Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? 

Any country that claims to be a democracy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be taking steps to encourage maximum voter participation while protecting voters from risking their health. Such steps would include facilitating voter registration and maximizing the use of voting by mail. That seems self-evident. Yet it is not happening throughout the U.S., and, as is usual in our complex federal system, the rules governing this November’s U.S. election are complicated.[1]

Introduction

While every presidential election year brings an increase in voting rights litigation, the current pandemic has multiplied the number of lawsuits filed in the past 3½ months. Democrats and voting rights advocates are pursuing cases to make it easier to vote by mail, filing more than 60 lawsuits in 25 states.

These lawsuits “are now poised to shape the details of how roughly 130 million registered voters are able to cast ballots in upcoming contests.” However, “conflicting court decisions could exacerbate the differences in voters’ experiences at the ballot box in November. And as the fights play out, the uncertainty is further complicating election officials’ ability to prepare for the vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Dale Ho, who supervises its voting litigation, says, “I think it’s clear we have a potential disaster on our hands on Election Day if we can’t process as many votes as possible beforehand. The alarm bells are going off. It’s not just some sort of hypothetical as a problem — we’ve seen it as a problem multiple times. It will repeat in November. The question is how much and in how many places and how badly.”

A Democratic elections attorney, Marc Elias, agrees. “When the political branches fail to protect voting rights, it is left to the courts to do that. If the political branches were functioning the way they’re supposed to, you would have Republicans and Democrats agreeing to increase access to absentee voting. You’d be putting in place safeguards to make sure every eligible voter who casts a ballot has that ballot counted. . . . Unfortunately, the Republican Party is taking its cues from Donald Trump.”

Common Cause’s director of voting and elections, Sylvia Albert, said decisions about how to handle voting during a pandemic are not easy but “have to be made.” She added,“There is no waiting it out,” noting that as more time passes, the shorter the window for educating voters about any changes becomes. “As a state legislator, as a secretary of state, as a governor, you are responsible for ensuring that voters can access the ballot. By not moving ahead, they’re really abdicating their responsibility to the voters.”

President Trump’s Opposition to Mail Voting

The principal cause of the problem of this election is President Trump, who has made it clear that he is determined to curtail access to mail ballots, claiming without evidence that their use leads to widespread fraud. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” the president said in June in an interview with Politico. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits . . . I think it puts the election at risk.” As a result, the GOP is pushing to limit the expansion of voting by mail, backed by a $20 million Republican National Committee effort and help from conservative groups.

However, there is no evidence that mail voting leads to the kind of massive fraud Trump has described. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that cases of potential fraud have been exceedingly rare in states that conduct voting exclusively by mail.

Nevertheless, with “Republican governors under pressure from President Trump not to expand voting by mail and many legislatures adjourned for the year or deadlocked along party lines, changes in the coming months are likely to come through court decisions.” As a result, this blogger fears that the Trump Administration will do anything and everything to try to steal this year’s presidential election.

Fortunately former Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, has come out against Trump on this (and other) issues. He says,“absentee voting has been around since the Civil War and . . ., increasingly, states both red and blue are not just allowing but also encouraging citizens to vote by mail.”[2]

Indeed, Weld says, “Public support for voting-by-mail was in place long before the novel coronavirus came along. In the past week, Colorado and Utah conducted successful, smooth primary elections almost entirely by mail, with strong turnouts and no need for voters to stand in unhealthy lines. For a highly contested June 23 primary, Kentucky’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to make absentee voting less cumbersome. It worked, and turnout was at near-record levels. . . . The only problems Kentucky encountered resulted from the covid-19-driven consolidation of in-person, Election Day polling places.”

Weld also notes that public opinion polls show nearly 80 percent of voters support giving all voters the option of voting in person or voting absentee. That includes a majority of Republicans — the president’s paranoia notwithstanding.”[3]

Therefore, Weld concludes, “To my fellow Republicans, I plead with you to not follow Trump off this cliff. A political party that brands itself as the party of exclusion, disregard for citizens’ safety and thinly veiled vote suppression is not a party with a future.”

 State Developments on Mail Voting

Here is an attempted analysis of where at least some of the states stand on rules for the November 3, 2020 election.

Alabama. Because of the virus, Alabama officials are allowing any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot in the upcoming election without having to cite a valid reason. In  a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups citing coronavirus dangers, Birmingham-based U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon on June 15 struke down a requirement for absentee voters to submit a copy of a photo ID and to have their ballots signed off by two witnesses or a notary public as well as lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting at polling places. The judge said he would permit willing counties to allow drive-up voting, but he stopped short of requiring such an accommodation. This order was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but on July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4,  reversed that order for the July 14 primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate between Jeff Sesssions and Tommy Tuberville.[4]

California, Nebraska (counties < 10,000) and North Dakota provide counties the option to conduct all voting by mail. In addition, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (Dem.) ordered election officials to proactively send absentee ballots to all active registered voters in the state for the general election. This move drew fierce opposition from the right, including a lawsuit from the Republican National Committee, but the change subsequently was authorized by a new state law.[5]

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington authorize all voting by mail. “For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.”[6]

District of Columbia. It will send absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Georgia. The GOP Secretary of State mailed absentee ballot request forms to voters for the June 9 primaries. The Republican House Speaker, however, warned that expanded absentee voting could lead to fraud, and a state House committee approved a measure that would bar the mailing of absentee request forms for the fall, but the bill failed to pass before the legislature adjourned. The Georgia Secretary of State, however, already had said his office lacked funds to send ballot request applications for the general election, even though,

“By a wide margin, voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect our voters at the peak of COVID-19.”

