Lack of Public Debate in the House and Senate Threatens Democratic Self-Government; Both (Power-Centralizing) Parties Impede Its Return

As originally posted in the reader-diary section of; the post’s 2010 comment thread is available at that link.

This diary covers a lot of territory at less than typical ‘blogging speed’ (I doubt that it can be comfortably read in one sitting), in order to provide more context and perspective in one place than is usually provided when its subject matter is discussed in the blogosphere. Though there are related tangents discussed, the core of the diary focuses on the U.S. Congress – the first among equals of our three branches of government, which is now in transition from the 111th Congress to the 112th – and the ways in which the Senate and House today mostly fail, on matters of the greatest consequence to the nation and its people, to operate as designed and intended.

As it happens, just two days ago, on Friday, December 10, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont provided a vivid example of the value of public debate in Congress – debate that fosters a better understanding of national policy choices and an informed electorate – which is something that this diary seeks to highlight and extol. [To read the floor remarks of Senator Sanders Friday, click on “Senate” next to December 10 here, then choose Item 12 (“The Economy”) in the subsequent list – you will likely need to go back to the first page and repeat that process a few times as you read through his remarks, because search results on that site time out.]

Senator Sanders so far has in fact done nothing to materially delay (“filibuster”) the business of the Senate, with his eight hours of debate against a profound tax policy change that has bypassed all committees in Congress, and would be unamendable in the Senate – nothing, that is, beyond extending the typical early adjournment of the Senate on Fridays, and thus imposing to some degree on Senate staff and on the Presiding Officer(s). Most of his colleagues, however, had already returned home by early Friday, as usual, having been told Thursday evening that no further votes would be held in the Senate until Monday afternoon. Nevertheless, as I hope this diary makes clear toward its close, what Senator Sanders did on Friday – by actually speaking at passionate length on the floor – was more in the nature of a genuine “filibuster” than anything we’ve seen from the minority Republicans throughout the so-called “record” number of “filibusters” in the Senate under recent Democratic majorities.

Time will soon tell whether Senator Sanders plans to transform his Friday speech into extended public debate and objections which would actually meaningfully impede passage of the tax policy changes he opposes. So far, Sanders – and every other Senator – has already waived the reading of the substitute amendment/deal [SA 4753 to H.R. 4853], and declined to exercise opportunities to delay a final vote on the measure. For example, Sanders gave his consent to waive the rules of regular order for the consideration of legislation, and didn’t object to Harry Reid’s unanimous consent request to immediately accept the motion to proceed to the measure, without debate, last week. As a result, the tax deal was officially placed before the Senate for its immediate consideration as of Thursday, December 9, 2010.

Public objections and further debate from Sanders that actually impede the intended speedy passage of the tax measure through the Senate would indeed amount to a genuine “filibuster,” similar to what Chris Dodd practiced against the FISA Amendments Act in 2008. Sanders also has the looming close of the 111th Congress in his corner to add weight to his delaying tactics, if he’s serious about preventing or delaying passage of the deal (thereby incurring the wrath of many powerful people in and out of the White House). If anyone’s interested in more detail, I can elaborate in comments, and try to answer questions, about what Senator Sanders procedurally did Friday, with his hours of impassioned speaking on the Senate floor against another Obama-driven backroom deal (aka “TARP II” in future, perhaps); what Senate Democrats (specifically, Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Joseph I. Lieberman, John D. Rockefeller IV, Byron L. Dorgan, John F. Kerry, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark L. Pryor, Robert P. Casey, Jr., Richard J. Durbin, Mark R. Warner, Jeanne Shaheen, Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, Christopher J. Dodd, Kent Conrad, Jim Webb, Bill Nelson, and Amy Klobuchar) did to preempt the Sanders “filibuster” before it even began (as the Democratic Senate under Majority Leader Reid has done with every threatened filibuster by a minority since 2006, thereby voluntarily imposing supermajority rule on the Senate despite the absence of actual filibusters); and what Sanders may now easily do under Rule 22 (that is, cloture – since those 18-19 Democrats yesterday voluntarily invoked that supermajority rule) to at least significantly delay a final vote on passage of the tax cut deal, beginning at 3 p.m. Monday, when the cloture motion will be voted on by the Senate (assuming that 60 Senators vote to invoke cloture to “stop” the already-ended or suspended Sanders speech, as President Obama and Majority Leader Reid are counting on them to do).

Broadening the discussion of the latest specific Senate action to the more general habits of Congress today, I contend, and try to comprehensively make the case below that, if Americans value liberty and publicly-accountable self-government, we cannot and should not continue to countenance Members of Congress who conceal their actions (or failures to act) in federal office from public scrutiny, as most members of the national political media today help most legislators to do by basically ignoring their daily activities – whether by adopting the media’s obsessive focus on an over-hyped, self-aggrandizing presidency, or otherwise leaving our federal representatives alone to work (or to secretly delegate to others) in the dark. There even seem to be some promising developments from the inside to report that would help us to change the present course of our national legislature: The leadership of the new Republican House, hard as it may be to believe, just might mean what it says about starting to bring the light of day into the backrooms of Congress.

To provide documentation on the subject for both houses of Congress, I include separate summarized examples below of how the House and Senate operate today (including links to detailed explanations I’ve made in the past about how particular pieces of legislation were handled), and focus toward the end on key facts about debate and filibustering in the Senate that are rarely explained by legislators of either Party, and are obviously widely misunderstood (or ignored) by both the public and national reporters based in Washington.

Here’s a statement of what I consider to be foundational truths – truths actively suppressed and disdained by promoters of an undemocratic status quo – about our nation’s system of government:

The importance of Congress is its capacity for diversity and openness (relative to the executive branch) – the opportunity it gives to express different sentiments, opinions, and values. It is a disorderly operation and disappointing to those who want firm direction and quick action. But this free play of ideas, as well as the freedom not to move until the time is right, is essential to democratic government. What is needed from Congress is the daily grind of overseeing administration policies, passing judgment on them, and behaving with confidence as a coequal branch. This takes courage and an understanding of constitutional responsibilities.


Congress must be willing to participate actively in questions of national policy, challenging the President and contesting his actions. It cannot be viewed as quarrelsome behavior for Congress to assess presidential action independently. Issues need the thorough explorations and ventilation that only Congress can provide.


Robert H. Jackson, whose entire career with the federal government lay outside the legislative branch, serving first as Attorney General and later as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, urged us to hold fast to essentials: “With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and that the law be made by parliamentary deliberations.”

Louis Fisher in the concluding chapter and paragraph of his 1985 book Constitutional Conflicts Between Congress and the President

In other words, “parliamentary deliberation” or public debate in Congress, however “disorderly” or slow, is not some pointless form of “litigating,” or “relitigating” – as President Obama dismissively termed it early in November [President Barack Obama, in his news conference said, “I think we’d be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years”] – but rather a core, indispensable function of the legislative body of a self-governing, democratic Republic. An indispensable function of democratic, good government that Obama, and other short-sighted, or self-serving, proponents of a presidency that’s both Chief Executive and Chief Backroom Legislator, evidently fail to appreciate or to publicly acknowledge.

