Senate 'holds' sign of a broken system

February 19, 2010

It's early in the political year but already New Hampshire's would-be U.S. senators are calling, predictably, for big change in Washington. Here's one commitment we hope they'll make, Republicans and Democrats alike: If elected, they will work hard to re-establish the time-honored American concept of majority rule.

"Majority," as in 51 votes wins. This is opposed to the Senate's Byzantine rules and traditions that force nearly everything to require a super-majority of 60 votes to pass, thus allowing the minority to block nearly everything of substance that the majority party hopes to accomplish. "Majority party," as in the one chosen by voters to run the show.

Among the most recent victims of the Senate gridlock was Susan Carbon, a New Hampshire judge nominated by President Obama to run the federal Office on Violence Against Women. A vote on her nomination was delayed for two months because Republican senators had placed a "hold" on it. They had absolutely no problem with Carbon or her qualifications for the job, but by holding her nomination hostage, they hoped to gain leverage on completely unrelated issues - leaving the office without a leader for weeks on end before the hold was eventually lifted.

What's a "hold"? It's a signal that an individual senator won't agree to let the vote speed sensibly along, demanding instead that the process take several days and a super-majority vote to play out. Without all the senators agreeing to take up the nomination by unanimous consent, the process involves the majority leader invoking cloture, waiting for at least two days, calling for a vote on cloture - which takes 60 votes - waiting another 30 hours between that vote and the vote on the actual nomination.

There's only so much Senate floor time available, so one senator's objection can delay the whole shebang.

This isn't a new tactic. When Democrats have been in the minority, they, too, have placed holds on Republican nominees for dubious reasons. Way back in 1976, Warren Rudman - recently the state's attorney general and not yet our U.S. senator - was nominated for a big federal job by President Gerald Ford. He eventually withdrew his name after it was clear a vote would be hard to come by.

Voters' frustration with Washington and its inability to get things done is palpable. Politicians promise action, big and small, and find themselves unable to make it happen. Until they change the rules of the game, it's hard to see much progress.

One such proposal would allow a new Congress to change its rules by a vote of 51, rather than 67 votes. Another would amend the cloture rules by requiring fewer votes each time there is a cloture vote on a particular measure.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen - frustrated at the system and by the Carbon delay in particular - has signed onto both resolutions, in part to stir the conversation.

The fixes aren't glamorous but they're worth taking seriously.


Source: Concord Monitor