A recent headline from a Capitol Hill newspaper declared that our current Congress could be the "worst ever." Another said negotiating political agreements is a "lost art." The whole country knows something is wrong with our government. The problem is that senators are being prevented from doing their job. Common sense is ignored because bills are being made in a political vacuum. This results in more lengthy, complex, incomprehensible laws that defy logic.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said that Congress would have to first pass a bill in order to find out what was in it. That’s a problem. Legislation is often hundreds if not thousands of pages long. One bill could contain provisions affecting everything from health care to housing and increase the debt by hundreds of billions of dollars.
I recently introduced a bill with Senator John Barrasso, also from Wyoming, that would take a page from our state legislature’s handbook. In order to stop Congress from passing bills with countless unrelated measures, Senate Resolution 351 would require any legislation considered by the Senate to be limited to a single issue. One topic per bill helps you get things done. It means more understandable and manageable bills. This is not a flashy concept, but I’ve found people of both parties are receptive to it. It makes sense to them.
Change is hard and those who control the Senate now like the system we have. Most members of Congress have no opportunity to weigh in and neither does the public directly or indirectly. This is a very tidy arrangement for those who are in power now, especially in the Senate. Nothing is approved unless the majority leader allows it to come up.
Dissenting opinions are rarely considered. The majority leader uses procedural tactics to prohibit amendments to improve bills in order to control the legislation and to prevent his party from taking politically difficult votes. He’s done this more than any other majority leader, perhaps more than all previous leaders. Political motivations and consolidation of power should not be used to deny senators from either party the right to represent their people.
Last week, the majority leader used procedural tactics that prevented us from voting on tax amendments important to Wyoming, like a permanent state and local sales tax deduction amendment that was offered by my friend from the other side of the aisle, the Senator from Washington. We were also prevented from voting on amendments that should be important to all of us: preventing waste of taxpayers’ dollars by stopping the IRS from giving bonuses to its employees who haven’t paid their taxes. Amendments were filed by members from across the country – by my count, more than 60 amendments to the tax package were filed by Senators on the other side of the aisle. Nobody is being represented by amendments. At some point we need to actually vote on the issues important to our constituents, and the members on both sides of the aisle who support these amendments need to insist on that.
Last week, POLITICO’s Huddle claimed “SENATE GOP FILIBUSTERS $85B TAX EXTENDERS,” but there’s really no opportunity to filibuster when debate is cut off before it begins. That’s what the majority leader did by filing cloture on the tax extenders package. Cloture is a political tactic designed to bring debate to a close after a supermajority of the Senate is satisfied that a matter has received adequate consideration. In recent years this majority leader has often filed a cloture petition immediately, before any debate or amendments. The number of same-day cloture filings has more than doubled compared to when Republicans last controlled the Senate. We aren’t even being given a chance to debate, much less offer amendments. That is why I’ve joined Senator Grassley, R-Iowa, in cosponsoring his “End Cloture Abuse Resolution”. It would amend the Senate rules to prohibit filing cloture until at least 24 hours of debate.
Another telling statistic is the number of amendments the current majority has blocked from being considered in the Senate. As this chart shows (Chart 1), in 2005 and 2006 the Senate voted on almost 700 amendments on the Senate floor. Since the Senate has been controlled by the current Majority, the number has dwindled. In 2011 and 2012 it was about 350. (Chart 2) Since July of last year, the Majority Leader has allowed votes on only 9 Senate Republican amendments. The house on the other hand had 132 votes on Democrat minority amendments. This majority leader uses a tactic called “filling the amendment tree” to prevent amendments. In the last eight years, he has used this tactic 86 times. As you can see on this chart (Chart 2), in comparison, the last six Majority Leaders combined only filled the tree 40 times over 16 years. Filling the amendment tree has become a routine way to prevent any senator – majority or minority from exercising their right to offer an amendment because, once the tree is filled, no other senator can offer an amendment. Almost half of the Senate has been here less than six years. Yes, 45 of the 100 senators are in their first term. They don’t realize it, but there is a better way.
Committees should have the first opportunity to shape legislation. It is there that members are able to iron out the unintended consequences and craft better legislation before it goes to the floor. But then all 100 members of the Senate should have an opportunity to improve the legislation. Rarely is either happening in today’s Senate. More often than not, committees are ignored and massive legislation is the result of a few people behind closed doors deal making for the more than 500 members of Congress. We need to get away from deal making and start legislating. This is apparent especially in our spending.
Congress’ job is to decide how much the federal government should spend and on what priorities. That isn’t being done under the Senate’s current management. Deals are made, then spending bills are all packaged into one massive, take-it-or-leave-it bill and the deficit is increased. In 2013, the Senate didn’t pass a single appropriations bill. We only considered one of the 12 bills on the Senate floor, and that bill did not pass in large part because the majority leader didn’t allow an open amendment process. Is it any wonder that in January 2009, the total federal debt stood at $10.6 trillion and now it’s over $17 trillion? It’s never risen so high so fast in our country’s history.
Just like keeping legislation to one topic per bill, we should look at each spending area individually. The committees
My biennial budgeting bill would require the president to submit a two-year budget resolution at the beginning of each Congress. Congress would then adopt a budget resolution. Following adoption of a budget resolution, Congress would focus on appropriations bills. Each year Congress would debate the Defense Appropriations bill. However, the other appropriations bills would be split into two groups. The more controversial bills would be debated in the first year of a session of Congress, the non-election year. The less controversial bills would be debated in the second year of a session of Congress, the election year. The bill would also mandate at least one joint oversight hearing with the appropriate authorizing committee and appropriations subcommittee in the off-appropriations year. This would force Congress to identify spending priorities.
Congress has 535 elected representatives. When each of us looks at every proposal, lots of viewpoints and experience get put into the decisions we make for our country, but if all the decisions are made by the majority leader