Illinois and Michigan. This year these states will mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rep.) signed a bill into law that will require the secretary of state to seek legislative approval to send absentee ballot request forms to voters before November. This was seen as a rebuke to Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State, who mailed the forms to voters for the primary last month, resulting in a new turnout record for a June primary in the state.

Massachusetts. For the rest of this year this commonwealth has chosen to abandon its requirement for an excuse for an absentee ballot.

Missouri. As a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the Missouri Legislature adopted a statute expanding voting by mail during the pandemic, while retaining the statutory requirement for a notarization of the ballot with the legitimacy of that requirement still being litigated under a ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court.[7]

Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign recently sued to stop voters from using drop boxes to return completed absentee ballots and block ballots from being counted if they do not arrive inside the provided secrecy envelope. The Complaint alleged that mail voting “provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.” The Democratic Party obviously is opposing this lawsuit

Tennessee. Last month a Nashville judge ruled that any eligible voter who is concerned about contracting covid-19 at a polling place may cast an absentee ballot this fall, even though state law would typically require that voter to qualify using an excuse. The state Supreme Court declined last week to stay that decision after a request from Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Texas. The Texas Democratic Party and several voters sued in federal court to allow all eligible Texas voters to vote by mail, at least during the coronavirus pandemic, on the ground that the state’s over-65 age limitation for such voting allegedly was unconstitutional, which contention was upheld by a trial court’s injunction, but reversed by the appellate court with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th rejecting an emergency appeal by the plaintiffs and remanding the case to the appellate court. (Justice Sotomayor urged the appellate court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election”).[8]

Wisconsin. On June 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that after more than three years, Wisconsin must reinstate several Republican-backed voting restrictions, including limits on early voting. The original GOP policies were struck down in 2016 for discriminating against minority voters, a conclusion the appellate panel rejected this week.[9]

Guarding Legitimacy of this Year’s Presidential Election

Great concern over the integrity of this presidential election has been expressed by William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and a Wall Street Journal columnist.  He said, “After a quarter-century of toxic division, our democracy is imperiled. A contested election could tip the U.S. into a devastating crisis of legitimacy, a prospect that every patriot must regard with dismay.”[10]

Therefore, Galston suggested four ways to minimize the risks in this upcoming election.

First, “To reduce pressure on the mail-in option, localities must provide the fullest possible opportunity to vote in person, as New York University law professor Richard A. Pildes has argued. This means increasing the number of polling places while expanding opportunities for early voting. Many elderly poll workers will be reluctant to do the job this year; large numbers of younger Americans should be recruited and trained to replace them. Schools should continue to serve as polling places, as they have for decades, and Election Day should be a school holiday.”

Second, “states should do what they can to facilitate the fastest possible count of mail-in ballots. Mr. Pildes recommends processing the mail-in ballots that arrive before Election Day so that they can be tallied in time for the results to be included in the count soon after the polls close, a procedure that California now employs. Other states—including Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—would have to change their laws to permit this, and they should.”

Third, “As Nathaniel Persily, a co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project points out, the media have a crucial role to play as well. Reporters should educate themselves and the public about the all but certain delay in the vote count that the flood of mail-in ballots will entail. Above all, media organizations should resist the urge to call the election ahead of their competitors and instead wait until enough ballots have been tallied to know the result with confidence. In the past, ill-judged early calls of key states have sown confusion. This year, the consequences could be far worse.”

Fourth, “America’s elder statesmen must do all they can to ensure election integrity. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush should spearhead the formation of a bipartisan committee including respected figures such as former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, along with lawyers and election experts from both parties who have served in previous presidential campaigns. Committee staff should be ready to investigate charges of fraud as soon as they arise and observe the counting of mail-in ballots if asked. Committee leaders should announce their findings as quickly as accuracy permits and stand united in their defense.”

Such a committee’s “most important tasks would be meetings soon after Labor Day with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These leaders should be asked for a public pledge to stand together against unsubstantiated claims that the election has been stolen and to do their utmost to persuade elected officials in their respective parties to stand with them.”

Conclusion

In addition to all of the above litigation, the Supreme Court still has to resolve two cases about so-called “faithless” electors in the Electoral College that actually elects the President. Presumably decisions in those two cases will come down this coming week and will be discussed in a future post.[11]

Another future post will examine ways to create stronger voting rights from Richard L. Hasen, Professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Comments to this post for corrections and supplementation for new developments are earnestly solicited.

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[1] See generally Viebeck, Voting rules changed quickly for the primaries. But the battle over how Americans will cast ballots in the fall is just heating up, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020).

[2] Weld, Please, Republicans don’t join Trump’s crusade against voting-by-mail, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020). See also Strauss, ‘We’ve got to do something’: Republican rebels come together to take on Trump, Guardian (July 2, 2020).

[3] See also Brennan Center for Justice, Americans of All Stripes Want a Mail Ballot Option.

[4] Liptak, Splitting 5-4, Supreme Court Grants Alabama’s Request to Restore Voting Restrictions, N.Y. Times (July 2, 2020); Gerstein, Supreme Court blocks judge’s order loosening Alabama voting requirements due to virus, Politico (July 2, 2020).

[5] National Conf. State Legislatures, All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail).

[6] Ibid.

[7] ACLU, Press Release: Court Rules Lawsuit To Allow All Missourians to Vote By Mail Without a Notary During Covid-19 Can Proceed (June 23, 2020).

[8] Liptak, Supreme Court Turns down Request to Allow All Texans to Vote by Mail, N.Y.Times (June 26, 2020); Assoc. Press, Supreme Court doesn’t wade into mail-in voting battle, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020); Barnes, Supreme Court won’t force Texans to allow absentee ballots for all voters, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020).

