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January 31, 2013

What to Make of the Senate Rules Reform

By Jeremy Miller

U.S. Senate chamberAdvocates of filibuster reform — especially those who support the “talking filibuster” — were disappointed with how things played out last week.  But with the changes came some positive reforms.  Here’s a brief overview.

Motion to Proceed.  The Senate amended its rules to eliminate the 30 hours of post-cloture debate when both the majority leader and minority leader, plus seven senators from each the majority and minority, sign a cloture petition on the motion to proceed to debate legislation. Under the prior rule, the 30-hour rule rarely was used to debate the proposed legislation and instead served as a means to unnecessarily delay and obstruct action on legislation and nominations, even when a supermajority was ready to proceed.  This reform potentially will speed up legislative action on additional matters.

Going to Conference with the House.  Under the prior rules, it could take up to three motions for the Senate to go to conference with the House when both chambers passed similar legislation that needed to be reconciled.  All three motions were subject to a filibuster.  The amended rule requires only one motion to go to conference, although this is still subject to filibuster.

Judicial Nominees.  Post-cloture consideration time for certain presidential nominees, such as lower cabinet positions and district court judges, has been reduced from 30 hours to, at most, eight hours.

The Filibustering Senator.  While not part of the rules package, a so-called gentleman’s agreement was struck requiring those senators who wish to filibuster to physically come to the Senate floor and identify themselves.  This agreement prompted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to express hope this will greatly, and perhaps completely, diminish the practice of secret holds.  Obviously, a senator cannot place an anonymous hold if the senator is required to come to the floor for the hold to be honored.

Will these reforms lead to a more productive chamber, foster more debate on legislation and issues, and yield more votes on substantive matters?  Only time will tell.  The Senate doesn’t exactly have a sterling record when it comes to enforcing its own rules.  As CREW recently noted, senators routinely ignored the rules change passed in the 112th Congress, championed by Sens. Wyden and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), that required senators to submit holds to their party leader and in writing to both the Congressional Record and the Senate legislative clerk within two days.

In the end, it’s safe to say these modest yet necessary reforms would not have been achieved without the tenacious activism of organizations like CREW and others.  While we were unable to achieve the most significant reform — the talking filibuster — last week’s reforms certainly put in place the potential for a more efficient Senate.  Hopefully this will be the starting point for more substantive reforms that make all members more accountable.

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