When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

– Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, 1748

That’s to say nothing of the impossible workload that such a merging of power purports to impose on one human being, who would have to be superhuman to attempt, even in slap-dash fashion, to singlehandedly fulfill the roles of two different branches of government, even with the assistance of the sprawling resources that the Executive Branch now has at its disposal.

Yet the last couple of weeks in Washington have once again displayed for all to see the voluntary abdication of the core legislative role of Congress to the President by current (majority and minority) Party leadership (with unquestioning acceptance by the Washington media, and apparently also by most members of the Congressional rank and file). Public legislating has been openly sacrificed, and replaced by private CEO-style “negotiations” conducted by a handful of powerful Congressional actors bargaining behind closed doors in the White House (and over the phone) with the President, off the public record.

The result of that private deal-making is now presented to Congress to back in to the legislative process, without amendment or, absent Bernie Sanders Friday, apparently any debate of consequence by our federal “representatives.” That’s a hell of a way for a self-governing nation of 300 million people to operate, but President Obama (enabled by powerful majority Party lackeys like Reid and Durbin), for one, and minority Senate Republicans, for another, presumably would like nothing more than to see such private deal-making repeated again and again over the next two years, despite, or because of, the fact that neither the policy positions of the President or Senate Republican leadership seem to be positions favored today by a majority of the American people.

The President, backed by his minions in Congress, would no doubt hurry to tell us that “he knows best” about what’s good for us, and is doing us a favor by ignoring majority popular opinion, as he so deceitfully did during the health care bill deal-making – which, without contradiction, he now refers back to this way (as perceptively noted here this month by ‘janeeyresick’):

“So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans…” – President Barack Obama, December, 2010

janeeyresick goes on to precisely describe the Democratic Party’s (ongoing) abdication of its members’ Congressional responsibilities:

Like the White House killing off the Public Option in early “negotiations” with the industry but keeping that little fact to themselves even while the President still pretended to publicly support it.


Of course, we know in retrospect that someone had to kill off in public what the president had previously strangled in private. […] The death of the public option was essentially a Democratic production of Murder on the Orient Express with one essential difference. In Murder on the Orient Express all the miscreants act in concert so that no one person can be labeled the culprit and it would be impossible to determine which participant delivered the fatal blow. In the Murder of the Public Option, the fatal blow had been personally delivered by the President/White House before any other passengers entered the compartment. Nice of them to collude in the cover-up, though.

The “Republicans” I refer to in the diary’s title are the leadership and caucus of the new Republican-majority House in next year’s Congress and, to a lesser extent, next year’s larger Republican minority in the Senate, which may also have an opportunity to positively impact the way in which that legislative body’s public debating and amending functions have been all but discarded. Incumbent majority Democrats, of course, had their chance to meaningfully, honestly reform the practices of Congress over the last 2-4 years, and evidently couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger in that regard, except to make things worse (some genuine, meaningful earmark-transparency reform in 2007 evidently excepted):

Dan Froomkin, HuffingtonPost, May 5, 2010:

POGO [the Project on Government Oversight] is one of Washington’s most productive and respected good-government groups, and [Danielle] Brian, who has been its executive director since 1993, can look back and take pride in a number of victories for accountability in areas such as cutting wasteful defense contracts, exposing oil and gas industry fraud, and increasing nuclear security.

But one thing she’s not celebrating is the pathetic state of congressional oversight.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it’s never been worse,” she says. “I know that’s actually shocking for progressives to hear because their people are in power and they thought that was going to make all the difference.”

And yet oversight is even more anemic now than when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, she says.

It’s not so much a question of partisanship, she says, it’s a matter of Congress having forgotten its role.

“I really think that what you have now is a complete break from the historical perception within Congress itself that first and foremost it is a separate branch of government,” Brian says.

Back in the day, “very powerful Democratic chairmen would have no trouble going after Democratic or Republican administration wrongdoing,” she says. “And, at least as importantly, they were aggressive at preserving their power in the Congress to access information from the Executive branch.”

But now, she says, “They’ve become so deferential — both Democrats and Republicans — to the Executive branch, especially when it comes to national security, it’s appalling.”

Danielle Brian’s experienced assessment of the recent Democratic Congresses, with regard to their (lack of) oversight of the Executive Branch (even when the presidency is held by a Republican), is mirrored in the way that the 111th, Democratic Congress did the legislative bidding of this Democratic President in his first year in office (topping even the Republican Congress during six years of the George W. Bush administration), as an analysis conducted by Congressional Quarterly revealed:

January 13, 2010 — Rarely does a Congressional Quarterly study attract public attention like yesterday’s annual report on “Presidential Success” in Congress. But this year’s report offered a stunning finding: In 2009, President Obama racked up the highest presidential support score in Congress since CQ inaugurated its study in 1953. In the Senate, legislators agreed with the president 96.7 percent of the time Obama took a position; in the House, 94.4 percent of the time.

[…] Although senators cast 397 roll call votes in 2009, the president (or his top staff) took a clear position on only 79 Senate roll call votes. Victorious on 78 of them, Obama achieved a success rate of 98.7% in the Senate. His House average (winning on 68 of the 72 votes he took a position on) reached 94.4%, leveling off to the reported 96.7% overall success rate. Click here to see Presidential Success graph

– Sarah Binder, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, the Brookings think tank

Meantime, desultory floor speeches – often amounting to little more than Party finger-pointing exercises (especially in the House) by members of the House and Senate, which frequently serve only to mark time while the backroom deal-making between Party leaders generates the product of Congress – have these days by and large supplanted the deliberative, democratic public debate for which the House and Senate Chambers, and the public committee rooms of Congress – the “sanctuaries” of the ideas and will of the representatives of the people of our self-governing nation – were designed and intended to be used.

If we hope to retain and improve our representative democracy, and with it the ability of the nation’s people to self-govern and practice good government, in lieu of allowing the will of one man to dictate national policy, it is imperative that observers and Congressional incumbents alike appreciate the stark differences between one branch’s hierarchical, top-down executive role, and the other branch’s deliberative, egalitarian legislative role. Sacrificing the slow, but irreplaceable, working of the will of the federal legislature’s elected representatives, to the desires of one executive’s often impatient and vain will to act, helps bring the sorry results that we see all around us today in America (and those unseen by most Americans, yet harshly felt by millions of foreign citizens as a direct result of violent or careless American government actions taken abroad with impunity in the absence of domestic or international accountability).

The new leadership team of next year’s Republican House is at least hinting that they genuinely intend (beyond mere partisan point-scoring against the current Democratic president) to start to reverse the long trend in the House of dangerously centralizing most of the power of its members in a partisan Speaker – as this promising report indicates:

Thursday, November 18, 2010
By Jack Torry and Jonathan Riskind

[…] In particular, [Speaker-elect John Boehner] has pledged to empower lawmakers to have a greater say in how bills are written, rather than having most measures drafted in the speaker’s office, a style favored by Pelosi and the two Republican speakers before her: Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

In a speech to his colleagues yesterday, Boehner said “the job of the next speaker is to work to restore the institution. Restore it to being the people’s House.

