When amendments ruled the Senate

Decline has ‘completely stifled’ lawmakers, longtime chamber-watchers say

Around the time of the clean air bill of 1990, some longtime Senate staffers began to feel the mood in the chamber shift. Above, Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., speak to reporters in March 1990. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Around the time of the clean air bill of 1990, some longtime Senate staffers began to feel the mood in the chamber shift. Above, Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., speak to reporters in March 1990. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 28, 2022 at 5:01am

Almost everyone in the Senate was dog-tired but glowing with relief as lawmakers debated a clean air bill in the spring of 1990. 

An unlikely coalition of Republicans loyal to the White House and Democrats controlling the Senate had managed to bring a compromise to the floor after many frantic, sleepless nights. Once cracks began showing in the dam that had held back action for years, it was hard to stop.

“You could feel the momentum shift,” said Elizabeth Letchworth, a former GOP Senate secretary. “That and a combination of exhaustion.” 

Amendment votes were common in the chamber back then, along with shoulder pads, comb-overs and oversize glasses. In some ways, this bill was no different, as members took to the floor to propose change after change. 

“They had a chance to propose an amendment, and some of them passed, some of them didn’t,” said Joe Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut. 

For Lieberman, it was a shining example of how the Senate can get things done.

He was part of the “Group of 15” who had disappeared behind closed doors to hammer out the deal with the Bush administration, finding common ground on tricky subjects like emissions and acid rain. Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., didn’t want any surprises, and the group vowed to preserve the fragile pact, even if it meant voting down amendments they actually liked.

It worked. The bill passed, and Lieberman says current lawmakers should study its lessons. “If they were free to vote for amendments embracing their ‘perfect’ desires on the Senate floor, the agreement would disintegrate and no good would be done,” he writes in his recent book, “The Centrist Solution.”

But Letchworth sees a darker legacy. In her mind, the episode marked a shift for the Senate, ushering in a new era where bills are crafted by gangs in leadership offices who exercise tight control over legislative text and amendments. As the 1990s wore on, members had fewer opportunities to offer amendments on the floor, and the number tumbled even further in the 2000s as majority leaders increasingly used their power to “fill the amendment tree” and freeze other voices out.

“You can’t blame this on where we are now … but it was the perfect storm,” she said. “This deal was a teachable moment.”

Less is more?

A CQ Roll Call analysis of vote data maintained by the University of Oklahoma found the Senate cast roll call votes on amendments to roughly three times as many bills between 1969 and 1990 than it did between 1999 and 2020. The data does not include bills approved by voice vote or unanimous consent. 

In the 101st Congress, when senators passed the clean air legislation, they cast roll call votes on amendments to 59 bills. Last Congress, the 116th, the Senate held roll call votes on amendments to only 15 bills. 

That’s not a promising trend, many congressional observers say. 

“Generally, the decline in amendments reflects the reality of legislating in super-partisan times,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University. “It reflects the difficulties when the parties are at odds with one another.” 

When lawmakers call for a return to the glory days of so-called “regular order,” they often envision a Senate that allows meaningful debate to thrive, from the earliest work on a bill in committee to the final touches on the floor. It may take some time for everyone to air out their concerns, but that’s what the Senate is all about.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley was once a bright-eyed intern for Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, a Republican from his home state of Oregon. He still recalls watching senators debate a tax bill on the floor in 1976, shouting over each other to offer amendments until they were exhausted. 

“That debate on a bill might go on for days and days, or be spread over a course of numerous weeks with other intervening activity,” he said. “But if every senator knew they could offer an amendment, if they cared about a tax issue, this body would have to debate it, would have to take a vote on it.” 

That’s just the way things were back then, said Jim Manley, a former aide who arrived in the early 1990s to work for Senate Democrats like Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada.

“As a staffer, if your boss was taking a big bill to the Senate floor, you needed to get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to be spending a lot of quality time on the Senate floor … as the amendment process played out,” Manley said.

Partisan times, partisan measures

Not today. Bills are often stapled together in tightly controlled mega-packages, and rank-and-file members can no longer expect a chance to amend them on the floor.

