Changing the way the Senate does business

CHANGING THE WAY THE SENATE DOES BUSINESS…. As the 112th Congress draws closer, the talk of reforming the way the Senate operates gets louder.

This morning, I joined a conference call with Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who are helping take the lead with their proposed “constitutional option.”

The plan, roughly: on January 5, when votes are taken to organize the Senate, get 51 votes to reform cloture so that objecting to legislation forces continuous debate.

“I think all of you have observed that we’ve done no appropriations this year,” said Merkley, setting up fundamental filibuster reform as a necessity, good for all sides. “It’s very much damaging our advise and consent function.”

Udall argued that the filibuster could be reformed because “there have been precedents by three vice presidents that you can cut off debate and move to a majority vote.” He had a caveat: “We don’t want to make any rules changes that would hurt our ability to speak out in a minority situation.”

In theory, a cloture vote is intended to cut off debate — thus allowing for more debate. But it’s become a procedural sham. It’s not like the failure on a cloture vote leads to more discussion; it leads to moving on to other issues entirely.

“There’s nothing to compel senators to engage in the debate that they’ve said they want to have,” Merkley said, adding, “The advantage of continuous debate is that it honors the premise of the cloture vote. Here is my position. Here is why I’m not ready to vote yet. Here is my case. Senators can stand on the floor to make that case, and their colleagues can say ‘you’re a hero’ or ‘you’re a bum.'”

After the call, the two were prepared to take their case to the rest of the Democratic caucus, where they suggested there might be a generation gap of sorts — the “old guard,” with members who’ve been around for a long while, are likely the most reluctant to change, while newer members are more inclined to make the Senate less dysfunctional.

Of course, the more the public is engaged on this issue, the more likely senators will feel pressure about changing the way the chamber does business.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent noted earlier, “It’s worth noting that for the first time, the push to reform the Senate and change the filibuster is taking on the feeling of a real movement — one with real institutional support on the left and a growing power base within the Senate itself.”

The point is to make this reform push mainstream — which it should be. The Senate wasn’t designed to work this way; the Senate never used to work this way; and the Senate quite literally doesn’t work this way.

There’s obviously quite a few developments unfolding at the same time on Capitol Hill right now, but these reform efforts will be ongoing, just below the surface. They’re worth keeping an eye on — the Senate’s ability to govern in 2011 may depend on it.