[9] Earlier this year there was federal court litigation over the Wisconsin primary election that lead to counting of ballots that had been mailed no later than election day. (See these posts and comments to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin Primary Election (April 10, 2020); Comment: More Criticism of Republican Strategy of Limiting Voting (April 12, 2020; Comment: More Comments on Wisconsin Election (April 13, 2020); Comment: Surprising Results in Wisconsin Election (April 14, 2020); Commnet: George F. Will’s Opinion on Voting By Mail (VBM) (April 15, 2020); Comment: Emerging Battles Over Changing State Election Laws (April 15, 2020); Comment: New York Times Editorial on Wisconsin Election (April 20, 2020; Comment: Thousands of Wisconsin Absentee Ballots Counted After Election Day (May 3, 2020).

[10] Galston, How to Prevent an Electoral Crisis, W.S.J. (June 30, 2020).

[11] Liptak, Supreme Court Seems Ready to Curb ‘Faithless Electors,’ N.Y. Times (May 13, 2020); Wegman, The Electoral College Is a Confusing Mess, N.Y.Times (May 13, 2020).

 

 

 

Senate Hearing on Expanding U.S. Agricultural Trade with Cuba

On April 21st the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing, “Opportunities and Challenges for Agriculture Trade with Cuba.”[1]

 Chairman’s Opening Statement

Senator Pat Roberts
Senator Pat Roberts

The Committee Chair, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (Rep., KS), opened the hearing by stating, “At the beginning of this Congress, I was hopeful that trade would be one area where we could work across the aisle to find agreement. I am still hopeful that is the case. . . . International trade of American agriculture products is critical…critical to the nation’s economy and critical to our Kansas farmers and ranchers. I have long fought to eliminate barriers to trade, and I believe that we should continue to work towards new market access opportunities for our agriculture products.”

“The United States and Cuba have a long history full of contention and instability. There is no shortage of opinion from members of Congress about the relationship between our two countries, both present and future. Some are concerned about human rights, others about socioeconomic ideology. But those concerns are not what this committee will focus on this morning. Today we are here to discuss the role of agriculture – opportunities and challenges – in Cuba.”

“This is not an issue that we are going to be able to fix overnight. It will take efforts in addition to bills in Congress to truly normalize trade with Cuba. The decisions that are made regarding increased trade with Cuba must be made carefully.”

“Four months ago the President announced a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. It is my hope that in the future, the President will work with Congress to determine the best path forward. Foreign policy does not happen in a vacuum. We have to take a realistic approach and work out a step-by-step plan towards lifting the embargo. This is a goal that should include Congress.”

“Today we will hear from an impressive panel of experts, from the regulators responsible for writing our policies toward Cuba, to the producers who seek to grow the market for their products. I understand that, like myself, many of our witnesses here have traveled to Cuba to see first-hand what challenges and opportunities exist.”

“Agriculture has long been used as a tool – not a weapon – for peace and stability. It is my hope that Cuba will embrace the practices of free trade, enterprise and commerce, so that both countries will gain from increased relations.”

“Earlier this year, the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba was launched. They have shared a statement and additional information in support of our work today, [which was] entered into the record.”

Ranking Member’s Opening Statement

Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Debbie Stabenow

Senator Debbie Stabenow (Dem., MI), the Ranking Committee Member, said, “Improving trade with Cuba represents not only a great opportunity for America’s farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers, but a meaningful way to help rebuild trust between our nations.  After more than 50 years of stalemate, it’s time for a new policy on Cuba.”

“When I visited Cuba earlier this year – just days after President eased some trade restrictions – I saw firsthand the eagerness of Cubans who want to develop a more effective relationship with the [U.S.] But we can only get there if we begin to take meaningful steps to soften many of the barriers that exist between us.”

“And America’s farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to lead the way. Consider this – in 2014, the U.S. exported just over $290 million in agricultural goods to Cuba. That’s a good start, but for a country only 90 miles off our coast, we can do much more. Cuba’s own import agency estimates that it will receive approximately $2.2 billion (in U.S. dollars) worth of food and agricultural products this year alone.”

“That type of economic potential deserves a chance to succeed – and is one reason why many of the largest producer groups, trade associations, and companies from within agriculture have come together to push for increased engagement.”

“Many on this Committee have pushed for increased engagement and have taken the opportunity to visit Cuba in recent months. I’d like to recognize Senators Leahy and Klobuchar, as well as Senator Boozman and Heitkamp, for their bipartisan leadership on this issue.”

“The commitment to democratic ideas and human rights we share as Americans are best realized through engagement. Our bedrock principles accompany every product farmers and ranchers send to Cuba.”

“Last week’s action by the President [in rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”] is a step forward toward in normalizing our relationship and will test the commitment of the Cuban government to this process.”

“But even while we are making significant progress in rebuilding our relationship with Cuba – the policies governing trade between our countries are not yet designed to allow a steady flow of goods and services. We must find a path forward that allows U.S. financial institutions to safely and securely work with Cuban purchasers, including the extension of lines of credit. And we should work to authorize a greater range of goods, services, and supplies for export to Cuba. These measures not only make good business sense – they also will help build Cuba’s agricultural capacity and make the island a better trading partner in the long run.”

The Witnesses at the Hearing

 The witnesses at the hearing were the following: (1) The Honorable Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary, Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture; (2) Mr. Matthew Borman, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Industry and Security, U.S. Department of Commerce; (3) Mr. John Smith, Acting Director, Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury; (4) Mr. Michael V. Beall, President & CEO, National Cooperative Business Association; (5) Mr. Terry Harris, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Risk Management, Riceland Foods; (6) Mr. Ralph Kaehler, Farmer and Owner, K-LER Cattle Company, St. Charles , MN; (7) Mr. Doug Keesling, Fifth Generation Owner, Keesling Farms, Kansas Wheat, Chase , KS; and (8) Dr. C. Parr Rosson III, Professor & Department Head, Department of Agriculture Economics, Texas A&M University.

