Stevenson: In Senate, ‘Motion To Proceed’ Should Be Non-Debatable

Posted April 16, 2010 at 5:02pm

There’s a simple step the Senate could take that would prevent a lot of the current delay and obstruction, while still permitting lawmakers to debate some controversial matters at length.

[IMGCAP(1)]The “motion to proceed” should be made non-debatable and subject to an immediate majority-rule vote.

This may seem like an arcane parliamentary matter, but in practice the chance to kill a bill or nomination before it is open to debate and amendment is a key weapon in the hands of obstructionists. They don’t even have to oppose the measure; they just argue that “now is not the time” to take it up. In fact, in the past 20 years, more than one-fourth of the cloture petitions to end debate have been on motions to proceed.

Maybe the Senate, under pressure from voters and stymied by the recent surge in filibusters, will change or repeal the current rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority to cut off debate. But that isn’t likely, since it takes 67 votes to change the rules and since all Senators can envision circumstances when they might want to fight even though outnumbered.

Even if lawmakers eliminated the 60-vote rule, obstructionists would retain numerous tools to block or delay action.

A compromise might be found on the motion to proceed, which would have substantial additional benefits while still preserving the right of extended debate on substantive matters.

Right now, the motion to take up legislation is non-debatable only in very special circumstances: if the Senate has adjourned rather than recessing at the end of the previous day, if it has a period of morning business the next day and if it is in the second hour of the session. Even then, the bill goes back to the calendar if debate continues at the end of morning business.

The biggest problem in the Senate’s current rules isn’t that the majority can’t work its will, but that a handful of Senators can clog the legislative stream, preventing action even on broadly supported measures.

Cutting off debate requires a day’s wait after the first cloture petition is filed, and then 30 more hours of debate even if cloture is invoked. This means that the leadership needs at least four days just to end debate on the motion to proceed, plus many more on controversial amendments.

Four days on one measure is four days that can’t be devoted to other matters — and the Senate has averaged only 167 days in session each year this decade.

Making the motion to proceed non-debatable would not only reduce the opportunities for filibusters but would also end the practice of individual “holds” on bills and nominations.

Those holds aren’t in the rules, but they are the result of rules that require, for example, the Senate to take up bills and nominations in the order they were added to the calendar — that is, oldest first, with more urgent matters or more recent versions delayed until all previous matters have been disposed of.

A non-debatable motion to proceed could still be rejected by majority vote, and a matter being debated could still be filibustered, but the opponents would have to muster their troops, whereas now a single Member can hold the whole Senate hostage.

There are other rules changes that the Senate might adopt to have a more orderly and businesslike legislative process.

It could change the rule (XIX) that requires that “all debate shall be germane and confined to the specific question then pending before the Senate” for only the first three hours and it could enforce more rigorously the section of that rule that “no Senator shall speak more than twice upon any one question in debate on the same legislative day.”

Senators could also drop the provision saying that the rules continue from one Congress to another unless changed by a two-thirds vote. That was added in 1959 under pressure from Senators fighting civil rights bills in order to overturn a ruling that would have allowed each new Congress to adopt rules by majority vote – as the House of Representatives does every two years.

But if Senators are unwilling to change the basic rule on filibusters, they should at least make the motion to proceed non-debatable so that the Senate can get to work without petty delays.

Charles A. Stevenson was a Senate staffer for 22 years; he now teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.