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Is Senate Reform an Oxymoron?

March 14, 2011 // 4:00pm6:00pm
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Is Senate reform an oxymoron? That's the question posed by the March 14 Congress Project seminar. "Yes," replied former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), "The Senate is what it is. It's easy to stop anything; and it's hard to move anything. There are always improvements that can be made; but the Senate is there for a reason: to slow things down."

Lott said there were things he would like to change about the Senate, but changes come slowly, if at all. Lott said he never liked "secret holds," whereby any Senator can block consideration of a bill or nomination. He said as majority leader he would sometimes confront Senators who were thought to be blocking consideration of something, only to be told they weren't: they had passed it off to someone else in a practice known as "rolling holds." When he did identify who was responsible for a hold he would sometimes call their bluff as leader by calling them up and telling them to come to the Chamber immediately to debate their concerns. That would force them to drop the hold either way. Lott said he still supports the idea of public holds which are a matter of deference to Senators who wish to be present to debate the matter. The Senate abolished secret holds this January as part of a larger, bipartisan leadership "gentlemen's agreement." Lott concluded that changes in the rules alone cannot change the Senate: "It's not the rules that are at fault, it's us. It's the leaders in the Senate. We're not leading."

Former Senate Historian Richard A. Baker said there have been significant changes in the Senate over time. The early Senate, for instance, met behind closed doors, even though the House opened its sessions to the public almost from the start. The Senate has always been a target for criticism. He noted that one House Member, Rep. Victor Berger (Socialist-Wisc.), who served in the early twentieth century, even introduced a resolution calling for the abolition of the Senate. "Reforms come sporadically, partially and usually with results that don't satisfy those who proposed them," Baker noted. In singling out the most significant eras of change in the Senate, Baker dismissed the idea that the adoption of the first cloture rule in 1917, to permit two-thirds of the Senate to stop a filibuster, was a significant reform. "Filibusters weren't a major problem then. It was simply done to appease public opinion that President Wilson had stirred-up when the Senate did not pass his armed neutrality bill." Baker said 1911 was a significant turning point since, for the first time in 90 years, the Senate finally went along with a constitutional amendment calling for the direct election of Senators (previously they were elected by state legislatures). He also cited the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act as a major reform because it gave Congress additional staff and other resources to counterbalance the executive. Next, in 1975 and 1976, a commission and then a select committee proposed several changes that were eventually adopted, including allowing individual Senators to have a staff person for every committee assignment, and establishing a Code of Official Conduct and an ethics committee. Finally, in 1986, the Senate authorized the televising of its floor proceedings for the first time—something the House had done back in 1979.

John Fortier, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said public opinion toward Congress in general, and the Senate in particular, has usually been negative because Congress is seen as too contentious and slow to get things done. The latest Gallup Polls shows the approval rating of Congress at 18 percent, while that of the President continues to be in the upper 40 percent range. Fortier said there was a slight bump-up in congressional approval after the Democrats regained control of both houses in the 2006 elections, but that was short-lived. The Republican comeback in the House in 2010 indicated just how changing public attitudes toward Congress and the two parties can be. Fortier said the direct election of Senators, beginning with the 1914 elections, has given the Senate a more "democratic character," even though the small states obviously have disproportionate powers. Nevertheless, the Senate is still seen by the public as the body that stops things from getting done. "It is the more exposed body" to public criticism.

Whereas political scientists once worried that the two parties didn't stand for anything, today there is the opposite problem of too much partisanship that results in gridlock on issues. Fortier said there is some reason for hope, such as the bipartisan "gang of 14" in 2005 that broke the deadlock on judicial nominations, and the current "gang of six" in the Senate that is working on bipartisan solutions to the deficit, debt and tax reform. Commenting on how President Obama's experience in the Senate has affected his dealings with Congress, Fortier said it gave him a greater appreciation of the obstacles he would face in getting his health care and other proposals through. It may have caused him to be more deferential to the Senate with mixed results, and he might now have to defer more to the House. It will be a matter for future judgment as to whether his legislative strategies will be successful over the long haul.

Janet Hook, congressional reporter for The Wall Street Journal, agreed that President Obama sees the Senate as an obstacle to getting things done, which is just how he saw it when he was a member of the Senate. "The Senate is a hard place to understand," said Hook, "let alone love." "Covering the Senate is a little like being a foreign correspondent," she added, in trying to explain this strange land to the American people. "Can the Senate change?" she asked. "It changes every two years," bringing in a new cast of characters. She said debates over Senate rules changes are difficult to write about," because they are so much inside-the-beltway affairs. However, the most recent debates in the Senate last January over the filibuster rules did get more public attention because of its political nature.

All the panelists agreed that the American public is much more aware and knowledgeable about the Congress than ever before thanks to the transparency from televised proceedings and information and discussions readily available on the web. This cuts both ways, though, as people are often angry or upset over what they learn about Congress, and Members of Congress get an earful every time they are back in their states and districts.

By Don Wolfensberger
Director, Congress Project

 

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