 Witness Ralph Kaehler

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a member of the Committee and the author of the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act (S.491) ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba, introduced Ralph Kaehler, whose family has been operating a livestock, row crop, and canning vegetable farm in Minnesota for nearly 130 years.

The Senator prefaced her introduction with this statement: “For too long, export and travel restrictions have prevented American farmers and ranchers from seeking opportunities in Cuba. That is why I have introduced bipartisan legislation to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and this hearing allowed us to focus on how we can ensure that our farmers and ranchers benefit from normalized relations between our two countries.”

Mr. Kaehler testified that his farm was “an exhibitor in the First U.S./Cuba Food and Agriculture Exposition [in Havana] in 2002.” It “was the only one with live animals— affectionately known as the ‘Cuban Ark’ . . . to exhibit the diversity of U.S. livestock producers, and to introduce Cuba to the typical USA farm family.”

“Since then, the Kaehler Family has led over 10 trade delegations to Cuba. These missions have included producers from seven different states and a bipartisan mix of state lawmakers and officials. To date, some of the most successful exports to Cuba we have facilitated include shipments of livestock, dried distillers grains, powdered milk, animal milk replacer, and texturized calf feed.”

“Given the opportunity, U.S. farmers do well in Cuba. We have a significant advantage of shorter shipping over Europe, South America, Asia, and other major exporters. In addition, Cuba can take advantage of U.S. rail container service and sizing options, which also brings significant benefits to smaller privately owned businesses like ours. On top of all this, the U.S. produces a wide variety of affordable and safe food products that Cubans want to eat.”

“Unfortunately, some of the policies currently in place diminish the natural advantages American agriculture enjoys over its competitors. For instance, requirements for using third country banks for financing adds a lot of paperwork, time, and personalities to every transaction. Coupled with a restrictive cash‐in advance shipping policy . . . there is a very small margin for error before a shipper faces demurrage fees. As a family operation trying to build our business through exports, this self‐inflicted inefficiency can be tough to manage.”

Mr. Kaehler then made three specific recommendations to Congress. “First, . . . improve the trade financing rules for Cuba. . . . Second, . . . small firms like ours . . . need marketing support and assistance [from USDA] to help support our companies and figure out exactly what’s going on in markets abroad. . . . [Third,] I hope that Congress will expand the universe of people involved in U.S.‐Cuba trade by allowing a greater variety of goods and services to be traded.”

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[1] A quick examination of the official websites of the Committee’s 20 members reveals that seven have made statements favoring at least some aspects of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation (Boozman (Rep., AK), Brown (Dem., OH), Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Hoeven (Rep., ND), Klobuchar (Dem., MN), Leahy (Dem., VT) and Stabenow (Dem., MI)). Only two have negative statements about that reconciliation (Grassley (Rep., IA) and Perdue (Rep., GA)). The other eleven members‘ websites do not reveal any position on Cuba (Bennet (Dem., CO), Casey (Dem., PA), Cochran (Rep., MS), Donnelly (Dem., IN), Ernst (Rep., IA), Gillibrand (Dem., NY), McConnell (Rep., KY), Roberts (Rep., KS), Sasse (Rep., NE), Thune (Rep., SD) and Tillis (Rep., NC)). A more thorough examination of the records of the last 11 would probably uncover other indications of their positions on reconciliation with Cuba.

 

U.S. Senate Democrats Unwisely Re-elect Harry Reid as Leader

Senator Harry Reid
Senator Harry Reid

Today, November 13th, the Senate Democrats re-elected Senator Harry Reid as their leader, now Minority Leader, for the next Session of Congress starting in January. [1]

Although the voting was by secret ballot, it was not unanimous. At least four of the Senators rejecting Reid have been identified: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. McCaskill said, “When you have an election like this, common sense says we need to change things. The voice was very loud and unmistakable. To me that means changing leadership, and it was just that simple.” Heitkamp added, “This was a change election. I think that we needed to demonstrate that we heard the American public.”

Over the last several months, these four were part of a group of about 10 more junior Democratic senators have begun more openly registering their dissatisfaction with Mr. Reid’s approach. Others include Senator Angus King of Maine and Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

The leadership votes went ahead after several in the caucus asked for a delay to give them an opportunity to consider others for the leadership posts.

Senator Reid apparently responded to these negative views of his leadership by appointing Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as the Caucus’ Strategic Policy Advisor, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to chair a caucus committee that handles outreach to outside allies and activists and Senator Tester as Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As a Democrat, I think the re-election of Reid is a horribly unwise. I have cringed every time Reid appears on television as the voice of the Senate Democrats. He comes across as tired, old, cranky, dull, weak and unpersuasive. When he appears on television with the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, soon to be the Majority Leader, the personal animosity between the two often is apparent. The Democrats and the country do not want to see a continuation of this outworn drama.

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

As a Minnesotan, I believe our Senator Amy Klobuchar would be an excellent new Minority Leader. She would be a fresh face, younger (age 54) and female in sharp contrast to McConnell. She also has a record of being able to get along with Republicans in the Chamber. In the final debate this year for Minnesota’s other U.S. Senate seat, the unsuccessful Republican candidate, Mike McFadden, frequently praised Klobuchar and said “I’m here to say Amy Klobuchar sets the bar for work ethic and authenticity.”

Scott Lehigh, a Boston Globe columnist, said the 74-year old Reid “should announce that when this session of Congress ends, [he] will relinquish [his] role as leader of [the] . . . Democratic [caucus].” Reid is a “tired face, stale voice, entrenched presence in Washington. . . . After a certain period, congressional leaders’ caricatured images get so ingrained that they become electoral liabilities for their parties.” (Lehigh makes the same argument about why Nancy Pelosi should not be the Democratic leader of the House in the new Congress, but that is an argument for another day.)

