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January 28, 2011

When a Handshake is Good Enough, Or Not

By CREW Staff

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein captures the essence of the Senate "reform" package agreed to yesterday:

"The minority is not on notice that further abuse of the filibuster (and associated stalling tactics) could lead to more significant reforms. Rather, Reid and the Democrats agreed that further abuse of the filibuster (and associated stalling tactics) will not lead to more significant reforms, because they've agreed not to use the process that would lead to those reforms ... Both parties are more committed to being able to obstruct than they are to being able to govern. That fundamental preference, as much as any particular rule, is why the Senate is dysfunctional."

Apparently, members of the Democratic caucus were terrified that real filibuster reform would curtail their own ability to employ the tactic when they find themselves in the minority, perhaps only two years from now. At least that's one interpretation of the new agreement given that none of the reforms proposed would have curtailed completely the use of the filibuster. Rather, the reforms were sensible procedural changes that would have enhanced debate and allowed the chamber to conduct business more efficiently.

CREW does support some changes in the new rules package. Most significant is the elimination of "secret" holds. CREW has long been engaged in the fight to end secret holds. In 2007, Congress attempted to curb this pernicious practice by passing the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA). The law's limitations and any lack of real teeth quickly became clear, as secret holds continued unabated. CREW tried unsuccessfully to force senators to comply with the HLOGA by asking the Senate Ethics Committee to find that senators who employed the tactic violated Senate rules by engaging in "improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate." The Ethics Committee, as usual, demurred. Only time will show whether the latest ban on the practice has any force. As always, CREW will remain vigilant in our efforts to uncover any abuse.

An interesting side story to the secret holds agreement: one of the senators who voted against eliminating secret holds was none other than Nevada's John Ensign, who just so happens to figure prominently in CREW's rogue gallery of corrupt politicians. But we all know Senator Ensign has a lot to hide.

Other positive reforms include an agreement to limit by several hundred the number of executive branch nominations subject to the confirmation process, and an agreement that senators will end the practice of forcing the reading of amendments that have been publicly available for 72 hours, previously a favored stalling tactic.

CREW will be watching to see if these changes result in a more functional Senate, finally able to consider and vote on the many critical issues facing our country. Stay tuned.

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