“This is the dawn of a new majority,” Boehner said. “One I believe will be humbler, wiser and more focused than its predecessors on the priorities of the people.”


A Republican lobbyist in Washington who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified said that Boehner “is completely serious about opening up the House and letting the House work its will.”

“I don’t think he’s naive about what that means,” the lobbyist said. “It may produce some amendments that the majority loses. This is going to cause some chaos on the House floor and cause members to work harder, but [Boehner] genuinely believes that it will let off some steam and make the atmosphere of the place not so poisonous.

As this one does on the oversight front:

Published: November 27, 2010

[…] For Mr. Issa’s [House Oversight] committee, which can delve into any corner of the government, the more policy-driven crusade is purposely devised to steer clear of the reputation for hectoring and henpecking that Congressional Republicans earned during the Clinton administration when they issued more than 1,000 subpoenas and repeatedly tied White House lawyers into knots, ultimately impeaching the president.

To that end, Mr. Issa has sought to play down the unfettered power to compel testimony and force the production of documents through subpoenas that he will gain with his new post in January. Instead, he has put greater emphasis in recent weeks on pursuing legislation to grant subpoena power to the inspectors general in dozens of federal agencies, internal watchdogs who he believes are even better-positioned to hunt for waste.

The current oversight committee chairman, Representative Edolphus Towns, Democrat of New York, and Mr. Issa jointly supported a bill authorizing subpoena powers for inspectors general, but Democratic leaders did not make it a priority.


But there is still likely to be a blizzard of investigations compared with the last two years, during which Mr. Issa repeatedly accused Congressional Democrats of giving the Obama administration a free pass.

A report that’s echoed by Minority Leader John Boehner’s remarks at the close of his post-election news conference with Senator McConnell on November 3rd, 2010:

“I think one of the things that Congress has not done a very good job of over the last 15 years is real oversight. And I’m not talking about gotcha oversight. I’m talking about rock-solid oversight of the Executive Branch which is a Constitutional responsibility of the Congress.”

The referenced centralization of power in the Speaker (which is a major contributor to statistics like the House having passed “300 bills” in this term of Congress) has by now made a mockery of legislative debate in the House, although that reality is rarely noted by the media or Party partisans – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that our media and Congressional cultures both seem to prefer to fawn over the presidency (whose incumbent is now treated like royalty by many), or otherwise appear overawed by and addicted to the aura of power around the President. The voluntary (if essentially Party-bribed) ceding of power by majority House members to the Speaker has in turn effectively ceded the power of the House, now wielded by the Speaker alone, to the President whenever his Party has a House majority (thereby, however surreptitiously it’s carried into effect, vesting both legislative and executive power in one man).

So far, the limited public pressure to meaningfully reverse that trend seems to have a Republican brand on it:

By Peter Roff

Posted: November 22, 2010

[…] A recent paper, published before the Nov. 2, 2010 election by former Oklahoma Republican Congressman Ernest Istook, Michael G. Franc, and Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., for the conservative Heritage Foundation, recommends a set of reforms “of both parties’ internal caucus rules in order to reverse the decades-long trend whereby House leaders have acquired enormous power at the expense of rank-and-file members.”

While not going so far as the early 20th Century rebellion against Speaker Joseph ‘Czar’ Cannon, who was known for his nearly dictatorial rule, the argument they are making has been out there at least since the mid-1970s… […]


“This requires,” they suggest, “rules and processes that best enable rank-and-file Members to participate fully in all the roles, most prominently legislative and oversight, that the House is asked to fulfill” by the Constitution.


Istook, Franc, and Spaulding recommend four reforms in particular which, while potentially popular with the rank-and-file because they would expand their voice and give them a certain degree of increased power, would dilute the authority of the elected leadership and committee chairmen, thus making them difficult to enact…


It is almost certain, say sources on Capitol Hill, that Boehner means business when he says the House will, under his leadership, be run in a way much different than that of his immediate predecessor. The reforms being proposed in the Heritage paper may represent one or two bridges too far at the moment but more decentralization is clearly coming.

The same dangerous centralizing of power in Party leadership hands is also present to a significant degree in the private, weekly, Party-segregated caucuses in the Senate, although without Senate Standing Rules (as in the House) to help enforce such abject subservience by Senators to their Party leaders (even when that leadership has veered wildly away from the purported agenda of their Party platform). [Anyone covering Congress ought to be wondering, and asking: If rank and file members want more control over the legislative agenda of the House or Senate, as self-directed legislators, why does every single member agree (unanimously consent) to “deem expired” (daily in the Senate) the “Morning Hour” (a part of the legislative day when no debate can block a motion to proceed to the consideration of a piece of legislation offered by a Senator), and to dispense with (weekly in the House) the “Calendar Wednesday” rule (which otherwise allows committees to present legislation for consideration by the House, without the approval of the House Rules Committee or the Speaker)??]

Much of the unnecessary damage that our government causes at home and abroad is courtesy of the distaste that both national political Parties, and their members in and out of Congress, evidently feel for the erratic course and hard slog of public legislating and oversight, which the Constitution’s separation of powers mandated, in large part, to protect the individual liberty of Americans (and other persons) from federal government overreach and the always-tempting arbitrary tyranny of the powerful.

Senator Robert Byrd, speaking on the Senate floor in 1992 [Item 45 under 10/2/1992]:

Great evils often result from hasty legislation; rarely from the delay which follows full discussion and deliberation. In my humble judgment, the historic Senate – preserving the unrestricted right of amendment and of debate, maintaining intact the time-honored parliamentary methods and amenities which unfailingly secure action after deliberation – possesses in our scheme of government a value which can not be measured by words.

If the authors of our Constitution had been as overawed by, and insulated from abuses of, government power as today’s federal government elite clearly are, “separated federal power” would probably have been the last thing on their minds. After all, “National Security” – in which personal liberty, if considered at all, is derided as a “suicide pact” – is seemingly far more efficiently, if not effectively or democratically, achieved by concentrating unquestioned power in one man (or woman) atop a joint legislative/executive/judicial bureaucracy. [Certain federal judges are obviously enamored of such an undemocratic, unaccountable form of government, as D.C. District Judge John Bates, just last week in the Al Awlaki case, again egregiously demonstrated.] A bureaucracy in which one man’s actions, including perhaps even his laws, and those of his military and spying subordinates, are kept secret from the people whose very lives he claims, without contradiction or check by another branch of government, to be benevolently “securing” from seen and unseen evil lurking around every “foreign and domestic” corner…

And yet, for some (very good) reasons having to do with rebelling against just such an autocratic system, the Founders of this nation, when privileged to play a key role in establishing a government to better unify and represent a land mass and people a fraction of our size (and power) today, had uppermost in their minds that separating federal powers in their new government – ensuring, for example, that the President could not deploy the military or wage war at will, nor write the laws he was charged with faithfully and fairly enforcing, nor unilaterally imprison anyone without the check of the independent judiciary, except in accordance with universally-defined, wartime laws of humane detention – was of critical importance.