Another columnist in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib, posed a similar question, “Where are the [Democrat] party’s fresh young leaders?” But he assumed that Reid would be the new Minority Leader, and instead mentioned Senator Elizabeth Warren as a potential national leader of the party along with “highly capable younger Democrat [Senators]:” Mark Warner, . . . a 59-year-old moderate from a key swing state, as is Colorado’s 49-year-old Michael Bennet. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 47, is a rising star.”

I have no quarrel with any of these prominent Democratic Senators, and any of them would change the public persona of the Senate Democrats, but I point out that they have less experience in the Senate than Senator Klobuchar’s eight years: Warner (six years), Gillibrand (six years), Bennet (four years) and Warren (two years).

Here is a personal plea to Senator Reid. Wake up. Give someone else the opportunity to lead. Do not be a liability to your party. Stand down.

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[1] This account of the re-election of Senator Reid is based upon articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Politico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GOP Senators Continue To Flirt with Filibusters

This past January U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to press for adoption on a simple majority vote (at least 51 of the 100 Senators) of significant, but still flawed, reforms of the body’s filibuster rule. Instead Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to much weaker changes to the rule. Past posts have expressed my dissatisfaction with this rule and the recent change.

As a result, the Senate and the U.S. are still facing threatened filibusters by Senate Republicans over confirmation of presidential nominations.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The most recent example is the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Yes, on February 26th the U.S. Senate did vote, 71 to 27, to invoke cloture and end debate on voting on confirmation of this nomination. The 71 votes came from 53 Democratic, 2 Independent and 18 Republican Senators, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who continued to be severe critics of Hagel. (Two Democratic Senators did not vote: Mark Udall and Frank Lautenberg.)

Later that same day the Senate voted, 58 to 41, to confirm Hagel for this position. For this vote, only four Republican Senators were in the majority: Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Johanns, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (Senator Lautenberg did not vote.)

While I am pleased that there was no prolonged filibuster of this nomination and that the  Senate did vote on confirmation, getting there, in my opinion, was needlessly prolonged and again demonstrated the dysfunctionality of the Senate. Here are some of the reasons for that opinion:

  • In early February Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delayed a committee vote on the nomination in an attempt to garner support for same from some of the Republican committee members.
  • On February 14th, the Senate failed by one vote to invoke cloture, 59 to 40 (Majority Leader Harry Reid later switched his “Yes” vote to “No” so he could later move to reconsider cloture).
  • Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Inhofe had put “holds”on the nomination and thereby prevented a vote on confirmation; Graham wanted more information from the Administration about the Benghazi attack (in which Hagel had no involvement) while Inhofe fomented that Hagel was anti-Israel.
  • Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, reported that Republicans were voting against cloture because there were no political risks from doing so; they said they had legitimate doubts about Hagel’s ability to lead the Pentagon; and resistance was a Republican rallying cry.
  • Another Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Bernstein, stated that Republican Senators are insisting on a 60 vote requirement for virtually everything because many of them see no difference on cloture and substantive voting and do not require extraordinary reasons to vote against cloture.
  • Senator McCain said that one of the reasons for Republican opposition to Hagel, their former Republican Senate colleague, was his very vocal criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
  • Some Republican Senators were opposed to Hagel for allegedly receiving money from a group called “Friends of Hamas” — a rumor that started with a joke about a nonexistent group.
  • On February 15th 15 Republican Senators wrote a joint letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
John Brennan
John Brennan

This dysunctionality is not over with the confirmation of Hagel. Senator McCain has threatened a similar GOP strategy with respect to confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA.

Jacob J. Lew
Jacob J. Lew

On the other hand, the Senate on February 27th confirmed, 71 (including 20 Republicans) to 26, the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Secretary of the Treasury.

And on February 25, 2013, the Senate confirmed, 93-0, Robert Bacharach to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He, however,  had been appointed to that position in January 2012, and in the last Congress, in July 2012, clouture was defeated, 56-34.

All of this silliness over Chuck Hagel and potentially over John Brennan would have been prevented if the Senate this past January had adopted more significant reform of its rules regarding filibuster.

 

Additional Reactions to U.S. Senate’s Adoption of Modest Reforms to Its Filibuster Rule

As already reported in a prior post, the U.S. Senate on January 24th adopted modest reforms to its filibuster rule, and the initial reactions were mixed. Here are some additional reactions.

The Majority and Minority Leaders

The brokers of the actual reforms–Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader–issued statements afterwards.

Senator Harry Reid
Senator Harry Reid

Senator Reid said the reforms are “steps towards ending gridlock in the Senate, and making this body a more efficient place while still respecting the rights of the minority.  Americans of all political stripes can agree that Washington is not working the way it should. We were elected to get things done for the middle class – not waste time with endless stalling tactics that cause even bills with broad bipartisan support to languish for weeks. These reforms will allow us to deal with legislation in a more timely fashion, and weaken the ability of those who seek to obstruct for obstruction’s sake”
Reid added, “If these reforms do not do enough to end the gridlock here in Washington, we will consider doing more in the future.”

Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Mitch McConnell

McConnell, on the other hand, emphasized that the bipartisan compromise package ” avoided the nuclear option, and . . . [retained the rule] that any changes to the Standing Rules of the Senate still require 67 [two-thirds] votes.” He also expressed home “the Senate can return to the way it used to operate and that all of us will be able to participate more fully in the legislative process.”

Leaders for Stronger Reforms

Senator Jeff Merkley
Senator Jeff Merkley

Senator Jeff Merkley, one of the leaders for stronger reforms, recognized that the Senate as a whole had declared “the paralysis of the Senate is unacceptable.”   The adopted reforms, he said, “are modest, and don’t address the core problem of the secret, silent filibuster, but they do include some important elements, providing flexibility on the motion to proceed and speeding up the confirmation process on nominations.”

