U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) delivered a speech on the Senate floor on a proposal he offered with U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to increase transparency, restore accountability and foster debate in the Senate by reforming the Senate’s often-abused rules. The centerpiece of their proposal requires a “talking filibuster,” meaning senators wishing to block legislation would have to do so by speaking on the Senate floor. Udall has been a leader in the effort to reform the Senate rules since he was elected in 2009. He introduced similar proposals with Merkley and former Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in 2011 and 2013 to address the systematic abuse of the filibuster and other procedural tactics that prevent the Senate from doing its work.
“We believe the proposed rules changes in our resolution provide common sense reforms,” Udall said in his speech. “This will restore the best traditions of the Senate-and allow it to conduct the business that the American people expect. We have one goal, whether we are in the majority or in the minority: to give the American people the government they expect and deserve-a government that works.”
In November 2013, as obstruction mounted within the Senate, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid acted within the precedents of the Senate to change the rules to allow a simple majority vote to end filibusters on presidential executive and judicial nominations, except to the U.S. Supreme Court. The change allowed the 113th Congress to confirm more judges than any modern Congress since 1980, and to confirm the most executive nominations in 2014 since 2010. In Udall’s speech, he urged the new Majority Leader to continue reforms implemented in 2013 that have prevented the majority from obstructing qualified nominees for judicial and executive appointments, as well to adopt the rest of his and Merkley’s proposed reforms.
“That is an incredible change. It was a bold, but necessary action. But it also led to even greater polarization in the Senate,” Udall said. “That polarization could have been prevented if the Senate had adopted our reforms at the beginning of the 113th Congress. That is why I strongly urge the new Majority Leader to continue the change that was adopted in November. It allows most judicial and executive branch appointees to be confirmed by a straight majority vote. And I urge him to continue the progress we made last Congress and adopt the rest of our proposed reforms at the start of this Congress.”
While ending filibusters on many nominations relieved the backlog of executive and judicial nominations, further reform is still needed. Udall and Merkley wrote a letter in December to incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to encourage him to use the “Constitutional Option”-a procedural mechanism that allows a simple majority to adopt rules change at the beginning of a new Congress-“to allow substantive debate on potential rules reforms, followed by majority votes on each proposal.” Traditionally, on the first day of a new Congress, advocates of rules reform have asserted their right to adopt or amend the Senate by a simple majority vote..
Below are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
I rise today to talk about our continuing efforts to change the Senate rules as we begin the 114th Congress.
On behalf of Senator Merkley and myself, I submit a resolution to amend Rule XXII and Rule XXVIII of the Standing Rules of the Senate. And I ask unanimous consent to proceed to the immediate consideration of the resolution.
This is the same process Senators Merkley, Harkin and I used at the beginning of the last Congress when we introduced a similar resolution. At that time, Majority Leader Reid wanted to have the debate about reforming our rules after the inauguration. He was willing to work with us-and protect our interests-until we could debate our proposals.
By doing so, he preserved the right of a simple majority of this body to amend the rules in accordance with Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution. I hope Majority Leader McConnell will extend us the same courtesy if he chooses to address other issues before rules reform.
It has been the tradition at the beginning of many congresses that the majority of the Senate has asserted its right to adopt or amend the rules. Just as senators of both parties have done in the past, we do not acquiesce to any provision of Senate rules adopted by a previous Congress that would deny the majority that right.
The resolution I am offering today is based on proposals we introduced at the start of the 112th and 113th congresses. At the time, many called our efforts a power grab by the majority. But we were very clear. We would support these changes even if we were in the minority. And here we are today. Reintroducing the reform package as members of the minority.
These changes do not strip the minority’s rights. They allow the body to function as our founders intended. The heart of our proposal is the “talking filibuster.” The filibuster once was a tool that was used sparingly. It allowed the minority to be heard. Today, it is abused too often-and far too easily.
I have said many times that the Senate has become a graveyard for good ideas. And the shovel is the broken filibuster and other procedural tactics. The system is broken. But in the last election, I think the message was clear: Fix it. And that is what our resolution is intended to do.
Our reforms were not adopted in the last Congress. But, we made some progress. Strong support for fixing the Senate led Leaders Reid and McConnell to address the dysfunction in the Senate and make moderate changes.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the leaders’ “gentlemen’s agreement” to break down. In November 2013, the abuse of the rules-and the obstruction-reached a tipping point. And so the majority acted within the precedents of the Senate. We changed the rules to prevent the minority from abusing the rules and obstructing scores of qualified nominees for judicial and executive appointments.
Mr. President, I believe that drastic step was unfortunate. But it was also necessary. The minority has a right to voice objections-but not to abuse the rules to obstruct justice by preventing judges from being confirmed or by preventing the president from getting his team in place.
By changing the rules, the 113th Senate was able to confirm 96 judges.
In fact, it confirmed more judges than any modern Congress since 1980.
The 113th Senate also confirmed 293 executive nominations in 2014-the most since 2010.
That is an incredible change. It was a bold, but necessary, action. But it also led to even greater polarization in the Senate.
That polarization could have been prevented if the Senate had adopted our reforms at the beginning of the 113th Congress.
That is why I strongly urge the new Majority Leader to continue the change that was adopted in November. It allows most judicial and executive branch appointees to be confirmed by a straight majority vote. And I urge him to continue the progress we made last Congress-and adopt the rest of our proposed reforms at the start of this Congress.
Anyone who has watched this Senate try to legislate in the last few years knows we still are hobbled by dysfunction.
We voted on cloture 218 times-just over the last two years. To put that in perspective, the Senate voted on cloture only 38 times in the 50 years after the rule was first adopted in 1917. We cannot continue down this path.
The unprecedented use of the filibuster-and other procedural tactics-by both parties, has prevented the Senate from getting its work done. The Senate needs to return to its historical practice-and function as a deliberative yet majoritarian body-when filibusters were rare and bipartisanship was the norm.
We believe the proposed rules changes in our resolution provide common-sense reforms. This will restore the best traditions of the Senate and allow it to conduct the business that the American people expect.
We have one goal, whether we are in the majority or in the minority: to give the American people the government they expect and deserve-a government that works.
We said before. We say again. We can do this-with respect for the minority. With respect for differing points of view. And with respect for this chamber. But, most of all, with respect for the people who send us here.
The right to change the rules at the beginning of a new Congress is supported by history-and by the Constitution. Article 1, Section 5 is very clear. The Senate can adopt and amend its rules-at the beginning of a new Congress-by a simple majority vote. This is known as the Constitutional Option. It is well named. It has been used numerous times-often with bipartisan support-since the cloture provision was adopted in 1917.
I will include a more detailed history in my full statement for the Record.
This is not just about rules. It is about the norms and traditions of the Senate. They have collapsed under the weight of filibusters.
Neither side is 100 percent pure. Both sides have used the rules for obstruction. And no doubt they had their reasons.
But, I don’t think the American people care about that. They don’t want a history lesson-or a lesson in parliamentary procedure. They want a government that is fair, that is reasonable, and that works.
I hope that all my colleagues-and especially the new senators-give serious consideration to reform.
We do not need to win every legislative or nomination vote. But we need to have a real debate and an open process to ensure we are, actually, the greatest deliberative body in the world.
We changed the rule regarding nominations. That was an important start. But, it was the beginning, not the end. We still need to reform the Senate rules. I ask unanimous consent that my full statement be included in the Record as if read.