The reasons the Founders wisely feared concentrated federal power have in many ways come to dreadful fruition in modern America, for average people both at home and abroad, as Bruce Ackerman outlined recently while discussing his new book (The Decline and Fall of the American Republic) with Scott Horton of Harpers.

Excerpt from the book itself:

[B]oth major parties are in love with the presidency. […] Although President Bush’s “war on terror” represents the greatest outbreak of presidential illegality since Watergate, we are not seeing anything like a post-Watergate response: no Congressional hearings probing the deeper causes of the crisis; no strong effort by constitutional conservatives of both parties to press forward with new landmark legislation safeguarding against future presidential abuses.


The point of this book … is to open up a larger public debate….

Excerpt from Ackerman’s 11/23/2010 discussion with Horton:

The presidency is a much more dangerous office today than when [Hannah] Arendt wrote her book [Crises of the Republic]. Decline and Fall points to a series of developments since Nixon’s time that has transformed the modern presidency into a potential platform for charismatic extremism and bureaucratic lawlessness.


[I]t is the super-politicized White House Counsel and Office of Legal Counsel that are creating an unconstitutional system in need of correction. Article Three requires the president to take care that “the laws” be faithfully executed—the “laws,” not his own political program. To discharge this constitutional responsibility, he should set up an institutional framework that will reliably say “No” when his charismatic vision is at odds with established legal precedent. The existing super-politicized system of presidential lawyering doesn’t provide this assurance: instead of telling the president what the law is, his lawyers have overwhelming incentives to tell him what he wants to hear.

To his credit, Ackerman evidently does more than chronicle failure in his new book; he proposes some thoughtful, constructive solutions to the problems that confront us at the federal level, particularly within the Executive Branch, on which he focuses. It is equally imperative that the nation accurately identify and attempt to remedy the genuine harm that’s been done by the Parties and the presidency to the institution of Congress itself – or a return, any time soon, to at least a semi-respected, democratic, publicly-operated national legislature will remain unrealized.

The primary causes of the deplorable state of our Legislative Branch of government today (such as the corrupted, incumbent-favoring campaign finance system) are unfortunately in danger of being misdiagnosed or left untreated by members of the self-interested Parties that inflicted much of the damage in the first place. With regard to the still Democratic-majority Senate, for example, we continue to be misled and distracted by self-serving, even brazen, claims by incumbents who assert that the current scarcity of Senate (and House) debate means that even less public debate in future will solve the problem(s).

Those self-serving claims mislead by, for example, seeking to equate voluntary, politically-convenient Party practice as somehow mandatory behavior forced by the institution and rules of the Senate itself – an institution that seems to have few disinterested defenders today who are willing to speak for it rather than for Party – while leaving unmentioned, often to avoid angering power, the underlying cause(s) of the problem. Such self-serving claims, now regularly featured by partisan or misinformed members of the media, are clearly illustrated by another Ryan Grim post promoting Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico’s partisan (and family name-invested) mission to model the Senate on the House:

On the first day of the 112th Congress, [Tom] Udall said, he will rise and make a motion to establish rules for the session, making the argument that [every existing Senate rule expired with the 111th Congress, for the first time in U.S. Senate history… – pow wow] […]


“We have a weakened legislative body. It’s in the interest of both Democrats and Republicans who want to get things done” to reform the rules, said Udall.

In that Love Letter to the Democratic Leadership posing as a news article, HuffingtonPost’s Grim (a good reporter, when he leaves the partisan blinders at home) leads readers to believe that a Democratic Senator (Jeff Merkley of Oregon), who cites the public’s unfamiliarity with Senate rules in the article, himself openly misstates those rules. In fact, the egregious misstatement is apparently Grim’s, not Merkley’s, although it’s hard to be sure. [I note that Grim never deigned to mention in his lengthy piece (nor Sam Stein in a subsequent article quoting experts who appeared in the same Senate Rules Committee hearings) the plea – made months after the “death bed” December, 2009 Robert Byrd vote that Grim’s post melodramatically and misleadingly describes to Reid’s advantage (though Reid voluntarily chose the 1 a.m. voting hour that Grim decries) – that Senator Byrd movingly read to his colleagues in person in the Senate Rules Committee in May, 2010 in opposition to the efforts of Tom Udall to limit the right to debate in the Senate. But then, Ryan Grim has more than one article under his belt that presents (Democratic) Party spin as Senate rules reality, and I don’t imagine that his biased, partisan outlook, and the misleading conclusions that he draws as a result, will soon change.]

As George Orwell (Eric Blair) perceptively explained about the self-interest of Party and power, when he wrote the satire 1984 in 1948:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. […] Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

Turning to the rarely-discussed specifics of the operating procedures in Congress today, upon which I base my own assertions about the problems in Congress – grave problems exemplified by the ongoing, manifest failure of our Legislative Branch of government to play its essential role as sketched above by Louis Fisher – my observations about the House and Senate are as follows:

The House of Representatives

  • Most members of the House (and Senate) today, of both Parties, fear and loathe the accountability and exposure (for actions taken and untaken, and for personal competence, or lack thereof) that public debate in Congress brings. They are therefore for the most part grateful that quietly but steadily the Parties have worked to consolidate the power held by individual members – those privileged to speak for the American people – in Party leadership hands, so that members can, increasingly, painlessly shun (in the Senate) and almost completely abandon (in the House) public floor debate, and with it the thoughtful, democratic legislating that is founded upon such debate.

Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives from 1994-2004 (appointed by Speaker Foley, retained by Speaker Gingrich), and a member of the Parliamentarian’s office for 40 years, writing in Parliament and Congress: Representation & Scrutiny in the Twenty-First Century, co-authored with long-time British House of Commons Clerk William McKay, published this year:

Generally, televised coverage of the House and Senate proceedings has reduced the spontaneity of debates and the willingness of members to debate with each other directly. Instead, members increasingly use prepared speeches together with visual aides such as charts, graphs and photographs to make a debating point to a television audience. Together [in the House] with the drastically increased use of special order resolutions from the Committee on Rules, which limit the amendment process and which restrict pro forma [‘strike the last word’] amendments so that time may not be separately sought by opposing members, television has had a negative impact on the quality of debates and on the likelihood that debates may influence the votes.

  • As indicated above, the House, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her predecessors, has by now mostly eliminated genuine debate and amending on the House floor by the 435 federal Representatives of the American people – a result of the membership ceding its power to Party leadership through rules passed by lockstep Party-majority voting. Passage of such rules has lodged most House power today in the hands of the Speaker (if not the President, when of the same Party) and her Rules Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, quoted in a 7/1/2010 Ryan Grim post, in which she appears to advocate that the Senate follow the House in ending the right to extended debate (aka “filibuster” reform):

“I can get a great deal accomplished from my memberswe never losebut they get discouraged to do big spending bills, unpaid for, unless there’s some thought that the Senate is going to do something… They don’t really want to be target practice for all the people saying ‘You’re a big spender, big spender, big spender,’ and nothing came from it,” she said.