“If these modest steps do not end the paralysis the Senate currently suffers,” Merkley added,” many Senators are determined to revisit this debate and explore stronger remedies,” and he would keep working to that end. “We have a responsibility to address the big issues facing our country. I’ll keep working with my colleagues to achieve that goal.”

In an interview, Merkley reiterated his commitment to pressing for additional reform if nothing much changes in this session of the Congress.

Senator Tom Udall
Senator Tom Udall

The other leader for stronger reforms was Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico. He said that although the adopted reforms were “not as strong what many of us have been advocating,” they did alter “the way we deal with nominations, conference committees and motions to proceed — all things I’ve been working toward.”  Udall, therefore, was “supporting . . . [the] efforts to get a bipartisan agreement today,” but would “continue to fight for the stronger filibuster reforms my colleagues and I believe will make the Senate a more accountable institution.”

Udall also emphasized that the external infrastructure for Senate reform would continue and remain vigilant and ready to  push for more action later if necessary.

Conclusion

I hope that these limited changes will make the Senate more functional.

But I am skeptical.

For example, in this new session of Congress Republicans are delaying a Judiciary Committee hearing on the President’s nomination of a very able lawyer to be a circuit court judge. The purported justification is their demand for information about the Government’s settlement of a case in which he had a minor role.

Another example is the limited changes’ failure to alter the filibuster rule for high-level presidential appointments. This week an appellate court held that President Obama violated the Constitution by making several recess  appointments to the National Labor Board, which otherwise were subject to Senate confirmation, when the Senate was not really open for business, but rather in Potemkin Village illusions of sessions. According to the New York Times, this Republican senatorial practice and the court’s decision demonstrate how the Democrats’ “timidity” on reforming the filibuster rule “is being used against them.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Senate Adopts Modest Reform of Its Filibuster Rule

On January 24, 2013, the U.S. Senate adopted a bipartisan modest two-part reform of its filibuster rule. Both were adopted by over two-thirds of those voting and thereby complying with another part of its rules requiring a two-thirds vote to amend the rules.

Senators Reid & McConnell
Senators Reid & McConnell

This bipartisan reform package was brokered by Majority Leader, Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and the Minority Leader, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.[1]

The Reform

The reform has two parts.

By a 78-16 vote, the Senate adopted the first part of the package. For only the two years of this session of Congress and by standing order only, the minority Republicans will have the right to make a minimum number of amendments during floor debate, but their ability to use filibusters to prevent debate on legislation will be limited. This part also will limit dilatory tactics on lower-tiered judicial and executive branch nominees.[2]

The second part of the reform package was a permanent amendment to the Senate rules to allow prompt scheduling of legislation where there is a bipartisan consensus for passage and limit stalling tactics to prevent Senate conferees from meeting with their House counterparts to resolve differences in competing bills. This part was adopted by a vote of 86-9. [3]

This bipartisan reform eliminated the possibility of the Democratic Senators using the so called “constitutional” or “nuclear” option of changing the rules by a simple majority vote.[4]

Reactions to the Reform

President Obama
President Obama

Thursday night President Obama immediately released a statement saying he was pleased the Senate had taken action to move routine measures along. He observed that in his last State of the Union address, he had “urged Congress to take steps to fix the way they do business. Specifically, I asked them to address the fact that a simple majority is no longer enough to pass anything – even routine business – through the Senate,”

The President continued, “At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues – from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs – we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction.”

President Obama also noted that the reforms “are a positive step towards a fairer and more efficient system of considering district court nominees, and I urge the Senate to treat all of my judicial nominees in the same spirit.”

Washington political commentators suggest the following reasons for the adoption of these modest reform measures, rather than the “speaking filibuster” proposal led by Senators Jeff Markey and Tom Udall:

  • very few citizens care about the filibuster and its reform, and the activists who did were not effective in rallying public opinion;
  • virtually no individual senator– especially the Majority Leader Harry Reid–wants the Senate to be like the House of Representatives which operates by simple majority rule;
  • the current Majority Leader and other Democratic senators are pragmatists and realize that in the future, perhaps as early as 2015, they could be in the minority and do not want the Republican majority to ram things through by a simple majority vote;
  • the “talking filibuster” alternative option advanced by Senators Merkley and Tom Udall was seen by many as an ineffective idea; and
  • partial bipartisan reform now may lead to more reform later.
Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and a sponsor of one of the motions to amend the filibuster rule, on the other hand, was very disappointed in this result. He said that he previously had warned President Obama that if there were no serious reform of the filibuster rule, Obama “might as well take a four-year vacation.”

Senator Merkley, one of the leaders for the speaking filibuster proposal,  said he was “disappointed with the package but noted the ‘growing momentum’ toward Senate reforms.” He “also vowed to continue pushing filibuster reforms if the Senate returns to its clogged, unproductive state of the past two years.”

The activists for reform were equally disappointed. The leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said, “This is a bad decision based on fear–a decision that will ultimately hurt millions of people who would have been helped by progressive bills that the Republicans are sure to filibuster.” The political director of CREDO opined, “It looks like Senator Reid got fooled again, but sadly it’s the American people who are going to pay the price.” Another citizen reformer noted, “It changes nothing on how we move forward.” Fix the Senate Now, a coalition for reform, said it was a “missed opportunity.”


[1]  Raju & Gibson, Reid, McConnell reach Senate filibuster deal, Politico (Jan. 24, 2013); Kane, Senate leaders reach deal modifying filibuster rules, keep 60-vote hurdle, Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2013); Slack, Obama hopeful Senate filibuster deal will pave way for meaningful action, Politico (Jan. 24, 2013); Bernstein, Why Senate reform fizzled (for now), Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2013); Clizza, Why filibuster reform didn’t happen, Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2013); Klein, Harry Reid:”I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold, Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2013); Tom Harkin: Filibuster Reform Failure Hamstrings Obama Agenda, Huff. Post (Jan. 24, 2013). The proceedings on reform of the filibuster rule are found at Cong. Rec. S247-S274 (Jan. 24, 2013).

