Hatch: Cloture Ain’t Broke, So Don’t Break It

Posted January 5, 2011 at 6:12pm

Congress is barely back in session, and the political irony meter is going through the roof. The same majority hailing the supposed productivity of the 111th Congress now claims that the Senate is so dysfunctional that its rules must be radically changed. Democrats cannot have it both ways, especially when their proposed “solution” will cause real harm.

President Barack Obama says the 111th Congress was the most productive in either decades or generations. One Congressional scholar said it was one of the most productive Congresses since 1900.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tops them all, claiming that the 111th Congress “was by far the most productive Congress in American history.”

For the record, this productivity is more quantity than quality. But Democrats now pivot and say the Senate they were so proud of just days ago is actually so utterly dysfunctional that, as one Senator said, its rules “make effective legislating nearly impossible.”

The villain in the Senate rules, of course, is the one requiring 60 votes to invoke cloture, or end debate. Democrats are proposing to restrict the minority’s right to keep debate going, which one scholar has said is “the single most defining characteristic of the Senate as a legislative body.”

This is certainly not because the Senate’s debate rule does not work. In fact, it was more effective at ending debate during the 111th Congress than at any time in American history. Nearly 70 percent of the motions to end debate on which the Senate voted passed. That is nearly three times the average since the Senate first adopted a debate rule in 1917.

So if the 111th Congress cranked out so much of the majority’s legislation, and the majority used the cloture rule to limit so much debate, why are Democrats calling to weaken the minority’s right to debate? 

The most productive Congress in American history is apparently not productive enough for this majority. They want to rig the rules so they can continue pursuing the agenda that the American people soundly rejected in the recent midterm elections.

We have all heard that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There is no reason to undermine the minority’s right to extend debate. But here’s a new twist on that axiom: If it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Curtailing the minority’s right to extend debate would fundamentally change the nature of the Senate and the unique role that it plays in the legislative branch.

It is said that George Washington described the legislative branch to Thomas Jefferson by comparing the House to a cup of hot tea and the Senate to a saucer in which it can cool. House rules empowering the majority reflect an emphasis on action. Senate rules empowering the minority reflect an emphasis on deliberation. These differences are necessary to limit the federal government’s power. Democrats want to break down these differences to build their power, no matter what Americans said at the ballot box.

This would not be the first tactic used by the majority to stifle opposition. By orders of magnitude more than his predecessors, according to the Congressional Research Service, Reid has blocked the minority from offering amendments on legislation, moved to end debate on bills the very day they were introduced and before any amendments were considered, and bypassed legislative committees in developing bills.

The minority has had the right of extended debate in the Senate for more than two centuries. The majority might try cooperating with the minority rather than attempting simply to control it.

The majority should encourage rather than squelch debate, allow rather than choke off opportunities to offer amendments. That is how the Senate is designed to work and how it can best serve the interests of the American people rather than the interests of a political party or a temporary majority.

Sen. Orrin Hatch is a Republican from Utah.