At a time of deep political division, most observers agree on one thing: the United States Senate has become dysfunctional. This view is shared by Americans across the ideological spectrum and by current and former senators of both parties.
The public's perception matches the political reality. The Senate is dominated by petty partisanship and accomplishes little. It is in worse shape now than at any other time during my 38 years of service here. The American people deserve better. But to improve the situation, we must identify the true source of the problem.
Some observers demand that the Senate simply do more—and do its work more efficiently by majority vote. To these critics, the Senate’s longstanding rules and procedures are relics of a bygone era that must be swept away so that Congress can rush to pass additional laws and approve nominations more quickly.
The purpose of the Senate, however, is not simply to duplicate the work of the House of Representatives, where a bare majority can rule. Our work is of a different sort. America’s Founders designed the Senate to refine the immediate impulses of popular will, and to apply considered judgment to produce thoughtful legislation aimed at the common good.
The Framers of our Constitution were deliberate in structuring the Senate to fulfill this unique function. In addition to their careful constitutional architecture, the Senate’s rules, traditions, and precedents have developed over more than two centuries as means of reinforcing and facilitating its fundamental purpose.
Throughout the Senate’s history, the rights of all senators to debate issues and to amend legislation have become the twin pillars that ensured its lofty purpose of thoughtful judgment. As the late Robert C. Byrd, a respected Democratic majority leader and the longest-serving senator in history, wisely observed: “As long as the Senate retains the power to amend and the power of unlimited debate, the liberties of the people will remain secure.”
Many of the Senate’s greatest legislative achievements have been the direct result of robust debate and an open amendment process that allowed senators to deliberate earnestly and arrive at eventual consensus.
Sadly, the current majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, has largely done away with these critical and defining practices. Under his leadership, the Senate has departed from its constitutional functions and become an embarrassing failure.
The Senate no longer adheres to an open amendment process that encourages collaboration and results in well-considered legislation. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, Majority Leader Reid has used his position to deny amendments to minority senators more than twice as often as the previous six majority leaders combined. Recently, Reid allowed votes on only 11 Republican amendments over the course of an entire year—while the Republican-controlled House voted on 174 Democrat amendments.
The other defining feature of the Senate, the right to debate, is also fast becoming a thing of the past. Majority Leader Reid typically files cloture on legislation at the very same time he brings it up for consideration, seeking to end debate on a bill before debate has even begun. He has used this tactic far more often than his predecessors, and its effect is to prevent meaningful deliberation altogether. Reid wrongly labels Republican efforts to debate legislation as “filibusters,” and he even employed the so-called “nuclear option” to change the Senate’s rules and empower a bare partisan majority to curtail our right to debate.
This abuse of the Senate is a national travesty. It is a primary reason why our government in Washington is now broken. Majority Leader Reid has discarded much of what enables the Senate to serve the common good, simply in order to advance his own party’s temporary political gain. Such a betrayal of the public trust is nothing short of tragic.
The Senate’s essential role in our constitutional system must be restored. It should once again be the primary source of lasting legislative achievements borne out of thoughtful deliberation and bipartisan consensus to advance the national interest.
If and when Republicans regain control of the Senate, we must reject the slash-and-burn tactics employed by the current majority leader, which serve only to destroy an institution carefully designed to promote good government.
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Instead, restoring the Senate will require both Republicans and Democrats to stand up for the Senate’s longstanding rules, traditions, and precedents — especially the right to robust debate and an open amendment process — that served our nation so well for so long. Only by doing so can we reestablish the U.S. Senate as the world’s greatest deliberative body and begin to fix what’s broken in Washington.
Orrin Hatch is Utah’s senior U.S. Senator and the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.