The passage of a food-safety bill, the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and the repeal "don't ask, don't tell" will be key considerations in the lame-duck U.S. Senate session. But the Senate's most consequential vote once the new Congress convenes in January may actually be about the deliberative body itself, as Democrats elected over the last four years look to reform some of its more archaic rules.
Led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Mark Udall, D-Colo.; Tom Udall, D-N.M.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D.-R.I., and Mark Warner, D-Va., among others, the rule revisions have two main thrusts: Revising the Senate seniority system and changing arcane measures used to slow or stop bills from coming to a vote. Both efforts are reasonable, reflect voter sentiment and should be supported on a bipartisan basis.
Revising the seniority system should be the easier of the two initiatives, particularly since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated that he's open to some changes. He should be, because newer senators often bring more relevant, real-world experience than do those who have served for decades.
Revising rules on "secret holds" and filibusters will be more challenging. It's also more important, especially in addressing voters' disgust with partisan gridlock.
Reformers want to eliminate secret holds, the opaque process senators use to derail legislation and sidetrack presidential appointments that require Senate approval. Revised rules would require holds to be made public, would limit the number of holds that can be placed on nominees, would require more than one senator to place a hold and would impose a time limit on holds.
It's absurd that the Senate, which is often used as an example to developing democracies abroad as a model to emulate, uses any kind of secrecy. Senators should have the courage of their convictions to be upfront with their colleagues and constituents if they want to slow or stop the legislative process.
This same ethos should apply to the other galvanizing goal of the first-term reformers: Changing the rules on filibusters and clotures (which end filibusters).
It's not that filibusters don't have their place in the Senate. Impassioned, principled stands causing impasses are a celebrated Senate tradition, from the real-life Henry Clay to the fictional Mr. Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Today mere mention of a filibuster can stop Senate action cold. Reformers, in conjunction with congressional scholar and American Enterprise Institute Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein, want to revert to a time when filibustering a bill was not such a trivial matter.
The first-term Democrats want to require that beginning a filibuster would take a set number of senators, and that a specific number would need to be present to continue one. Ending filibusters would be easier as well. The time period for cloture would be reduced, as would the votes required for cloture. And the number of filibusters allowed per bill would be limited.
Adopting these rules not only would streamline the legislative process, it would mitigate the tyranny of the minority that is often the defining dynamic of the Senate. In 2008, for example, Americans voted to give the Democrats an overwhelming Senate majority, but their legislative agenda was routinely derailed by just 41 out of 100 members.
The significant swings in recent elections and polling for the next one indicates it's just as likely that GOP gains will mean a Republican mandate in 2012. But current Senate procedure would allow Democrats to switch roles and frustrate Republican legislation by becoming "the party of no."
The American people should feel the greatest frustration. Elections should have consequences. Undermining mandates through secret holds and filibusters is cynical, and it reduces the legitimacy that a representative government depends on.
While these common sense Senate reforms are being suggested by Democrats, adoption should be bipartisan. As recent elections have shown, today's majority is often the next November's minority.