Politics & Policy

Tyranny of the Majority Leader

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Harry Reid is ignoring centuries of Senate precedent in his rush to serve Obama.

Patience and reliability are the defining characteristics of successful leadership in the Senate. Good Senate majority leaders work through the rules of the Senate, which protect minority rights, to find a way to please a majority (or possibly a supermajority) of senators and move legislation and nominations to passage. They keep their commitments to open debate, even when their partisan colleagues would prefer to use simple majority power to crush the minority and avoid tough votes or compromises.

The Senate once prided itself on being “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” That it no longer is. According to the Congressional Research Service, Senator Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has obstructed the amendment process for his colleagues 85 times — more than double the total of his six predecessors combined. Neither Republican nor Democratic senators can offer amendments. This negates every senator’s right to debate and amend legislation and thus fully represent his or her constituents.

This was especially evident in May, when Senator Reid killed three bipartisan pieces of legislation in as many weeks. First, he refused to allow even a limited number of amendments to bipartisan energy legislation. The following week, he blocked amendments to a bipartisan tax-extenders bill. Finally, he reached into the Senate Judiciary Committee to torpedo a bipartisan patent bill the committee was poised to mark up. These are the types of bills that passed routinely when the regular order of open debate and amendments was followed in the Senate.

The atmosphere in the Senate has soured due to Senator Reid’s stranglehold on the legislative process. It has been made worse by his failure to keep his repeated — and very specific — promise to follow the Senate’s rules. At the beginning of the 112th Congress, he acknowledged on the Senate floor that “the proper way to change Senate rules is through the procedures established in those rules,” and he committed to “oppose any effort in this Congress or the next to change the Senate’s rules other than through the regular order.”

Despite this very clear commitment, Senator Reid threatened to break the Senate’s rules at the beginning of this Congress. After Republicans agreed to procedural changes that gave the Democratic majority powers greater than those of any previous majority in the history of the Senate, Reid again unequivocally committed to follow the rules of the Senate.

But then he tried to obtain more. Last November, Senator Reid and the White House provoked a fight to make sure — “one way or the other,” as Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) admitted — that the D.C. Circuit would have a majority of Democratic judges who would support President Obama’s actions.

In 2005, Senate Republicans talked about using the nuclear option when Senate Democrats ill-advisedly set the precedent of filibustering circuit-court nominees — but they never pulled the trigger. Why? Discussing it was a means to an end — a way to confirm President Bush’s circuit-court nominees. Through perseverance and the threat of the nuclear option, a deal by the bipartisan Gang of 14 was struck, and most of those nominees were confirmed. And the rules of the Senate remained intact.

For Senator Reid, the nuclear option — and the power that went with it — was the end itself. He broke his promise and broke the Senate’s rules. And he did not try any regular-order mechanisms before doing so.

In 2000, Marsha Berzon and Richard Paez, two controversial Clinton nominees to the Ninth Circuit, had been held up for years. Most Republican senators opposed voting on their nominations. So did the Republican base. But Majority Leader Trent Lott had promised a vote on the nominations on the Senate floor and, acting against the advice of his Republican colleagues, he brought the nominations forward for a vote. Both were confirmed. Senator Lott knew that keeping his commitments was the right thing to do for the Senate.

The true skill of a majority leader lies in using the Senate rules to get things done and in keeping your word, even if it means voting on legislation some colleagues don’t like or taking more time and effort to get nominations passed. The fabric of the Senate has been shredded by Senator Reid’s failure to appreciate these two most basic qualities of leadership. Worse, his contempt for the established and tested rules of the Senate has eradicated important minority rights, robbing many Americans of a voice in the Senate.

— Dave Hoppe was chief of staff to Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Senate Republican whip Jon Kyl. He is president of Hoppe Strategies, a lobbying and consulting firm.

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