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Democrats’ Memo on Senate Precedent Changes

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats insist that changes to filibuster rules on executive branch nominations are “no big deal.”

To back up that claim, many are referencing previous procedural changes highlighted on a July 11 memo from the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Merkley has been among the leading proponents of modifications to Senate rules and procedures that go well beyond the current debate.

The memo outlines 18 procedural changes, not formal alterations to chamber rules, that have taken place since the late 1970s, including a number of changes pushed through with procedural maneuvering by the senator who knew more about the rules than anybody else, the late Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

Republicans contend that none of them rise to the level of what’s going to be discussed at a rare joint caucus meeting in the Old Senate Chamber following a live quorum Monday evening on the Senate floor. But you can read the Merkley memo for yourself, obtained by #WGDB:

TO: Colleagues

FR: Senator Jeff Merkley

DT: July 11, 2013

RE: The frequency of changing Senate procedures by simple majority vote

The notion that changing Senate procedure with a simple majority vote is ‘changing the rules by breaking the rules’ is an absolute falsehood. As a Republican Policy Memo put it in 2005 (during the Republicans’ attempt to institute the same procedural change for judicial nominees that is currently under consideration for executive nominees):

The Senate has always had, and repeatedly has exercised, this constitutional option. The majority’s authority is grounded in the Constitution, Supreme Court case law, and the Senate’s past practices….An exercise of the constitutional option under the current circumstances would be an act of restoration – a return to the historical and constitutional confirmation standard of simple-majority support for all judicial nominations.

Indeed, the Senate appears to have changed its procedures by simple majority (by voting to sustain or overturn a ruling of the Presiding Officer, the precise procedure under consideration today) 18 times since 1977, an average of once every other year.

The most relevant example for our current debate comes from March 5 1980, when Majority Leader Byrd used the exact same procedure to eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed to nominations. The Presiding Officer ruled that Rule XXII and precedents under it allowed debate (and therefore filibusters) against motions to proceed to specific nominations, but Senator Byrd appealed the ruling and it was overturned on a 38-54 vote.

Majority Leader Byrd also established new rules by simple-majority vote that were in direct contradiction to the plain language of the written Standing Rules of the Senate. On November 9 1979, he established a requirement that the Presiding Officer rule on questions of germaneness when a point of order against legislations on appropriations bills is raised. Rule XVI clearly requires that the Presiding Officer submit such questions to the Senate without ruling, but Senator Byrd asserted a point of order that the Presiding Officer should not submit the question to the Senate in certain circumstances. The Presiding Officer sustained the ruling. It was appealed but the ruling was sustained by a vote of 44-40.

Examples of instances since 1977 where the Senate changed its practices by simple-majority vote*

1977 The Senate limits post-cloture filibusters by establishing that the Chair must take the initiative to rule out of order amendments that are dilatory or otherwise out of order under cloture

December 12, 1979 The Senate establishes that if the Senate stays in session past midnight on the intervening day after a cloture motion is filed, then the cloture vote doesn’t occur until an hour after convening on the next legislative day (ruling sustained 32-32)

November 9, 1979 The Senate establishes that the Chair should rule on whether an amendment is legislating on appropriations rather than submitting it to the Senate and allowing a defense of germaneness if the underlying House appropriations bill has no legislative language to which the amendment is germane (ruling sustained 44-40)

March 5,1980 The Senate establishes that that motions to proceed to nominations and treaties cannot be filibustered (ruling reversed 38-54±)

June 11, 1980 The Senate established that during post-cloture time, a motion to reconsider a vote by which a tabling motion had failed by large margins is dilatory (ruling sustained 53-31)

June 10, 1980 The Senate established that a quorum call during post-cloture time is dilatory even though a motion to reconsider has been made since a quorum was last demonstrated (ruling sustained 52-34)

August 5, 1980 The Senate established that a cloture motion takes precedence over a time agreement ordered by unanimous consent on the same measure (ruling sustained 72-16)

August 20, 1980 The Senate established that a cloture motion may be filed on a pending amendment even if it has lower precedence than an amendment that is the immediately pending question (ruling sustained 74-15)

September 25, 1986 The Senate established that procedural motions or requests do not constitute speeches for purposes of the two-speech rule (ruling reversed 5-92)

December 11, 1985 The Senate allows a conference report on the basis that everything included is “relevant,” even though multiple provisions have been ruled to violate the scope of the conference committee’s authority (ruling reversed 27-68)

April 28, 1987 The Senate establishes that the Presiding Officer should defer to the Budget Committee Chair on whether an amendment violates Section 201(i) of the Budget Act (ruling sustained 50-46)

May 13, 1987 The Senate establishes that a Senator may not decline to vote when it is done for the purposes of delaying the announcement of that vote (ruling reversed 46-54)

March 16, 1995 The Senate allows legislating on appropriations bills (ruling reversed 42-57) [this precedent was reversed in 1999 by resolution]

May 23, 1996 The Senate establishes that a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for a measure increasing the deficit is appropriate (ruling sustained 53-47)

October 3, 1996 The Senate broadens the scope of allowable material in conference reports (ruling reversed 39-56) [this precedent was reversed in 2000 by language in an appropriations bill]

June 16, 1999 The Senate sustained a ruling that a motion to recommit a bill with instructions to report back an amendment had to be filed before the amendment filing deadline (ruling sustained 60-39)

May 17, 2000 The Senate establishes that it is the Chair’s prerogative to rule out of order non-germane precatory (sense-of-the-Senate or -of-Congress) amendments (ruling reversed 45-54)

October 6, 2011 The Senate establishes that motions to suspend the rules in order to consider non-germane amendments post cloture are dilatory and not allowed (ruling reversed 48-51)


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