  • To elaborate a bit about the House: Nothing important is brought to the House floor without a preordained outcome, and only the Speaker gets to decide which, if any, amendments will be offered on the floor (through the Party leadership-obeying, majority-stacked Rules Committee). [Provided, as noted above, that Calendar Wednesday rules are consistently dispensed with by unanimous consent, or, more formally, by a two-thirds majority.] Party loyalists may not know, or care, that their Representatives – even if one of the 435 in the body with membership in the majority Party – generally have no opportunity to offer amendments to improve legislation on the floor in the modern House. By no definition I know is that a good thing for the nation. Five minutes at most (but often just one) is instead allotted to a small minority of members, for no more than an hour or two altogether (whatever Pelosi decrees), on major bills that reach the floor through a Rules Committee special order resolution. Which is just enough time to spew a talking point or two toward the “other side of the aisle” before the gavel comes down on the Speaker-ordained (if private-caucus settled) outcome. End of “debate.” And that’s the model that some want the Senate to follow, apparently because they consider self-government to be too inefficient at “getting things done” to preserve.

    Brian Lamb, C-SPAN, 9/28/2010: Would we be better off, as a country, if we didn’t have television in the House and Senate?

    Charles W. Johnson: There’s no turning back now, Brian. I mean, my original, what I wrote there [quoted above] was strongly felt when television began, because I saw [House] members changing their styles and their candor. Now they’re changing their attitudes about opponents on issues because very often they’re personal and they don’t want to engage on their time in someone else’s attack upon them.

    But the American people have to see that now because it’s the core, unfortunately, the core of our, one of the cores of our political operation. They have to see the charts and graphs, even though they realize this is not debate, because, they have to see what the House has become in order to properly judge it. So to just say there’d be no more television would not work, it wouldn’t fly with the American people. There’d be some – and with all the other electronics that are allowed on the floor – with cell phones and Blackberries, what have you – where members – and I’ve spoken against this – where members actually communicate outside with special interests. And we had a rule until recently, you know, that no electronic devices were allowed on the House floor. The Senate is almost as strict. But members – the modern members can’t live without an electronic way of communication. But what that does is, I think, give access to lobbyists and others who have electronic capability into the Chamber, where – the Chamber as far as Jefferson was concerned, at least, was a sanctuary for debate among members without direct outside influence.

  • Thus, to my mind, if John Boehner and his new Republican leadership team follow through, in more than name, on their little-discussed, but highly-commendable plans to (I hope) begin to genuinely re-democratize House proceedings, that alone may make Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the new Republican House historically important, progressive, and of lasting benefit to the nation. [Though, for example, putting cameras in the House Rules Committee meeting room, as is already underway at the direction of Rep. Dreier, without changing the open rule-hostile practices of, or House Rules governing, the Speaker-beholden Rules Committee, would probably qualify as reform in name only. Greg Walden, the GOP transition committee chairman, for one, at least has his own recent, personal experience to share about the futility of trying to persuade that committee to allow amendments that the Speaker/President dislikes through to the floor for a hearing and a vote by his colleagues, as I noted here.]

Sarah Binder, Governance Studies Fellow of the Brookings think tank, November 19, 2010, discussing John Boehner’s call for reform of the House:

Why is the People’s House in such disrepair and why has every recent Speaker called for its procedural makeover? Over the past three decades, each majority party has increasingly turned the thumbscrews on the minority party. In the 1970s, bills typically came to the floor with ample opportunity for amendment and debate by majority and minority party alike. In the most recent congresses, almost every major bill is considered under exceedingly restrictive [special order] rules, rarely allowing members of the minority to amend the majority’s handiwork. In today’s polarized Congress, it is the minority party that pays the steepest price under restrictive rules, as their policy views are seldom represented in the bills the majority seeks to protect on the House floor.

[…] It is inconceivable today that the majority party would allow an important bill to come to the House floor open to serious amendment by the minority party. Only when the majority thinks it has the votes to defeat an amendment is it likely to grant its proponents a roll call vote on the amendment.

[…] As seen in the figure below, the trend line for the use of restrictive rules climbs steadily over the past couple of decades…

But note the marked drop off in the use of restrictive rules with the arrival of Gingrich and the new Republican majority in 1995. The fall off in restrictive rules reflects Republicans’ effort to follow through on their campaign commitment to open up the legislative process on the floor. It is hard to know whether Republicans truly believed in the value of participation or whether they felt compelled politically to live up to their electoral promises. Probably both. Regardless, the party’s enthusiasm for full and open debate lasted just a short while. Soon thereafter, with shrunken majorities and rising partisanship, House Republicans reverted to the restrictive practices of their Democratic predecessors. Matters did not improve when Democrats regained control of the House. Although Speaker Pelosi pledged an open and fair House floor upon taking up the Speaker’s gavel in 2007, Democrats brought all of their “Six for ’06” priority issues to the House floor under restrictive rules.

Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives from 1994-2004, speaking with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb September 28, 2010:

[Referencing admiringly the non-partisan approach (though a Party member) of the Speaker of the British House of Commons in his day-to-day role and selection of amendments, etc., Johnson added:]

[I]n comparison to the evolution of the [U.S. House] Speaker’s role – which has always been a hybrid role here, a combination of an institutional non-partisan presiding officer and administrator together with Party leader and Party fundraiser. Those latter two characteristics of the Speaker here have totally overcome the initial notion that the Speaker shall be above the fray. And I just – it’s difficult for a Speaker here in the United States now from time to time to play the institutional role when he or she needs to. So there’s much more of a delegation to people who are not so qualified to do those things.

Tom Feran of Cleveland Plain Dealer elaborated on Thanksgiving, November 25, 2010, about the promised webcasting of future House Rules Committee meetings, and noted a C-SPAN request to capture more of the House Chamber on camera:

“Every issue of national import should be debated by the people’s elected representatives in full public view,” [John Boehner] said [in January, 2010].

A call for more transparent government was part of the “Pledge to America” promoted by congressional Republicans in September [2010]. Boehner put particular importance on the installation of cameras in the hearing room of the powerful House Rules Committee, which was included in the House GOP Congressional Transparency Initiative that Boehner introduced.

Now, the GOP Leader Blog on Boehner’s website says Republicans have asked House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Strodel to begin installing video cameras in the Rules Committee hearing room.


PolitiFact Ohio, never willing to miss a chance to do a little House-keeping, made its own call to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, which is responsible for the operating infrastructure of Congress.

Dan Weiser, communications director for the chief administrative officer, said it’s true: Rules, Intelligence and Ethics are the only three committees lacking cameras in their main hearing rooms, of 25 committees in the House.


