Bennet: Filibuster Reform Key to Ending Needless Washington Dysfunction

Bennet Testifies Before Senate Rules Committee In Support of His Plan to Reform Filibuster, End Secret Holds

Washington, DC – A key component of Michael Bennet’s sweeping Plan for Washington Reform made headway today in the Senate, as he today testified before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration in support of his innovative and common-sense proposal to reform the filibuster process. 

At today’s hearing, Bennet delivered testimony on his proposal that would reform the filibuster in a way that encourages the two parties to work together, ends secret holds and brings an end to needless, partisan delay.  The hearing comes on the heels of several efforts in the Senate that have stalled as a result of the outdated filibuster process, including yesterday’s failed effort to move forward with the DISCLOSE Act.

“The Senate’s rules are intended to encourage the body to function collegially foster debate and get the people’s business done,” said Bennet.  “Yet a few of these rules are actually having the real world outcome of doing exactly the opposite and blocking progress on our most pressing challenges.  The pervasiveness of the filibuster has started to cause the Senate to descend into complete dysfunction.  Improving some of the rules under which the Senate functions can begin to replace some of the bad habits Washington has developed, with better ones.”

Bennet’s resolution, S. Res 440, would create a new procedure that would reduce the time of debate on legislation that has broad bipartisan support.  It would also eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed and end secret holds.  And it would force filibustering Senators to actually show up and vote in order to sustain their procedural tactic.  For more info on Bennet’s proposal to reform the filibuster, please click here.

As Bennet’s cloture reforms moved forward, a bill mirroring Bennet’s proposal to bring more transparency and accountability to the federal appropriations process advanced as well, as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee today marked up The Earmark Transparency Act

The bill, which Bennet has cosponsored, calls for the creation of a single, user-friendly online database that would allow citizens to sort, search and download information on all congressional earmark requests.  For more information of the Earmark Transparency Act, please click here.

The full text of Bennet’s remarks, as delivered, is included below.  Click here for video of Bennet’s testimony.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Bennett, my fellow witness Senator Lautenberg, colleagues and guests, I am pleased to have an opportunity to talk with you about solutions I have proposed to an important problem that impedes our government’s ability to respond to the needs of American families.

I am talking about the Senate’s rules.  The Senate’s rules are intended to encourage the body to function collegially, protect the rights of individual Senators and foster debate.  Yet a few of these rules are actually having the real world outcome of inhibiting all of those legitimate purposes.

The pervasiveness of the filibuster – deployed every day for multiple purposes in this body – has started to cause the Senate to descend into complete dysfunction. 

I am not here to advocate banning the filibuster.  The Senate can and must protect individual or small groups of Senators.  And filibusters –used properly – can extend debate on important matters while members advocate for their constituents and engage in the battle of ideas that is the hallmark, or should be the hallmark, of this body. 

Yesterday’s failed procedural vote on Chairman Schumer’s campaign finance legislation is the perfect example, in my view, of the abuse of Senate rules.  The filibuster – deployed for years to extend debate in the Senate – sometimes for a whole day at a time --  actually is now being used to undermine ever even having debate.  By filibustering the ability of the Senate to begin debate on the DISCLOSE Act, yesterday’s minority denied the American people a full airing of the recent Supreme court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, and how that decision might affect our democracy. 

I have introduced S.Res.440, that in a very practical way, would have ensured that we could have moved ahead to the debate stage on the DISCLOSE Act.  By making motions to proceed non-debatable, my Resolution eliminates filibusters that – rather than extend debate – actually are abused to prevent debate.  My Resolution would help the body operate more efficiently. 

Making motions to proceed non-debatable is a practical step in the right direction that is worth incorporation in a larger Senate Rules Committee package of suggested rules amendments.

Another type of filibuster that prevents, rather than extends debate, is the hold.  Holds are the most antidemocratic form of the filibuster, because just one Senator can – even in a secret manner – block Senate business for long stretches of time. 

S.Res.440 makes significant improvements to the holds process, including eliminating the secret hold.  My approach would require holds to be published in the Congressional Record and would require them to be bipartisan at that time.   They would be limited to 30 days.

Neither party will be able to place secret holds.  It’s important that citizens have the ability to find out why things don’t get done in Washington.

Mr. Chairman, my fellow witness Senator Lautenberg has some interesting ideas about how to ask more of the filibustering Senators who seek to block legislation. I would like to discuss the reform proposal in my Resolution on this matter as well.

The Senate’s rules effectively require an affirmative 60 Senators to vote to end debate on an item.  Yet members in the minority do not have to show up and vote to continue on with a filibuster.

My Resolution would actually require at least 41 Senators to show up and vote to block cloture, or else the legislation can move forward.  If you want to block the majority from moving ahead, then you at least ought to be required to show up for the vote.

An atmosphere of overly partisan gridlock has rendered this body too often at an impasse.  I think the rules are contributing to this hyper-partisanship, only making a difficult environment for working across the aisle that much harder.

The American people want to see their elected representatives work together.   There is a sense – often a correct sense – that the parties are trying to score political points instead of attending to the people’s business.

We conduct votes with very, very partisan outcomes, and filibusters serve only to dig members in on one side or the other.

My Resolution is in part an effort to build in some incentives to help the Senate work through legislative impasses in a more constructive, bipartisan manner.  

These proposed rules changes address situations where the legislative process has already begun to break down.  Following three failed attempts at ending a filibuster, new incentives are activated that should encourage the parties to negotiate.  First, the 41 vote threshold that the filibustering minority must meet in order to maintain the filibuster under my proposal would increase to 45 Senators, unless the minority is able to attract at least one Senator who caucuses with the majority to vote for the filibuster.  This provides considerable incentives to the minority to keep an open dialogue and work with members of the other party.  I believe building in this incentive can have a positive marginal affect on minority negotiations with members of the majority.

A second piece of the Resolution builds on this first one.  Once the minority has convinced a member of the majority party to support a filibuster, then the threshold necessary to block cloture can still rise to 45 if the majority is able to attract three members of the minority to support cloture.  So the Majority Leader – able to make substantive changes to the legislation at hand – now has incentives to negotiate with members of the minority in the hope that he can break the filibuster with their help. 

While rules changes cannot fix Washington culture, they can reduce the incentives for the inertia that – too many times since I’ve gotten here – has left the Senate in paralysis.

 Encouraging bipartisanship through the Senate rules is at best only a partial answer.  But I believe that improving some of the rules under which this body functions can begin to replace some of the bad habits Washington has developed, with better ones.

The single most important thing we can do to improve the chance for success of a reform proposal, is to get the partisan intent out of it.  We need substantial bipartisan support to update the Senate’s rules.  So let’s put together a package that would improve the rules, whether you’re in the majority or in the minority.  And let’s make it crystal clear that that is our intent. 

My Resolution has been cosponsored by Senator Shaheen.  And it’s my sincere hope that some of them will be incorporated in a bipartisan reform package that can pass this body.

Thank you again, Mr. Chairman and to all the members of the Committee for conducting this important hearing.