Harry Reid is one of 100 senators, but so far in 2014, he’s been responsible for one-third of all the amendments proposed on the Senate floor — a number that underscores just how much one man has come to dominate the legislative process.
More so than House Speaker John A. Boehner or even President Obama, it is Mr. Reid, a Nevada Democrat in his eighth year as majority leader, who has the most single-handed power to shape what gets done and what falls to the wayside in Washington.
Mr. Reid is increasingly bullish on using that power, deciding what bills make it to his chamber floor, what amendments will be allowed to those bills that do get there and whether the debate will become a serious policy discussion or a political tool designed to rally his party’s supporters and annoy his tea party opponents.
His control has been of incalculable benefit to both Mr. Obama, who is able to avoid embarrassing legislative rebukes, and to Senate Democrats, who are sometimes able to avoid having to take tough votes that could cost them the support of voters back home.
Republicans, though, attack Mr. Reid as a tyrant who is silencing their voices and those of the millions of Americans the GOP senators represent.
“It is quite disgraceful,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, fumed on the chamber floor earlier this year in what has become a running debate with Mr. Reid. “But it’s no surprise either, since the Democratic majority clearly ran out of ideas a long time ago. Their refusal to engage in serious debate is just another symptom of that.”
Mr. Reid counters that Republicans have gotten hung up on Senate rules rather than working on the issues he’s offered for the chamber’s agenda.
“They’re focused on procedure,” he said late last month in the latest floor battle with Mr. McConnell. “What the American people want [is] they want us to do things. They want the minimum wage raised. They want unemployment benefits extended.”
The evidence of a shutdown in the Senate is overwhelming.
Just 14 Senate bills have been signed into law so far this year. That’s nine fewer than at the same point in 2013, which itself is the most futile completed year on record, according to The Washington Times’ Legislative Futility Index.
Through the end of June, just 41 measures have been reported as being out of committees and gone to the Senate floor, which puts senators on pace for their worst year in more than three decades. Total bills considered are also down, as are roll-call votes on amendments.
But it’s Mr. Reid’s own personal record on amendments that stands out.
Before him, the most amendments any previous majority leader had been responsible for was Sen. Bill Frist, who accounted for 7.5 percent of amendments in 2006.
The average over the 25 years or so before Mr. Reid took office was slightly more than 2 percent. Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, who passed away late last month, actually averaged less than 1 percent during his four-year tenure.
Mr. Reid’s numbers are just the opposite: In 2007, his first year as leader, he accounted for 3.2 percent of amendments. That jumped to 12.4 percent in 2008, 5.3 percent in 2009, 19.3 percent in 2010, 14.2 percent in 2011, 18.4 percent in 2012, 12.8 percent in 2013 and a stunning 33.6 percent so far this year.
It was actually closer to 40 percent just a few weeks ago, but Mr. Reid agreed to allow his colleagues to offer a few amendments to a bipartisan job-training bill, which ended up passing overwhelmingly.
‘That’s too bad’
Mr. Reid has been unapologetic.
“If that makes me too powerful, that’s too bad,” he told reporters earlier this year. “The only reason that we’re doing this is because for 51/2 years, everything that this president’s tried to do, they’ve stepped in the way.”
Mr. Reid also argues that even when he agrees to give Republicans a vote on something they want, they change their stance and ask for more, thereby presenting a moving target.
During a debate on an energy-efficiency bill earlier this year, Republicans wanted a vote on a proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Mr. Reid said he would allow a vote on a stand-alone bill as long as the GOP allowed the energy-efficiency legislation to clear unmolested.
But Republicans said in addition to Keystone, they should be allowed to offer other amendments. One popular one would undo the Obama administration’s proposed regulations that target coal-fired power plants.
One of the major sticking points is whether the Senate should informally adopt a new standard that every bill or amendment requires a supermajority 60-vote threshold — the number that would be required to overcome a filibuster.
Filibusters used to be reserved for big issues, but in recent years they’ve been applied to nearly every debatable motion, including merely trying to bring a bill to the floor or to confirm a nominee.
Frustrated by that situation, Mr. Reid last year used the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and reduce the threshold for overcoming a filibuster of most nominees to just a majority vote.
One amendment per month
The results of the gridlock are stark.
Since the beginning of this year, Republicans have been granted roll-call votes on just seven amendments, or an average of one per month. Democrats are doing even worse, at just five.
By contrast, in the House, where the minority is supposed to be at an even bigger disadvantage, there have been roll-call votes on 163 amendments, and a majority of those have been on proposals from Democrats.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, has had roll-call votes on nine of her amendments — or more than all 45 Senate Republicans combined. She did lose every one of those votes.
While nobody seems comfortable with the situation, figuring out solutions is difficult — chiefly because there is blame to go around.
Former Sen. Trent Lott, who twice served as majority leader, said part of the problem is scheduling: The Senate this year has yet to work a five-day week, meaning lawmakers aren’t even in town to hold votes. The bigger issue, however, is Mr. Reid’s fear of losing some of the votes.
“You also have to be prepared to let grown men and women cast votes on amendments,” he said. “Some of them may be unpleasant, but you get six-year terms in the U.S. Senate, and you cannot always shield your party members in the Senate from a tough vote.”
He said there are other ways Mr. Reid could try to help his party without shutting down business on the floor.
One option is to offer what are known as “side by sides,” or competing amendments that address the same subject in a way more palatable to your troops. That at least provides some cover so lawmakers can show voters back home they had a nuanced stance.
Mr. Lott, who retired six years ago, said he’s tried not to insert himself into his former colleagues’ debates but said he’s kept an eye on things from afar. “It’s really bad. Something’s got to change.”
“You’ve got to have leaders that are willing to step up, provide leadership, make the members deal with the issues at hand,” he said.
Right of first recognition
The job of Senate majority leader isn’t found in the Constitution. Instead, it’s a creation of Senate rules and tradition, and it was only in the 1930s that the majority and minority leaders’ desks were moved to the front of the chamber, said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate’s historian.
Mr. Reid’s chief power comes from a single parliamentary tactic that gives the majority leader the “right of first recognition,” which means that the presiding officer always gives him the chance to control the floor.
That means that when a bill reaches the floor for debate, the majority leader can instantly file enough amendments to “fill the amendment tree,” meaning that every available option for offering an amendment has been taken by his own amendments, leaving no chance for others — either from his own party or the opposition — to offer amendments.
The floor isn’t the only place where there’s been a shutdown. The only real must-pass bills, the dozen annual spending bills that keep the government running, are also in danger this year, imperiled by Democrats’ reluctance to take votes in committee.
Three bills have been pulled from the Appropriations Committee calendar in moves Republicans said were designed to make sure vulnerable red-state Democrats wouldn’t have to take votes on issues such as stopping Mr. Obama’s new regulations targeting coal-fired power plants or punishing the IRS for targeting tea party and conservative groups.
Blame for both sides
Rank-and-file Democrats are beginning to get anxious over the amendment shutdown — though they blame Republicans more than Mr. Reid for leading the Senate to its current stalemate.
“What I’m saying is, the reason this is like this is we have obstructionists on the Senate floor that continually bring up amendments that they know will screw up the process. That’s why it’s different. Am I happy with this? Absolutely, I’m not happy,” said Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat.
Chief among those whom Democrats call obstructionist is Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who has repeatedly tried to get the Senate to vote on an amendment stripping congressional aides of their subsidies to pay for Obamacare. In previous years, the solution would have been to hold a vote to table the amendment and hope you won.
Democrats, however, feel the Vitter amendment is a no-win — if they vote for it, they’re punishing their staffers, but if they vote against it, they’ll face accusations of trying to carve their people out of Obamacare.
Asked why Democrats can’t just vote down the Vitter amendment, Mr. Tester demurred.
“Well, that’s a good question for Harry Reid,” he said. “But the problem is with the information that’s out there. I get asked every time I go if I’m in the health care system [and if we’ve] exempted [ourselves]. We have not. But that’s the word on the street.”
Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said a number of his colleagues have talked with Mr. Reid about having a more open floor process. But he too said much of the onus lies on the GOP.
“I talk to my Republican colleagues about that as well, and I think there is an obligation on Republicans to be sincere about using the floor to change policy rather than to affect politics,” he said.
Several Democrats insisted Mr. Reid’s active use of parliamentary tactics was the wrong statistic.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said the proper measure was how many times the GOP has filibustered bills. He said those filibusters have used up debate time that could be spent on amendments.
“If we didn’t have to go to filibuster, if we didn’t have to go to cloture votes, we would have a lot more floor time [and] we could be taking up amendments. But that has not been the case,” he said.
Filibusters do appear to be up, at least when measured by the number of times Mr. Reid has had to try to cut off debate through the Senate process known as cloture, which amounts to achieving the actual 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster and cut off debate.
So far in 2014 alone, Mr. Reid has filed for cloture 96 times. Most of those were on nominees, with the GOP staging a roadblock to protest Mr. Reid’s use of the nuclear option to change the rules.
Of the 30 cloture petitions filed on bills or amendments, Republicans successfully blocked 10 of them.
Mr. Cardin said even if Mr. Reid were to give Republicans a chance to offer amendments, Republicans could turn around and filibuster at the end of a debate on a bill anyway. That means Democrats had to take tough votes without getting the payoff of winning a final vote.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said he thinks both Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell, the top Senate Republican, have come to dominate the amendment process, while senators are rarely in town to do work any more.
“I think a lot of this is bad for the institution. It’s bad for America. I think we need to have more focus on legislating, on committee structures [and] committee work. We need to work a full week. God, I understand people have got to get back to their districts and states, but is it too much to ask that we work from Monday noon to Friday noon? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
“I think it just means that more and more power is going into these two offices, the majority and minority leader. I don’t think that is healthy.”