Bunning’s Senatorial rights

Dan Holler Communications Director, Heritage Action
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For an institution known for extended debate and archane procedures, the mainsteam media, the left and even some of the chamber’s most verbose liberal Members have mischaracterized the rules of the U.S. Senate. For those who have not been following what constitutes high drama in the Senate, a brief recap. Last week, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) objected to a unanimous consent request that would extend funding for several expiring provisions, including unemployment insurance, COBRA, flood insurance, Satellite Home Viewer Act, highway funding and several others. Bunning’s objection was based on the unpaid for cost of the 30-day extension—$10 billion!

The merits of Bunning’s position have been debated ad nauseam. Less discussed, though, has been the routine nature of Bunning’s objections and some of the hyperbolic statements made by his detractors. Bunning critics have suggested the Senator is “abusing the rules” and “manipulat[ing] the Senate procedures.” Those criticisms are unfair. By its very nature, a unanimous consent request waives the rules that govern the Senate’s business. In this case, the unanimous consent request required the waiving of no less than a dozen Senate rules and procedures.

The Senate deviated from traditional procedure immediately upon receiving H.R. 4691, the bill in question. Rather than being referred to the relevant committees, the bill was received and immediately considered. At a minimum, a there is a procedure that takes a day to hold a bill at the desk to placed it on the Senate calendar.

The subsequent unanimous consent read, in part, as follows:

[the bill] received from the House and at the desk; that the bill be read three times, passed and the motion to reconsider be made and laid upon the table.

In normal language, the request sought to bypass at least seven additional rules:

  1. one-day layover on the Calendar before debate can begin;
  2. a vote on the motion to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed;
  3. a vote on the motion to proceed to the bill;
  4. a vote on the motion to invoke cloture on the bill;
  5. ability to offer amendments;
  6. a vote on final passage; and,
  7. a motion to table the motion to reconsider.

Several other rules, including debate time periods, mandatory quorum calls and the three separate readings of the bill were also waived. In short, a unanimous consent request is a way to short-circuit the Senate’s standard operating procedure. Objecting to such a request is not a filibuster; it is simply a request that the Senate conduct itself in accordance with its own rules.

Bunning’s supposed “posturing” on so-called emergency spending is highly curious. Senators have known for several months that these provisions would expire on Feb. 28, 2010. Expiring provisions are not hurricanes, floods or wildfires—they are creatures of Congress. If this is indeed a “crisis,” it is one created by Congress and the administration.

Another curious declaration came from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). She said Bunning’s actions are “why I believe we need to take a very hard look at changing the Senate rules.” The Senate’s filibuster has wrongly come under assault in recent months, but Bunning is not conducting a filibuster. His objection, in practice, forces the Senate to go through regular order and actually cast a vote on a bill that would add $10 billion to our nation’s exploding debt. Surely, we do not want a Senate (or any legislative body) in which regular order or even a vote can be denied.

Whether you agree with Sen. Bunning’s quest to pay for the $10 billion bill or not, it is important to understand his actions are not inconsistent with the rules of the Senate. Ironically, it is Bunning’s critics who are bypassing the rules and suggesting drastic changes to those rules.

The Senate is quite the complicated place, but it is designed to protect minority rights, values and opinions. Those right may be inconvenient at times, but those rights should be respected nonetheless. You never know when you, your views and your values will be in the minority.

Dan Holler is Senate relations deputy at The Heritage Foundation.