APS News

Inside the Beltway

Taking Procedural Stock

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

For a time, it seemed as though Republicans and the White House might have an opportunity to cozy up. After all, during their January GOP House retreat, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor decided to heed the advice of Newt Gingrich and a posse of economists who had urged Congress not to hold the world’s economy hostage to partisan wrangling over the debt ceiling.

Fresh from their Kingsmill sanctuary, a tony resort in Williamsburg, Va., Boehner and Cantor, who were close to splitsville last year, presented themselves to the media as newlyweds, taking their vows to make Washington work. They announced a three-month reprieve for the GOP’s debt-ceiling crusade and committed the Republican House Conference to producing a plan for long-term deficit reduction through “regular congressional order.”

I found the chords of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” echoing in my ears as good-government trumpets sounded throughout the nation’s capital. In short order, the House and Senate got down to legislative business and with alacrity unprecedented in recent years passed a bill in less than 10 legislative days, one that allows federal red ink to flow until May 18. The president had been pressing for raising the nation’s credit card limit enough to cover two more years of planned spending. But he accepted the short-term compromise with a pledge to work for a long-term bipartisan “balanced” solution to the debt threat.

Niceties they were indeed, but the discourse contained a major barb aimed squarely at the Senate.

Although somewhat weakened by a nascent insurrection that nearly cost him his speakership in early January, Boehner cobbled together a bipartisan bloc by cajoling Democrats into swallowing a potentially poisonous legislative pill. Noting that the Senate hadn’t passed a budget in four years, as required by law, he and Cantor proposed that if either chamber missed the April 15 deadline, that chamber’s members would have their paychecks placed in escrow until the day of budgetary reckoning or until the end of the calendar year, whichever came first.

Across the Capitol grounds, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was dealing with his own band of insurrectionists. Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, and Tom Udall, of New Mexico, two young parvenus, had mobilized a majority of their Democratic colleagues to address the dysfunction that had become the Senate’s third millennium signature.

For almost 200 years, senators had used the filibuster to extend debate only on rare occasions. And when they did, the chamber’s rules required them to hold the floor. What they said or read was immaterial, but they had to be present in body if not in mind. When their stamina eventually waned or a supermajority of their colleagues voted to terminate their oratory, the chamber would return to legislative business.

In more recent years, the Senate had relaxed its filibuster rules, allowing members simply to express an intention to hold the floor and requiring 60 votes in the 100-member body to break the promised legislative disruption. For the minority, the temptation to halt action on a bill it opposed became increasingly seductive, and during the last four years, 60 votes has been the norm for achieving any legislative progress.

Republicans may have taken advantage of the mere threat of a filibuster to thwart the will of the majority, but so, too, have Democrats used the arcane process of “filling the amendment tree” to prevent the minority from even trying to modify a bill. Under current Senate rules, the majority leader has the power to give his party’s amendments priority and exhaust all the allowable modifications to a piece of legislation. The late Robert Byrd (D-WV) originated the formula when he was in charge, and Reid has become a master at using it, effectively casting Republicans in the objectionable role of objecting obstructionists.

The combination of the majority and minority practices has tied up the Senate in procedural knots, and their continual use helped make the 112th Congress the least productive in history. Last summer, Reid spoke out in favor of Merkley and Udall’s request to allow a simple majority vote on changing the Senate rules when the 113th Congress convened. But under pressure from Republicans and a handful of Democratic old bulls, he backed off in January, with the Senate ultimately adopting only minor rule modifications. Those changes, Capitol Hill experts say, will barely scratch the Senate’s dysfunctional skin.

Whatever respite from hyper-partisanship might have existed in early January disappeared last month when President Obama delivered an aggressive State of the Union address, and Republicans, predictably, delivered an in-kind response. Add to that the GOP’s Senate filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as defense secretary, and an odor of toxicity once again is emanating from the shallow well of bipartisan good will.

If the state of the nation weren’t so in need of sound policy making, the relapse into partisan strife might be simply a footnote on the state of Washington. But economic growth, fiscal health and national security are in desperate need of cooperation. And sadly collaboration and comity are becoming scarce commodities once again.

If there is any hope for a new dawning in America, science could provide it. It knows no partisan boundaries, and it is central to the nation’s future. But it isn’t always so recognized. Now, more than ever, its practitioners have an obligation to hammer home its benefits: to the public and to Washington–if not for the future of science, then for the future of the country and the world.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella