TO UNDERSTAND how hard it is to legislate a reduction in hostage-taking procedural delays in the Senate, consider this new rule that the Republicans adopted this month over Democrats’ objections: “No member may make any dilatory motion, including placing amendments on the desk, or take any other action or use any parliamentary tactic for the purpose of delaying or obstructing business.”
You don’t have to be a lawyer to ask what in the world that actually means. Since there’s no definition in the Senate Rules, it means … well, it means whatever a majority of the Senate thinks it means at a given moment, since a majority of the Senate can overturn any decision about the rule by the presiding officer.
And that means it will be useful only on those occasions when a majority of the Senate wants it to be useful. Which means it doesn’t mean a whole lot, since a majority of the Senate already can bring the debate to a close and force a vote on a matter if it wants to.
Of course, this rule will give the majority a way to speed up the debate without ending the debate, which could be helpful. Or not. These speed-things-up rules don’t always do what they’re designed to do.
There was the rule a few years ago that was supposed to make it harder for individual senators to hold the Senate hostage, by limiting to three the number of bills any senator could object to at once; obstructionists quickly learned that if they served on the committee that approved the bill, they could sign a “minority report,” which acted like an objection without counting against the three-objection limit.
So this month the Senate eliminated minority reports — which would be great if it hadn’t also increased the number of allowable objections from three to five. That means Senate Democrats could prevent debate on 90 bills at a time — far more than even the Senate usually has on its calendar at once. Or the Republican Obstructionist Caucus, depending on how many members show up next year, could block, oh, 30 or so.
The one change that could help will move the biggest debates to the start of the legislative day. Sort of.
Traditionally by tradition, but in recent years by rule, if one senator objects to a bill, the Senate will not debate that bill, regardless of how many other senators support it, unless the Senate votes to give it a priority debate slot. But since there is a limited number of priority slots, senators are reluctant to give up one for bills that they don’t consider extraordinarily important. So a bill that has 45 supporters and one opponent might still die without a debate because it’s just not important enough for enough senators.
More problematic: Even getting a priority slot doesn’t guarantee the bill will be debated, because the Senate doesn’t take up priority bills until it gets through 14 categories of business that take priority over the priority bills (receipt of communications, introduction of new bills and resolutions, call of the uncontested calendar, etc.) — not to mention all of those introductions of guests and “expressions of personal interest” that can go on interminably. Most days, senators adjourn long before they get to the priority bills.
The new rule makes debate of priority bills a priority, by moving it ahead of the call of the uncontested statewide calendar. Because the uncontested calendar is chock full of bills that no one objects to and that in many cases need to be passed in order for the Legislature to be able to say it’s doing its job, senators will now have more incentive to hunker down and work through the priority bills.
Will it work? Who knows?
The idea behind the Senate’s way of doing business is that those who support a bill should have to at least listen to those who oppose it. The idea behind this idea is that people are rarely 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong, and by listening to those who oppose a bill, supporters will recognize problems and correct them. That, by the way, is the idea behind any successful human relationship.
But all too often, minority coalitions — or worse, individual senators — are able to extract concessions that have nothing to do with the wisdom of their ideas and everything to do with the power of holding the rest of the calendar hostage. Sometimes they have nothing to do with the bill they’re holding hostage; you might call this extortion.
It’s true that majority coalitions sometimes are so large and determined that they don’t have to — and don’t — listen to any objections, or accept any modifications of their ideas. But that happens far less often than individuals simply killing bills by threatening obstructionism.
I hope the new rules will help reduce the obstructionism, but the fact is that there’s always been a way for the majority on any particular bill to stop individual senators from exercising outsized influence over bills they oppose. What’s always been needed — what’s still needed — is the will.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571, follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.