[2] The first part of the reform was Senate Resolution 15, and its text and 76-16 roll call are found at Cong. Rec. S272 (Jan. 24, 2013).

[3] The second part of the reform was Senate Resolution 16, and its text and  86-9 roll call are found at Cong. Rec. S274 (Jan. 24, 2013).

[4] Senator Harkin’s proposal for amending the filibuster rule was defeated as was a proposed amendment to the rules offered by Senator Mike Lee (Republican of Utah). (Cong. Rec. S271 (Jan. 24, 2013).) The reform proposals offered on January 3, 2013 by Senators Tom Udall, Merkley and Lautenberg were not brought to a vote. In his remarks on the floor, Senator Carl Levin entered into the record what he described as a lengthy rebuttal of the claim that the Senate had the constitutional power to change its rules by a simple majority vote.

U.S. Senate Again Postpones Decision on Filibuster Reform

Yesterday was supposed to have been the day when the U.S. Senate would decide whether and how to reform its rules regarding the filibuster. However, it did not happen. Decision was postponed again.

The apparent reason for the delay is the desire of Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (Democat of Nevada), to continue discussions about a possible bipartisan, compromise reform package with Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell  (Republican of Kentucky).

Manu Raju of Politico reports that the two Senators met yesterday morning on this issue. The exact details of their discussions are still unknown.[1]

But Reid apparently is pressing to eliminate filibusters preventing debate on legislation from even starting, from entering talks with the House of Representatives and from voting on certain presidential nominations, particularly district court judicial nominees. Reid also is reported to be considering requiring 41 senators to vote to sustain a filibuster, a subtle shift from the current practice that requires 60 votes to break the stalling tactic. This proposal would shift the burden on the opposing party and force the opponents to ensure all their votes are present.

McConnell, on the other hand, apparently wants to ensure that the minority has a guaranteed number of amendments if the majority chooses to speed debate. Previously Senators Carl Levin (Democrat of Michigan) and John McCain (Republican of Arizona) were leaders of a small group suggesting the minority be able to offer at least two amendments while preventing them from filibustering in a handful of situations.

After yesterday’s Senate Democratic caucus luncheon, Reid said that having the Senate decide the filibuster reform issues would be postponed 24 to 36 hours in order to allow the two leaders to continue their discussions.

However, Reid added in his public statement that if the Republicans still did not agree on this bipartisan proposal in that time period, Reid would proceed with adopting a reform measure with the so called “constitutional” or “nuclear” option whereby a simple majority of the Senate (at least 51 of the 100 Senators and all Democrats and Independents).

Yesterday afternoon Reid recessed the chamber, rather than adjourning, in order to extend the first legislative day of the session and thereby extend the time to use the “constitutional” or “nuclear” option.

In the meantime, the New York Times reiterated its editorial support for reform. It complained that over the last six years, there has been “an unprecedented abuse of the filibuster by Republicans, who have used the practice to hold up nominees high and low and require a supermajority for virtually every bill.” The newspaper also lamented that the Democrats appeared to be considering “only a few half-measures” and instead should also abolish the so called “silent filibuster.”

The Times said,Supermajorities were never intended to be a routine legislative barrier; they should be reserved for the most momentous bills, and the best way to make that happen is to require that objectors work hard for their filibuster, assembling a like-minded coalition and being forthright about their concerns rather than hiding in the shadows or holding up a bill with an e-mailed note.”

As explained in prior posts, I agree with the Times, except I would go further and abolish the filibuster altogether.

Washington Post Editorial Admits U.S. Senate Filibuster Rule Is Broken and Needs Fixing, But Not by Simple Majority Vote

An editorial in the Washington Post admits that the Senate’s filibuster rule is broken and needs revision, that the Republican Senators have been abusing the rule, that the proposed changes by Senator Harry Reid are “rather restrained; if anything, they would go not far enough” and that the Republican opposition to these changes is “overblown.”

Nevertheless, the Post declares that “using the nuclear option [adoption by a simple majority vote] is the wrong way to achieve these changes.” Instead, the editorial urges Reid “to try, again, to negotiate. Surely the two leaders could craft a set of bipartisan rules changes that would ease gridlock while being tolerable to whatever side, in a future Congress, finds itself in the minority.”

Sorry, Washington Post, I am not persuaded. There is no indication that the Senate Republicans are willing to even discuss Reid’s “rather restrained” proposals. If they want to negotiate the changes, they could initiate such discussions by simply calling Senator Reid and asking to do so and by making any counter-proposal they wish. Given the “overblown” Republican rhetoric about the “rather restrained” Democratic proposals, it is ridiculous to urge such negotiations.

The Post does not even discuss the constitutional basis for adopting the rules by a simple majority vote. Under Article I, Section 5(1) of the U.S. Constitution, a majority of the Senate “shall constitute a Quorum to do Business.”  Under  Article I, Section 5(2) of the Constitution the Senate has the power  to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” (Emphasis added.) This necessarily means that the Senate may establish such rules by a simple majority vote.

Furthermore, to achieve reform of the filibuster rule under the existing Senate rules would require all 53 Democratic and the 2 Independent Senators plus 12 Republican Senators to vote for the change. No one has suggested that is even remotely possible.  As a result, the approach advocated by this editorial would leave the Senate with what the Post admits is a broken filibuster rule that needs revision.

In the same issue of the Post is an article by one of its regular columnists, Katrina vander Heuvel, contradicting the editorial and calling for adoption of filibuster reform by a simple majority vote.

