 PM | Report abuse

I was at an event with Claire McCaskill in 2008, and you could tell that she was frustrated with the gentleman's club element of the Senate. She's not alone, especially among the senators elected since 2006 (particularly on the Dem side). They'll either push for revisions or walk away after one term. Now, while the old guard might be happy to let them walk,

There are plenty of the US Senate's practices which parliamentary systems seek to emulate -- the power of committees, in particular. The opposite dynamic exists there, though: power lies in the hands of governing majorities to get their agenda passed, and while the opposition might want want tweaks that give them more powers, they're largely content to have their agenda left to the judgement of the voters and have the freedom to implement it once elected.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 26, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Time is very valuable.

You always have to decide when it's worth the time to think and discuss further and when it's not.

But you just don't need the filibuster and all these idiotic rules for this. If the majority of senators think that there has not been enough discussion time, they can just vote no on the bill, and yes on more discussion time.

You don't need a de facto supermajority requirement for this. That makes it so that we advance, innovate, and react to new problems and circumstances at a glacial pace. Many other countries will pass us very soon in wealth, power, and quality of life soon if we keep with this new development of the filibuster as a regular de facto supermajority requirement (until recently it was rarely used).

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 27, 2010 1:41 AM | Report abuse

I'll always be grateful for Senator Byrd's plea on the eve of invading Iraq. But keeping it "the way it was" made it all the more possible for the invasion to take place. The way it was, despite Byrd's last minute efforts, gave us the Iraq War. The way it was gave us the current make-up of the Supreme Court. The way it was defined women and blacks as chattel and catsup as a vegetable.

The point is that all Americans have full responsibility for their self-governance. That requires us to ask ourselves not where others have gone wrong but where we ourselves have gone wrong. How much time and effort has the average American put into understanding process? (Embarrassing question.)

If some part of our governing structure doesn't work -- and the Senate clearly doesn't -- we should either change the people in it or the rules that govern it or both. If we're worried about getting it wrong, why not first try a little of both: work to unseat the worst and most recalcitrant senators and rework a couple of the rules they've been abusing in their efforts to disable effective governance?

That would be a start. Next: don't let your state use the school textbooks used in Texas.

Posted by: texassideoats | March 27, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Well, as you said in your history of the filibuster, Robert Byrd is inextricable from the problems of the modern Senate. I don't want to say "So of course he'd say that!" because I think he really believes that the Senate is a crucial defender of freedom, but it just shows how deeply and thoroughly the lie runs in their self-image.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | March 27, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

You make the mistake of thinking the Senate is about governing.

It isn't.

It is about the Senate.

Posted by: pj_camp | March 27, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Disappointed w/ your big Newsweek feature calling out Soc Security fight as example of strategic Dem obstruction. Neither Dems nor their constituents believed in it, and R's lacked a majority. Feels like you conformed to standard press "even-handedness" at expense of truth.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | March 29, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

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