When they do get that chance, it feels like the exception, not the rule. Senators paused to congratulate themselves after a lively round of amending a five-year farm bill extension in June 2012. While the effort stalled out in a conflict with the House soon afterward, they were happy for the moment. A beaming Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan praised the bipartisanship, before her GOP counterpart on the Agriculture Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, did the same.

“Two-and-a-half days, 73 amendments,” the oft-demure Roberts said, punctuating his points with gestures before bringing his hand over his heart. “It’s what can happen when we break the logjam of partisanship and work together to get something done.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also had hopeful words that day. 

“I think we’re moving back in the direction of operating the Senate in a way that we sort of traditionally understood we were going to operate the Senate,” he said.

The euphoria didn’t last, to say the least. The last decade has seen a bitter back-and-forth as each party blames the other for ruining the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Much of that finger-pointing has focused on the filibuster. As the minority began to use the filibuster in a more strategic way, the majority sought to overcome obstructionism. In the 93 years between 1917 and 2010, senators voted 400 times to break a filibuster and invoke cloture to end debate. In the dozen years since then, the chamber has voted 916 times to invoke cloture. 

But the underlying power struggle can be felt in almost every move the Senate makes, as majority leaders try to exert tighter control over how floor action unfolds.

One neat trick

To get around the filibuster, Senate majorities have turned to a 1970s-era process devised to tweak annual budget resolutions between annual omnibus spending bills. 

“Reconciliation becomes this one neat trick for trying to do what the majority party really wants to do,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Letchworth, who worked in the chamber from the mid-1970s until she retired as Senate secretary in the winter of 2001, said she remembers the creation of reconciliation. It wasn’t designed to be partisan, she said. “Now, it’s literally a political tool.” 

The reconciliation process requires a simple majority instead of a 60-vote threshold, and it allows lawmakers to offer amendments during marathon vote-a-rama sessions. 

Instead of amendments aimed at making policy, though, many of those offered are symbolic, designed to make a statement or force sleep-deprived opponents on the record with little time to even read the legislation. 

“I do think we’ve gotten to this point where, particularly when we talk about the vote-a-rama, we think of amendment votes as politically costly and meant to be politically embarrassing,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds, in a 2017 study, found that despite attempts to curb such use, the majority of budget resolution amendments in 2015 were symbolic.

Amendments don’t kill people, people kill amendments

Senators tend to disagree on how best to balance the rights of the minority with the timeline of the majority — and their ideas on that topic can change as quickly as party control. But many say they long for a chamber where all 100 members have a voice.

“The more people can vent and the more people feel like they have a say, the more likely they are to work with you in the future,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham

Even Lieberman, who praises the art of backroom negotiation, sees the value of going through the motions of public debate. “When you don’t allow amendments, you’re essentially jamming it through because you don’t have confidence or trust in the other party,” the former senator said, warning that could lead to more legislation being rolled back after parties lose power.

Sen. Roy Blunt said he wasn’t around during the days of “robust amendments,” but he knows one thing for sure. “The Senate rules aren’t the problem,” the retiring Missouri Republican said. “The Senate members are the problem.”

For Letchworth, the former GOP secretary, no single graph or table can explain the direction the Senate has taken since the clean air bill of 1990, whether it’s the decline of amendment votes, the rise of cloture votes or the number of bipartisan gangs who “run roughshod over the process.” But she’s struck by how much things have changed.

The key moment of the clean air debate came in the form of an amendment from Democrat Robert C. Byrd, a powerful West Virginia senator who wanted money to offset the financial pain the new environmental law would bring to coal miners in his state. 

Leaders were nervous about the amendment, since Byrd had blocked the clean air push for years and had sway among his colleagues. But senators managed to vote it down amid fears it would lead the president to veto the bill.

“Had Mitchell ‘filled the tree’ and he never had the opportunity to offer that amendment, I think it would have backfired,” she said. 

Byrd wasn’t happy, but at least he felt heard.

“They didn’t roll him. They gave him the amendment process. Had they done what they do today, his head would have exploded,” Letchworth said. “We were not used to that environment where senators were completely stifled.”