Vander Heuvel also points out the work of a broad coalition of public supporters for such reform under the name “Fix the Senate Now.” Organized by the Alliance for Justice, the Brennan Center at New York University, the Communications Workers of America, Common Cause, the Sierra Club and the United Auto Workers, this coalition in December 2010-January 2011 organized over 40,000 calls to Senate offices, more than 100,000 petitions and many editorials in support of such reform. Its website has many useful resources.

Finally the Senate Republicans abuse of the filibuster this session has not yet ended. Last week the Republican Senate Steering Committee sent a letter to all Republican Senators that it would not grant unanimous consent to passing bills this month if they were not first sent to the Committee by December 18th.

A Citizen’s Response to Washington Skirmishing Over Changing the U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

The U.S. Senate, in my opinion, is dysfunctional. One of the major sources of this failing is its filibuster rule that at least since 2009 has made it necessary to have the votes of at least 60 of the 100 Senators in order to do almost anything. I have railed against this rule and the way it has been used in many prior posts.

In anticipation of the new Congress’ convening in early January 2013, a group of Democratic Senators is developing support for modest changes to the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is supportive of this effort. The exact nature of the proposed changes apparently has not been set, but would at least include banning the filibuster on motions to take up proposed legislation for debate on the Senate floor and motions to take Senate-approved legislation to conference with the House of Representatives’ negotiators plus requiring those invoking the filibuster rule in other instances to stand up and speak on the Senate floor.[1]

Under the standing Senate rules, any amendment to the rules requires a two-thirds (67) votes. In the next session of Congress in January this would mean that all 53 Democratic Senators plus the 2 Independent  Senators plus 12 Republican Senators would have to vote in favor of any amendment.  All Washington observers agree that such a vote could not be attained for the proposed change to the filibuster rule.

Therefore, the supporters of changing the filibuster rule argue that at the start of a new session of Congress the Senate may change or adopt new rules by a simple majority vote (51).

This possibility has caused some of the Republican Senators to go apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said adopting this proposed rule change by a simple majority vote would be like throwing “a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up, and have everybody mad as heck.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the incoming Republican whip, said, this would “shut down the Senate” and was an abuse of power. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma added that it would “destroy” the Senate and cause a severe backlash. Similar comments have been made by Republican Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Such remarks, in my opinion, are absurd.

There are even some Democratic Senators who have expressed opposition or skepticism about changing the rules by a simple majority vote. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he preferred “not to use a mechanism which I believe is dubious.” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said he did not like the simple majority-vote option.  Newly re-elected Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri stated that although she fully supported changing the rule, she was “not 100 percent in support” of the simple-majority-vote approach to doing do. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii merely said he was studying the proposal. In addition, Democratic Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he was concerned about not protecting the things that make the Senate unique.

Much of this Democratic opposition or skepticism is the concern that someday they will be in the minority and wanting to block Republican proposals. However, this concern implicitly endorses eternal stalemate and the current Republican agenda of opposing most federal government action.

What then can U.S. citizens do to support changing the filibuster rule? I propose the following:

  1. Sign the electronic petition supporting the change.
  2. Write an email or letter to the Senators and Senators-Elect who are the initiators of the petition thanking them for doing so: Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Harkin, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren.
  3. Write to other Senators and Senators-Elect (Angus King, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy) who have publicly stated the need for changing the rule and urge them to join the petition campaign.
  4. Write to Majority Leader Harry Reid and urge him to press forward with changing the rule by a simple majority vote.
  5. Write to Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Daniel Inouye) and Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly who have expressed opposition or skepticism about the simple-majority-vote approach and urge them to change their minds and support this approach for the filibuster rule.
  6. Write to the Senators from your State and urge them to support changing the filibuster rule by a simple majority vote.
  7. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and express your support for this effort.

Contact information, including email forms, for current Senators is available on the web. You will have to search for similar information for Senators-Elect.


[1] The recent developments discussed in this post are drawn from the following sources: Noah, Die, Filibuster, Die, New Republic (Nov. 16, 2012), http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/110215/die-filibuster-die;Weisman, The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/us/politics/new-senates-first-task-will-likely-be-trying-to-fix-itself.html?hp&_r=1&pagewanted=print&amp;;Raju, GOP warns of shutdown over filibuster, Politico (Nov. 25, 2012), http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=ACE6831F-56E7-419A-8137-85D3D3E7BF5E; McAuliff, Mitch McConnell: Filibuster Fight Is An Unnecessary “Bomb” in the Senate, Huffington Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/mitch-mcconnell-filibuster_n_2200494.html?utm_hp_ref=politics; Bernstein, No, Republican obstruction isn’t because Harry Reid is mean to them,  Wash. Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/no-republican-obstruction-isnt-because-harry-reid-is-mean-to-them/2012/11/27/232d2276-38dc-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_blog.html; Collins, Happy Talking, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/opinion/collins-Happy-Talking.html?pagewanted=print; Steinhauer, Resistance on Method for Curbing Filibuster, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/us/politics/method-for-curbing-filibuster-faces-resistance.html?pagewanted=print.

The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate Are Modified

   The Rules of the U.S. Senate improperly thwart the rule of the majority.[1]

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.[2]

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.

Senator Mitch McConnell

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.

Senator Harry Reid

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]


[1] See Post: The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate (April 6, 2011).

[2] 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).

[3] Raju, Is 51 the new 60 under Senate rules?, http://www.politico.com (Oct. 11, 2011).

[4] Id.

[5]  Steinhauer, Senate Jabs China Over Its Currency, N.Y. Times (Oct. 11, 2011).

[6]  Id.; Liberto, Senate passes China currency bill, http://www.cnnmoney.com (Oct. 11, 2011).