Are partisan politics holding up progress?

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by Posted on October 24, 2011

On some days it seems like Democrats and Republicans in Washington can agree on nothing. Adding to the partisan impasses are dozens of obscure Senate procedures that have a significant impact on how and when legislation is considered and passed. Most people know that the filibuster – which requires 60 votes to allow a bill to be debated or voted on – has recently become a common element of the Senate’s daily business, invoked on essentially every piece of legislation. However, fewer people know that Senate rules require the minority party’s consent to hold committee hearings after 2 p.m. or that Congress often holds “pro forma” sessions during recesses which allow bills to be passed with only a handful of members present and prevent Presidential recess appointments. Just last week, a series of parliamentary games played by both sides caused the Senate to nearly explode in anger. While trying to advance to a vote on legislation that would sanction China for manipulating its currency, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) used a procedural move to eliminate amendments that did not directly pertain to the original bill. Although few Americans will ever learn about this particular Senate procedure, Republican Senators called it the “nuclear option” and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave an impassioned speech in opposition to the move where he accused Majority Leader Reid of “fundamentally turning the Senate into the House” (an accusation that may qualify as one of the most devastating insults that one Senator can hurl at another).

However, obscure Senate procedures do not just keep politicos and wonks up late at night – they can also have a significant impact on local parks and recreation agencies throughout the country. Just last month, Senate and House leadership reached a compromise that would allow for an extension of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and federal highway programs. Coming after several months of debate that saw a six week partial FAA shutdown which furloughed approximately 4,000 federal employees and 80,000 contractors, Congressional leadership was particularly interested in reaching a compromise that would avoid another shutdown. However, with the compromise coming only a couple of days before FAA authority would expire on September 17th, the Senate would need to pass the bipartisan deal under “unanimous consent� rules to bypass normal procedures that would have postponed a vote. Seeing the leverage provided by this procedural issue, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) announced that he would invoke his right to prevent an expedited vote on the transportation and FAA extension unless Senate leaders would agree to eliminate a set-aside for the Transportation Enhancements program that funds many local park priorities. Two days later, he relented and released his objections to the bill after claiming that he had received promises from Democratic leadership that the program set-aside would be eliminated in future legislation (for their part, Democratic Senators deny that such a deal was reached and no legislation has yet been unveiled).

As Senate procedure becomes the newest battleground for partisan fights, are these parliamentary tactics fundamentally harming Congress’s ability to effectively govern? Or are they providing a necessary backstop to the often sweeping changes demanded by the House of Representatives, who passed sweeping changes to the nation’s healthcare and banking sectors a year ago and then voted to repeal them less than 12 months later? At the end of the day, are partisan differences simply finding an outlet in parliamentary procedure, or are legislative games fueling the fire of partisan angst?

Jon Wisbey, The Ferguson Group

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