Who Needs the Senate?

New Common Sense, Heritage Foundation

During a recent campaign event in North Carolina for his jobs plan, President Obama remarked to his admiring crowd: “If you love me, you’ve got to help me pass this bill!” Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) showed no love for Obama this past week. To avoid voting on (or more appropriately, voting for) President Obama’s jobs bill, Reid changed the rules of the Senate and undermined the legislative body’s purpose.

In order for the Senate to consider the President’s jobs plan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had pledged to offer an unchanged version of the plan as an amendment to another bill already under consideration in the Senate. But, on Thursday night, Senator Reid stopped a vote on the jobs bill by blocking out all amendments but his own. After Reid blocked consideration of the President’s jobs plan, Senator McConnell filed a motion to suspend the rules and thereby allow amendments after the debate is complete. Reid denounced the McConnell’s tactic as offensive to our governmental structure. Therefore, Reid concluded, “unless the Senate votes to change its precedents today, we will be faced with a potentially serious series of motions to suspend the rules and that is a result that a functioning democracy cannot tolerate.” With that, Reid and his party members unilaterally changed the chamber’s precedent—a maneuver so extreme, it is dubbed the nuclear option.

In changing the rules of the Senate, Harry Reid is changing the role of the Senate. The Senate is a distinctive institution of American politics. Unlike the House of Representatives, which represents the people directly, the Senate represents the interests of the states. All 50 states participate in the deliberative process through the 100 elected Senators. Each legislative house has developed its own unique rules and traditions over the years. In their respective legislative bodies, individual Senators have more power than individual Representatives. The Senate’s rules and traditions enables Senators to protect the interests of their state. In particular,  the Senate has developed a tradition of extended debate and a process of legislating that lends itself to numerous amendments. Senators cannot adequately defend their states’ interests, if they are prohibited from offering amendments and participating in extended debate.

In 2005, when the nuclear option was briefly considered, Senate Democrats recognized that changing the Senate rules to shut out the minority party and curtail debate was contrary to the Founders’ purpose for the Senate. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) explained that extended debate is crucial to protect the minority against the “Tyranny of the Majority.” Senator Reid stated, “without robust debate, the Senate is crippled.”

In 2011, however, there’s no love for the Senate’s precedent. Harry Reid changed the rules to avoid considering an unpopular bill. But doing so undermines the purpose of the Senate. The Senate is a unique legislative body, and many have criticized its arcane rules and procedures for slowing down the legislative process. Yet these procedures and rules enable both the minority and individual members of both parties to participate in extended debate. These rules give states a voice in the deliberative process and therefore make the Senate the deliberative body the Framers’ designed it to be. And that’s not worth changing.

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New Common Sense: Applying First Principles to the Issues of Today

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This article was originally published at Heritage.org

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