The Rules of the U.S. Senate improperly thwart the rule of the majority.
Last week another facet of those Rules raised its ugly head. In response there was a modest indirect change to the rules that facilitates the Senate’s being able to act on measures on the merits.
At least sixty-two Senators, including 11 Republicans, had voted to end debate on a bill to impose sanctions on China for failure to revalue its currency. Under a Rule that allows consideration only of proposed amendments that the parties agree to be considered after cloture, there was an agreement for consideration of seven such amendments for the Chinese currency bill.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell then made ten motions to suspend the rules to allow introduction, debate and voting on unrelated amendments. Under the Senate Rules, such a motion to suspend the rules requires a two-thirds vote (67 Senators).
In response to one of the motions to suspend the rules, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised a point of order that such a motion was not permitted. The Senate Parliamentarian speaking through the chair of the Senate rejected the point of order and thereby allowed consideration of the motion to suspend. Reid then appealed the ruling of the chair to the entire Senate, and the Senate by a simple majority vote sustained the appeal and thereby overruled the Parliamentarian and barred the motion to suspend the rules.
I am against the Senate Rule that requires at least 60 votes to end debate on a measure and another Senate Rule that requires a two-thirds vote (67) to change the Rules. I, therefore, am pleased to see this very modest indirect modification of the Rules to improve the ability of the Senate to act on measures on the merits.
But maybe it is not such a modest change. Senators are now “abuzz” about the previously rarely used tactic of challenging the Parliamentarian’s rulings. Texas Senator John Cornyn, Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is reported to have said, “If we get in the majority, in which I anticipate we will, this completely freezes out the minority, which is where the Democrats will find themselves.” There is speculation that it may make Republicans in the current Senate less willing to break a filibuster if Senator Reid does not agree to allow their amendments for votes.
Senator Reid reportedly is trying to soothe tensions by inviting Republican Senators to join Democrats in a rare bipartisan closed-door meeting to discuss these arcane issues of Senate Rules and procedure.
In the meantime, on October 11th, the Senate by a vote of 63 to 35 (with 16 Republicans) passed the bill that would require the U.S. Treasury Department to determine if China was improperly valuing its currency to gain an economic advantage and if such a determination were made to order the U.S. Commerce Department to impose stiff tariffs on certain Chinese goods.
That vote, however, is not the end of that story. Another version of a bill on Chinese currency passed the House of Representatives, 348 to 79, in 2010 while the Democrats still controlled that body. Now House Republicans in the majority do not intend to bring the Senate bill to the floor. The White House probably is pleased with this stalemate because it is concerned about the impact of such a bill on the many issues between the U.S. and China. Not surprisingly China has threatened a trade war if the bill becomes law.
 See Post: The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate (April 6, 2011).
 Sonmez, Senate makes unprecedented rules changes amid late-night debate over jobs, procedure, http://www.washpost.com (Oct. 7, 2011); Reid, Trying to restore Senate comity, http://www.washpsot.com (Oct. 10, 2011); Editorial, Chipping Away at Gridlock, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2011).
 Raju, Is 51 the new 60 under Senate rules?, http://www.politico.com (Oct. 11, 2011).
 Steinhauer, Senate Jabs China Over Its Currency, N.Y. Times (Oct. 11, 2011).
 Id.; Liberto, Senate passes China currency bill, http://www.cnnmoney.com (Oct. 11, 2011).
7 thoughts on “The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate Are Modified”
Wall Street Journal Criticizes Senate Vote for the Chinese Currency Bill
On October 13th the Wall Street Journal criticized the U.S. Senate’s approval this week by a 63-35 vote of a bill that is aimed at China’s alleged manipulation of its currency’s exchange rate. This vote is contrary to the Journal’s long-standing advocacy of free trade. Because it is unlikely that the U.S. House of Republicans will allow the Senate bill to reach the House floor for a vote, the Journal said that many Senators may have thought it was a “free” vote. They could vote for the bill and sound tough on protecting the U.S. economy without facing the adverse consequences of the bill’s becoming law. The Journal commended the 30 Republican and five Democratic Senators who voted against the bill. (Review & Outlook: The Senate’s New Protectionists, W.S.J. (Oct. 13, 2011).)
New York Times Criticizes the U.S. Senate Bill on Chinese Currency
An editorial in the New York Times criticizes the bill on Chinese currency that was passed by the U.S. Senate last week. It says that if the bill became law, it is not likely to cause China to revalue its currency. Instead, it is more likely to prompt Chinese retaliation on trade policy. The U.S. needs to find better ways to encourage such a currency revaluation and increased Chinese consumption, including the buying of U.S. products.(Editorial, It’s Not Just the Currency, N.Y. Times (Oct. 16, 2011).)
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