THE PARTY OF OBSTRUCTION….The Senate’s manual of procedures is full of arcane charts that describe how many amendments a bill is allowed to have at any one time. (Details here for the masochistic.) Different bills have different rules (seven amendments is the usual maximum, but it varies), and if you fill up all the slots it prevents anyone else from offering amendments. This is called “filling the tree,” and it was a rarely used tactic until the mid-90s, when Bob Dole rediscovered it and made it into a standard tool of GOP governance.
Which, apparently, was fine with conservatives. And continued to be fine as long as they were in power. Last year, however, Democrats took over the Senate and Arlen Specter introduced a resolution to ban the practice. It failed. Robert Novak picks up the story with this week’s climate change bill:
On Monday, Specter deplored Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s use of a parliamentary device called “filling the tree” to prevent the Republican minority from offering amendments to a bill….The device was used last week when Reid called up the bill to control global warming, producing the state of futility that has haunted Reid’s year and a half as majority leader.
….What followed illustrates the decline of the Senate under Reid. The Senate fell far short of the 60 votes needed to close debate on the bill. While Reid blamed Republican intransigence, 10 Democratic senators — including five-term liberal stalwart Carl Levin of Michigan — wrote Reid last Friday telling him they “cannot support final passage of the bill” because of its economic impact on their states. Reid set aside climate change and moved to the bill imposing an excess profits tax on oil companies. He next asked the Senate to close off debate Tuesday and end the non-filibuster, an effort that predictably fell short of the needed 60 senators.
Even for the feckless Senate, last week was extraordinary. When Republicans contended Reid broke his pledge to confirm three of President Bush’s appeals court nominees by Memorial Day, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by requiring the entire climate-change bill to be read into the record (consuming over 10 hours). A half-century ago when I covered the Senate under Lyndon B. Johnson, such an event would have been headline news. Last week, it was barely noticed.
Novak is eager to blame Reid, of course, but the Senate’s decline began long ago, and mostly under Republican rule. The GOP has perfected the art of filibustering, withholding consent, abusing the markup procedure, and just generally obstructing virtually everything that comes before the Senate, regardless of how important it is. The normal give-and-take of legislative compromise isn’t in their playbook these days.
So sure: Reid is playing the game too. But he didn’t make the rules. He just learned them from their masters.
UPDATE: More on the climate change fiasco here from Ron Brownstein.