C-SPAN now uses the video feed provided by House-owned cameras for its cable telecasts and free online streaming.

Brian Lamb, C-SPAN’s founder and chief executive, requested the addition of “a few small robotically operated cameras in the House chamber,” and reminded Boehner of his support in January for C-SPAN’s request to televise health care negotiations.

“Currently,” Lamb wrote in a letter to Boehner, “House floor debates are not in full public view because private news media cameras are still not permitted in the House chamber. Rules established when the House installed its TV cameras in 1979 restrict congressional camera operators to head-on shots of members at the podium and committee tables, and they are prohibited from taking reaction shots or shots of the [empty… -pow wow] chamber, leaving viewers with a less-than-complete view of your debates.”

And Jake Sherman of Politico reported these developments on November 4, after a briefing by GOP Transition Chair Greg Walden of eastern Oregon:

Republicans are running the transition committee out of a small Capitol conference room that the current Democratic majority gave to them Wednesday morning. The room is adorned with large posters displaying the Pledge to America, and a quote by former House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, who, like John Boehner, was a Republican from Ohio. Walden’s wife has been volunteering by answering phones.

They are currently reaching out to members they’d like to put on the transition committee, and they’ll ask them to come to Washington Monday for an evening session, and stay through Tuesday to get briefed on House rules and consider changes.

Among other items discussed will be changes to the House calendar, to give more unfettered time for committee hearings. [Greg] Walden said he is going to reach out to Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who ran the Democrats’ 2006 transition, to see if he has anything he would have done differently if he could do it again.

The Senate

  • The Senate, meanwhile, under both Republican and Democratic majorities, has sharply reduced the practice (although at least, unlike the House, has so far preserved the option) of genuine floor debate and open amending by all Senators – most egregiously, perhaps, by allowing the majority Party leadership to unilaterally suspend and block Senate business at will while the Senate’s “in session,” with the use of unlimited “quorum calls” that don’t actually call the quorum (at the Majority Leader’s unseen bidding) and may only be lifted by unanimous consent. [The fake quorum call may also be lifted at any time by the Majority Leader signaling to the Senate Clerk to turn the suspended/fake call into a genuine quorum call – which lasts only as long as a roll call vote, and, under Senate precedent, has enforceable limits on its repeated deployment.] Leaving the Senate chamber – although it is still at least theoretically available for purposes of debate to every Senator basically at will – empty and unused most of every day that the Senate is “in session,” while the Party leadership makes deals in the backrooms, in lieu of public legislating by the representatives of our states.

“The Senate likes to think of itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body, but it is less deliberative than virtually any state legislature in the nation,” [Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, “a veteran state legislator who was the speaker of Oregon’s House before his election in 2008”] says [in a new article that unfortunately obscures Merkley’s message by misstating Senate procedure(s)].

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, April 22, 2010:

Since assuming control of the Senate, the Democratic majority has been engaging in what my friend the Majority Leader [Harry Reid] once called a “very bad practice.” And according to CRS [the Congressional Research Service], it has been engaging in it to an unprecedented extent. What I am talking about is the Majority repeatedly blocking senators in the Minority from offering amendments by filling the so-called “amendment tree.”

All Majority Leaders do it. But this Majority has done it to an unprecedented extent. Senator Frist did it 12 times in four years. By contrast, Senator Reid has done it more than twice as often—26 timesin a little over three years. In fact, the current Majority has blocked the Minority from offering amendments almost as often as the last five Majority Leaders combined.


True, there may be some votes you would rather not cast, but that’s nothing new. What is new is the unprecedented extent to which the Majority is avoiding having to vote on amendments. As my good friend the Majority Whip [Dick Durbin] likes to say: “If you don’t like fighting fires, then don’t become a fireman. And if you don’t like casting tough votes, then don’t run for the U.S. Senate.”

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid “filled the tree” again late last week, on Thursday, December 9, 2010 (right before he filed the cloture motion) on the Obama Backroom Tax-cut Deal, to prevent a single member of the Senate from publicly proposing a single amendment to change that deal/bill. Of course, this time Reid presumably did so with Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s warm appreciation and hearty approval…

  • Regular, daily, Senate order provides for (Constitutional) simple-majority passage of legislation. A regular, daily order which is only changed if and when 16 majority (Democratic, these days) Senators file a “cloture motion” [Harry Reid, on an almost-weekly basis, to the Presiding Officer: “I have a cloture motion at the desk”] – and, by the filing of that cloture motion, choose to replace regular simple-majority Senate order with Rule 22’s supermajority requirements, despite the absence of an ongoing filibuster.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts, September 22, 2010:

Today marks the fifth hearing this committee has held on the filibuster, and I am told to expect a sixth hearing.

It is counterproductive to hold multiple hearings on filibusters – which is nothing more than the right to debate legislation – without understanding the wider context in which they occur. I am talking about the practice of filling the amendment tree. Mr. Chairman, it is time for this committee to hold a hearing specifically on that practice. It is appropriate in light of the multiple hearings we’ve had on measures that would curtail Minority rights without addressing clear abuses by the Majority.

This committee has examined multiple approaches to curtailing filibusters. Now, there is a proposal that threatens more than just minority rights, it threatens the very nature of the Senate. I am referring to the resolution introduced by the junior senator from New Mexico [Tom Udall] – a resolution that would declare Senate Rules unconstitutional. This, my colleagues, marks a new low.

  • The reckless “nuclear” or “constitutional” options being spun of late (this time by certain Democratic Party members and their fans), to reform the “filibuster,” essentially amount to violating Senate rules in order to “change” them without debate, with the aim of eventually empowering future Senate majorities to stifle debate at will, as the House majority Party (in the person of the Speaker) is now empowered to prevent floor debate there. In short, the primary motive of Democrats seeking to violate the rules of the Senate next year to “change” some of them – for, at most, two years at a time for every rule going forward – without debating those changes, seems to be to further hide the Senate’s actions from the public while preventing a minority from publicly complaining about it.

That conclusion follows from the fact that Senate rules may be changed any day of the session that the Senate decides to try to change them, by simple-majority vote, unless and until an actual filibuster manifests itself (in which case, either the filibuster must be waited out, delaying the simple-majority vote, or a cloture motion may be filed by the majority, which would need 67 votes to pass to bring the filibuster to an early close). Any successful rule change would then remain in effect indefinitely, until the Senate again decides to change the rule (rather than suddenly vaporizing at the end of the two-year term of the Congress that passed the rule change, along with every other rule, if Tom Udall gets his way).

The amount of misinformation that exists about this topic is appalling, and Senators themselves are some of the worst offenders in spreading it, or letting it be spread, unchallenged and uncorrected.

