Attacking the Institution of the United States Senate

Senator Jeff Sessions (R, AL) had some thoughts on the matter last Thursday in a Senate floor speech.

Our late colleague Senator Robert Byrd liked to say that there have been two great Senates in history: the Roman Senate and the US Senate.  He understood the special and crucial role the Senate fulfills in our Constitutional Republic.


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.


One of the tactics by which Majority Leader [D, NV, Harry] 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 Senators from being held accountable by their votes on the great issues of the day.

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.

So I would ask my colleagues: … Do you believe the Senate should operate according to the power of just one man?

There are other avenues of attack, also.

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.


[U]nder 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.


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?

Finally [emphasis added],

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.

Remember all of this, as you consider for whom to vote for your Senator in the upcoming primaries and mid-term elections.

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