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US Senate Needs to Streamline Methods

Leadership is often stymied in attempts to speed process by members' desires to serve narrow constituent interests

By Steven S. Smith. Steven S. Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and is affiliated with the Brookings Institution. / May 17, 1993



THE demise of President Clinton's economic stimulus package brought to public attention the peculiar rules of the United States Senate. The Senate has no general rule that limits debate. Instead, it has Rule 22, which requires three-fifths of all senators - 60 in the current Senate - to vote to close debate. And the Senate has no general rule that requires that amendments to legislation be germane to the pending legislation.

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In recent years, these rules have fueled hyperindividualism and petty obstructionism in the Senate. Pressured by lobbyists and eager to demonstrate their commitment to key constituency groups, senators have abused their parliamentary privileges and undermined the role of the Senate as a policymaking body.

The change is reflected in the number of times the cloture motion - a motion to close debate and bring a matter to a vote - has been subjected to a vote. The period from 1919 to 1970 saw a total of 50 cloture votes - less than one a year. The 1971-92 period saw 295 - more than 13 a year. The 102nd Congress, 1991-92, set a record with 48 cloture votes. Even the motion to take up a bill on the floor is now subject to obstructionism. From 1977 through 1982, only six cloture votes on the motion to proceed to

the consideration of a bill took place; in 1991 and 1992, the Senate cast 35 such votes. These numbers only scratch the surface of obstructionism that is commonplace in today's Senate.

In this year of political reform, it is time for senators to take stock of their institution and adopt essential changes in their rules. The current rule allows three-fifths of all duly elected and sworn senators - 60, if all seats are filled - to invoke cloture, except on matters pertaining to Senate rules, for which a more stringent two-thirds majority of those present and voting is required. Rule 22 is not strong enough. Its unfortunate effects are seen every day in the Senate's dependence on unanimou s-consent agreements and the perverse practice of holds.

Since before the Civil War, Senate floor action on major legislation has been governed by formal unanimous consent agreements. In the modern Senate, the majority leader seeks unanimous consent to bring a bill to the floor and often seeks consent to structure debate and action on agreements. In the absence of general rules limiting debate and amendments, unanimous consent is the only recourse. So a simple request for unanimous consent to limit debate or amendments is the standard approach. Dependence on u nanimous consent to lend some order to floor activity also means that a single senator can upset the leader's plans. Consequently, the majority leader consults with the minority leader and other interested senators before seeking consent on all but the most routine questions. In recent decades, this process of anticipating and recording objections has become institutionalized. Well-understood routines are in place for senators to register objections, reservations, and concerns about requests to take up bill s, nominations, and even treaties.

The registered objections are known as holds, reflecting their potential effect on legislation. Most holds delay floor consideration of legislation. Rather than risking objections to his unanimous consent requests, or a filibuster, the majority leader usually attempts to get the objecting senator to release a hold.

As recently as the early 1960s, senators did not threaten filibusters with much frequency. They tended to reserve the filibuster for the most important issues. For Southerners, this meant using the filibuster against civil rights legislation and some labor legislation, but little else. Senators did not use holds with much frequency or effectiveness.

But as the political world changed so did Senate behavior. Senators responded to their new world by taking on more committee assignments, expanding their staffs, adding travel funds, and upgrading their office technology. Their schedules are now shaped more by personal agendas: campaign needs, interest-group demands, personal staff, obligations to meet constituents, speaking trips. And more trips home, state-based offices, polling, and constituency mail have made senators more sensitive, even hypersensit ive, to public opinion. Extreme individualism is the result.