  • Finally, but importantly – as the perceived novelty of the Sanders effort Friday demonstrates, and although Tom Udall has yet to explain this to the nation in his “reform” campaign, or to publicly correct the widely-disseminated mistaken descriptions of the issue – the Senate has also, under both Republican and Democratic majorities, quietly agreed to cease practicing the parliamentary tactic of the filibuster without benefit of any rule change (meaning that the real filibuster may return at any time that the majority leader simply chooses, or is forced by his Party caucus, to weaken his grip on power in order to bring the real, debating filibuster back into existence), even as gullible partisans and deliberately-misleading members of the media loudly trumpet the increased use and abuse of “the filibuster” by the present Republican minority. [Proof of the ability of the majority Party to force a return of real, debating, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibusters by the minority, without any Senate rule changes, or rule violations, or any excessive strain on the majority, is here.]

What’s that I say about the filibuster?

Please pay attention to this, if you read nothing else, partisans in and out of the media – Ryan Grim & Company, Rachel Maddow & Company (NBC News Senate Producer Ken Strickland and MSNBC Host Lawrence O’Donnell, who have every reason to already know this, included), etc.:

A “cloture motion” (voluntarily and optionally filed by 16 members of the Senate majority, these days always in the absence of continuous floor debate) is not a “filibuster” (public debate conducted on the Senate floor by a Senate minority).

Any questions?

That, in a nutshell, is the inconvenient truth hiding behind the Democratic Party’s self-inflicted 60-vote “filibuster” epidemic in today’s Senate. A truth that carefully goes unmentioned by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and even by some Congressional “experts” who make sure never to rock the Party boats. A self-inflicted epidemic that’s neatly illustrated by a Ryan Grim misstatement in his Democratic Leadership Love Letter mentioned above (perhaps inspired by Jeff Merkley’s statements, perhaps not).

Ryan Grim, 11/19/2010:

[Senator Jeff] Merkley said that requiring the minority to do something — give a speech, show up, anything — in order to obstruct Senate business would alter the dynamic. Under current rules, it’s the obligation of the majority to affirmatively squash a filibuster rather than the minority to keep it going.

If the minority is made to stand up, said Merkley, “there is a price to be paid in terms of time and energy and visibility if you’re going to block” action in the Senate.

Oh, really, Ryan Grim? Which current Senate “rules” or rule is it, exactly, that forces the majority to conduct the minority’s filibuster (and why can’t you specify, by now, which rule(s) you’re referring to)??

In fact, as Senator Merkley must know (unless he too gullibly accepts whatever Harry Reid tells him), it’s actually only “under current, voluntary Senate practice” that a merely-threatened minority filibuster is treated as an actual filibuster by the Senate majority, which has nothing to do with the mandates of existing Senate rules.

Isn’t it rather easy for a Senate minority of 41+ to pretend to be united in lock-step, unyielding opposition, prepared to take the floor to actually filibuster to delay a simple-majority Senate vote, if no one ever puts them to the test?? Harry Reid and his Democratic Senate majority have certainly done their utmost to make it exceedingly easy for Mitch McConnell and his Republican Senate minority to repeatedly bluff their way out of any need to actually take the Senate floor to make their case against a piece of legislation or a nomination in a physically-taxing manner.

Of course, it takes a lot of detail-crunching to be able to confidently make these assertions from the outside, but Robert Byrd, for one, was expert enough to make them, explicitly and implicitly, from the inside, a fact apparently unknown to Ryan Grim, if not to the Senators he quoted [link to Senator Byrd’s February, 2010 Dear Colleague letter]. As outsiders attempting to set the record straight, selise and I finally took it upon ourselves to publicly crunch those details here in multiple FDL diaries, to demonstrate how the Senate rules and precedents in fact belie the non-stop Party spin that Ryan Grim and many others continue to disseminate; our detail-crunching culminated in this summary. In short, contrary to the conventional wisdom, a reform of mere Senate practice could indeed change the “dynamic” that Senator Merkley rightly condemns (though his points are mostly lost in Grim’s imprecise, Party-warped narrative), and thereby force a return of the real filibuster to the Senate, with the public debate and simple-majority rule that accompanies it.

In general, the Senate operates on the foundation of unlimited debate. This principle is fundamental to the right to filibuster. Senate rules do not specifically permit filibusters; rather, extended debate is possible in the absence of debate restrictions.

Martin Gold, on Page 44 of his book Senate Procedure and Practice

To restate and summarize those filibuster facts:

The optional cloture motion – created by a Senate rule change during a special session in 1917, with pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, who was seeking to get the United States into the World War – slowly (more slowly than the longest one-man filibuster in Senate history) brings actual, public floor debate to a close, provided that a supermajority of 60 Senators votes to pass it – or 67 for a Senate rule change filibuster (because of an earlier Senate compromise).

The filibuster, which is not an invention of any Senate Standing Rule, is a parliamentary debating tactic (because it’s essentially debate, the core of any legislature’s being, that’s carried to taxing physical extremes) that has been available since day one of the Senate, although it was apparently strengthened to some degree by an 1806 change in the Senate rules. Aside from the cloture motion method of overcoming filibusters, created in 1917 and slightly revised several times since, there have been no other alterations to the parliamentary tactic of filibustering in the entire history of the United States Senate. Through piracy, war with the British Empire, civil war, civil rights, world wars, cold war, “war on terror,” great depression, great recession, and financial panics alike.

Yet even as the Party-driven, voluntary, delay-promoting daily deployment in the modern Senate of the quorum call that isn’t a quorum call has escalated, there hasn’t been an actual filibuster in the United States Senate for almost twenty years, although the effort of Senator Sanders Friday probably came as close to the real thing as anything has for two decades (Senator Dodd in 2008 did his best to delay passage of the FISA Amendments Act, but used cloture delays – mixed with intermittent debate – to better advantage than Sanders has as yet, rather than straight, physically-taxing speaking alone). Aside, that is, from a Harry Reid stunt about five years ago, when he read his book aloud one day on the Senate floor – because Democrats wanted to score partisan political points in response to the Senate Republican majority’s threat under Bill Frist to do (less than) what some Democrats are now, in predictable turn, proposing to do to formally end the increasingly-unused right to extended debate in the Senate (which would, in part, further empower an already-imperious presidency).

The make-believe quorum call is so pivotal here because it is a device that prevents the Presiding Officer of the Senate from putting a question to a (simple-majority) vote of the members. That, in turn, is because, in the absence of an ongoing filibuster or other floor debate, the Presiding Officer is required by regular Senate rules and order – absent the make-believe quorum call – to put the pending question to a simple-majority vote of the Senate (or, if requested, to have the Clerk call a live quorum call, which does have limits on its deployment and actually comes to a conclusion – there’s either a simple-majority Constitutionally-required quorum, or else the Senate must force the attendance of Senators or adjourn), keeping Senate business proceeding unimpeded without the need to resort to unanimous consent to call up an amendment or to get a vote on an amendment when debate on it has ended.

The 1917 “cloture motion” rule (part of Senate Standing Rule 22) was designed, and intended, to be introduced in opposition to an ongoing “filibuster” which the majority can’t or won’t wait out in order to reach a simple-majority vote on confirming nominees, proceeding to legislation, or on final passage of legislation.

