- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

Republican House leaders passed a package of sensible reforms to chamber rules last week, and now Senate Democrats have offered their own rule changes. Unfortunately, Democrats trample on the explicit language of Senate rules even when professing reformist intent.

Despite earlier threats to gut the filibuster, many Democrats now only talk of trying to rein it in. That backpedaling is important because the filibuster is a crucial guarantor for a sizable minority to be heard and encourage greater consensus. Democrats nonetheless bellyache about “obstructionist” Republican tactics, including supposed abuses of this time-honored rule that requires 60 votes to close debate on a measure.

Three Democratic proposals are aimed at addressing the issue. One would end the requirement that 60 votes be secured before beginning debate. Filibustering to extend debate serves to edify the public; filibustering to keep debate from occurring deters, not enhances, public discourse. Some changes would require senators to hold the floor during a filibuster, rather than merely notifying the chair that they want longer debate. Another rule would eliminate the secrecy of holds individual senators can place on a measure.

Although some of these changes aren’t bad ideas, Democrats shouldn’t get any credit unless they avoid destroying the rules in the name of improving them. In an embarrassingly cynical maneuver, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, unilaterally declared that the first legislative “day” of 2011 - which is when new rules are supposed to be adopted - can last for as many calendar days as he desires. Unlike the rest of the world, a day in the Senate won’t be measured by the time it takes the Earth to rotate once around its axis. This is akin to an incident in the Louisiana legislature in the 1960s, when House members threw fried chicken bones and whiskey bottles at the chamber’s clock to break it and claim the day - and thus the constitutionally mandated end of a session - had not concluded.

Mr. Reid is trying to adopt these changes with 51 votes rather than the normal 67 necessary for new procedures. This is unlawful because the Senate’s Rule 5 states, “The rules of the Senate shall continue from one Congress to the next Congress.” The 67-vote requirement, explicit in Rule 22, continues each session, including on the first day.

On the subject of obstructionism, Democrats protest too much. Republican dilatory tactics occurred largely in response to unprecedented, absolutist maneuvers by Mr. Reid, who uses a complicated procedure called “filling the legislative tree” to deny Republicans any chance to offer amendments. No rule benefitting the Senate minority should be weakened unless rules allowing majority autocracy are limited.