We often hear that Washington is “broken,” that Congress is “gridlocked,” and so on. While such complaints are usually imprecise and sometimes misguided, the sense that Congress is not functioning as intended is correct. Yesterday Senator Jeff Sessions delivered an important speech in which he decried the decline of the Senate under the leadership of Harry Reid. The extent to which the Senate’s traditions have been undermined to the detriment of all Americans is not generally appreciated, but the issue is a vital one. Senator Sessions said:
The Senate is where the great issues of our time are supposed to be examined, reviewed, and discussed before the whole nation. Yet, in the last few years, we have witnessed the dramatic erosion of Senators’ rights and the dismantling of the open legislative process.
We fund the government through massive omnibus bills that no one has had the time to read or analyze. Senators are stripped of their right to offer amendments. Bills are rushed through under threat of panic, crisis, or shutdown. Secret deals rule the day, and millions of Americans are essentially robbed of their ability to participate in the legislative process.
Under the tenure of Majority Leader Reid, the Senate is rapidly losing its historic role as a great deliberative body. If this continues, America will have lost something very precious.
One of the tactics by which Majority Leader Reid has suppressed Senators’ rights and blocked open debate has been a technique called “filling the tree.” What this means, basically, is that when a bill comes to the floor, the Leader will use his right of first recognition to fill all of the available amendment slots on a bill and block any other Senator from offering amendments. One man stands in the way of his 99 colleagues. But, not alone really. His power exists only as long as his majority concurs and supports his actions. This prevents the body from working its will, it prevents legislation from being improved, and it prevents Senators from being held accountable by their votes on the great issues of the day. That is, of course, why it’s done.
Our Majority Leader has used this tactic—filling the tree—80 times. To put this in perspective, the six previous Majority Leaders filled the tree 49 times—combined. Senator Reid has filled the tree on 30 more occasions than all of the six previous Majority Leaders did cumulatively over their tenures.
In so doing, the Leader denies the citizens of each state their equal representation in the Senate. Majority Leader Reid, in his effort to protect his conference from casting difficult votes—in order to shield his Majority from accountability—has essentially closed the amendment process. He has shut down one of the most important functions that Senators exercise to represent the interests of their constituents.
Recently, this tactic manifested itself in a dramatic way. To the surprise and shock of many, the December spending agreement contained a provision that cut the lifetime pension payments of current and future military retirees—including wounded warriors—by as much as $120,000. I and other Senators had many ideas for how to fix this problem, but we were blocked from offering them by the Majority Leader. I tried to offer an amendment to replace the cuts by closing a fraud loophole used by illegal immigrants (and cited by the Department of the Treasury) to claim billions in free tax credits. But Reid—and all his conference members save one—stood together to block my amendment.
So I would ask my colleagues: Are you comfortable with this? Do you like having to beg and plead for the right to offer an amendment? Do you believe the Senate should operate according to the power of just one man?
The omnibus bill, though it restores pensions for our heroic wounded warriors, leaves more than 90% of the cuts in place. Shouldn’t we be allowed to offer amendments to provide a fair fix for all of our nation’s veterans?
But blocking amendments is only one of the many abuses that have occurred.
The erosion of the Senate has also been front and center in the budgeting process. We are now in our fifth year without adopting a congressional budget resolution. Instead, taxpayer dollars are spent through a series of backroom deals and last-minute negotiations. Then we face a massive omnibus that is rushed to passage without amendment or meaningful review. The American people have no real ability to know what’s in it or hold us, their elected representatives, accountable. This, of course, is the reason it is done this way.
Now, the House and Senate are considering another catch-all omnibus spending bill—one that will spend more than a trillion dollars—with thousands of items of government spending crammed into a single legislative proposal. This bill will be sped through under threat of a government shutdown, with very little debate, and no ability to amend. It is another “pass it to find out what’s in it” moment.
My staff and I have had less than 48 hours to digest this behemoth, but already we’ve found provisions that would not survive if considered under regular order.
How is the process supposed to work? Each year, Congress is supposed to adopt a budget resolution. Then, based on spending levels contained in the budget resolution, individual committees report out authorization bills based on the expertise and experience of the members serving on those committees. Then, the 12 subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee produce appropriations bill for their area of the budget—such as Defense, or Homeland Security, or Agriculture—which are individually considered, debated, and amended on the Senator floor.
This gives each member—and their constituents—a chance to review and analyze each part of the budget and offer suggestions for saving money, improving efficiency, and better serving taxpayers.
But under the tenure of Majority Leader Reid, the budgeting process has been totally mismanaged. We have ceased consideration of appropriations bills altogether, relying more and more on autopilot resolutions and catch-all behemoth spending packages. In fiscal year 2006, for example, every single appropriations bill was debated, amended, and passed in the Senate. In 2013, none were.
In my first year as a Senator, we passed every appropriation bill as we should—we marked up a bill in committee, debated and amended the bill on the floor, went to conference with the House to settle our disagreements, and then sent a bill to the President for his signature. Over time, however, that’s happened less and less frequently to the point where nowadays, we don’t debate appropriation bills at all.
A more ominous development, however, is how the breakdown of the appropriations process in the Senate is now infecting the House of Representatives, and spreading like the plague. In the first year of their majority, the Republican-led House marked up six appropriation bills and sent them to the Senate. The Senate didn’t consider a single one. Last year, the House passed eight appropriation bills and sent them to the Senate. Again the Senate didn’t act. This year, the futility of the House efforts began to show as the House passed only four bills. But why should they? Why should the House expose their members to politically tough votes when they know the Senate won’t?
All of us, both parties, have a responsibility to stop and reverse these trends. It’s in the national interest. It’s the right thing to do. All of us have a responsibility to return to regular order. All of us owe our constituents an open, deliberative process where the great issues of the day are debated in full and open public view. Each Senator must stand and be counted—not hide under the table.
The democratic process is messy, sometimes contentious, and often difficult. But it is precisely this legislative tug of war, this back and forth, which forges national consensus. While secret deals may keep the trains running on time, they often keep them running in the wrong direction. Secret deals rushed through without public involvement only deepen our divisions, delay progress, increase distrust, and make it harder to achieve the kinds of real reforms the American people have been thirsting for.
Having to cast many votes on tough issues clarifies those issues and the differences. I believe that process, openly conducted, can lay the groundwork for progress. It will clarify facts, and then lead to the finding of common ground. Only through an open legislative process can we create the kind of dialogue, the kind of debate, and ultimately, the kind of change necessary to put this country back on the right track.