Once a Senate majority has the power to silence any member (while claiming, of course, that “the press of business” reluctantly forces them to do so), aren’t they going to use it? That’s basically how the Democratic leadership now abuses the use of the cloture motion (abuses to which most Democratic partisans are oblivious) – as a way to cut off debate and amending as soon as a measure hits the Senate floor, while pointing fingers at the Republican minority for “requiring” 60 votes to pass the bill (because they won’t all agree to waive the rules and regular order in order to speed a majority-written bill through the Senate without public debate or the opportunity to amend). Again, if you pay attention to how the House operates today, you can see how the power to shut off debate and amending is aggressively utilized by the majority Party at every opportunity.

If members of the media must continue to parrot the Parties’ misleading abuse of the term “filibuster” to describe a filibuster-blocking “cloture motion” that’s been filed by the majority in the absence of a minority filibuster – apparently in response to mere public or private threats to filibuster – they ought at least to do us the favor of using another name to describe the second, alternate form of “filibuster” that they’ve conjured up out of thin air. Something like “no-debate minority filibuster” or “cloture-motion majority filibuster,” perhaps, although it’s beyond me why using the words that already accurately describe the actions taken should be a problem for an “objective” media.

It seems ominously clear to me that many federal legislators today (and sycophantic “experts” and “journalists” who curry favor with them) little value or appreciate the importance of open and democratic “parliamentary procedure” in the federal legislature in which they are privileged to serve. For such legislators (Harry Reid very much among them), might makes right, and backroom Party-run power plays are the name of the game – while the careful, deliberative process of good faith public debating and legislating in pursuit of good government, rather than power for its own sake, is scorned by them as a sucker’s game and an annoying waste of time.

I hope this diary underscores how dangerous to good government, and contemptuous of the consent of the governed, such Party-serving attitudes are, and that the diary’s details reinforce my contention that public, deliberative legislating by the people elected to legislate, is very much not a waste of time for those of us who prefer democratic self-government to monarchy in all but name. I trust I’m not the only American who’d like to see both the House and the Senate return to the art of genuine public debate, real (and thus rare) filibusters, and a legislative agenda that’s generated by self-directed, independent-thinking representatives of the American people, rather than by a handful of Party leaders in backroom consultations with the President and his appointees or campaign donor proxies.

I’d be interested – as, I hope, would be at least some incumbents and new Members of Congress – to read any ideas that commenters may have about ways to improve the operation of the House and/or Senate based on personal observations or experience – ways to improve the legislative and oversight roles of Congress, with the assumption that the desired substantive ends of favored legislation will follow an improvement in the health of the legislative process. Here, for example, is a list of 12 recommended changes in Congressional operations that POGO submitted to Members of Congress earlier this year. Would genuine public debate in Congress cause you to regularly pay more attention to (or to respect more) the daily actions of our Senators and Representatives (which you can watch unfiltered, even if the media doesn’t), and less to those of the President?

Feel free to vent in comments at the general state of our nation and government, and if you think I’m wrong about a position stated above, perhaps put Barry Eisler’s recent inspired, and inspiring, post “How to Argue” into practice – share your opinion, but round up some persuasive evidence or observations to go with it, that make it more than a ‘gut feeling,’ accurate as that may be. So, for example, if you feel a deep need to “abolish the Senate,” or to drastically limit the right to debate in the Senate, why do you feel that way? Because you’re sick of hearing Senators debate each other on the Senate floor? Because your preferred legislative ends have been thwarted, even without any actual filibustering in the Senate, so never mind the (hidden) means that thwarted those ends? Or because you have no idea what’s really going on in Congress behind its Party PR facade – given that most Congressional discussion now goes on behind the closed doors of the secretive Party caucuses – and want to lash out at that state of affairs, in any way you can?

One departing insider argued as follows – words I’ll use to close this diary – about the state of the Senate today from an experienced perspective – experienced in both public debate, and in the ways of backroom Party deal-making that threatens to permanently replace public legislating – in his farewell speech to the Senate on November 30, 2010:

For more than 200 years, a uniquely American story has unfolded here in the Chamber of the United States Senate–a fascinating, inspiring, often tumultuous tale of conflict and compromise, reflecting the awesome potential of our still-young democracy and its occasional moments of agonizing frustration.


I am proud of the work I have done, but it is time for my story and that of this institution, which I cherish so much, to diverge. Thus, Mr. President, I rise to give some valedictory remarks as my service as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut comes to a close.


Most assuredly, I will miss the people of the Senate, but I will miss the work as well. Over the years, I have both witnessed and participated in some great debates in this Chamber, moments when statesmen of both parties gathered together in this Hall to weigh the great questions of our time. And while I wish there had been more of those moments, I will always remember the Senate debates on issues such as Central America, the Iraq war, campaign finance reform, securities litigation, health care, and, of course, financial reform.


For the past 30 years, I have sat at this very same desk occupied by my father during the 12 years he served in this Chamber. His courage, character, and conviction have been a constant reminder of what it means to be a U.S. Senator. […]

[…] When this body is gaveled to order in January, nearly half of its Members will be in their first term. […]

[…] Our electoral system is a mess. Powerful financial interests, free to throw money about with little transparency, have corrupted, in my view, the basic principles underlying our representative democracy. As a result, our political system at the Federal level is completely dysfunctional. Those who were elected to the Senate just a few weeks ago must already begin the unpleasant work of raising money for their reelection 6 years hence. Newly-elected Senators will learn that their every legislative maneuver, their every public utterance, and even some of their private deliberations will be fodder for a 24/7 political media industry that seems to favor speculation over analysis and conflict over consensus.

[…] So while the corridors of Congress are crowded with handheld video and cell phone cameras, there is a declining [role] for newspaper, radio, and network journalists reporting the routine deliberations that are taking place in our subcommittee hearings. Case in point: Ten years ago, 11 or 12 reporters from Connecticut covered the delegation’s legislative activities. Today, there is only one doing the same work.


We 100 Senators are but temporary stewards of a unique American institution, founded upon universal principles. The Senate was designed to be different, not simply for the sake of variety but because the Framers believed the Senate could and should be the venue in which statesmen would lift America up to meet its unique challenges.

As a Senator from the State of Connecticut–and the longest serving one in its history–I take special pride in the role two Connecticut Yankees played in the establishment of this very body. It was Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, delegates from Connecticut to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, who proposed the idea of a bicameral national legislature. The Connecticut Compromise, as it came to be known, was designed to ensure that no matter which way the political winds blew or how hard the gusts, there would be a place–one place–for every voice to be heard.

The history of this young democracy, the Framers decided, should not be written solely in the hand of the political majority. In a nation founded in revolution against tyrannical rule which sought to crush dissent, there should be one institution that would always provide a space where dissent was valued and respected. E pluribus unum–out of many, one. And though we would act as one, and should, the Framers believed our political debate should always reflect that in our beliefs and aspirations, we are, in fact, many. In short, our Founders were concerned not only with what we legislated but, just as importantly, with how we legislated.
– Senator Chris Dodd, November 30, 2010

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