Senate Democrats shouldn’t lower filibuster threshold

Elizabeth Letchworth Former U.S. Senate Secretary
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is considering canceling the results of the November elections by changing the Senate rules when senators conduct their opening day procedures on January 5th. Democrats want to reduce the number of senators needed to invoke cloture (limit debate).

The cloture rule, Rule 22, requires 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate. Efforts in the Senate Rules Committee last year, lead by Sen. Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Udall (D-CO), are pushing the Senate leader to end over two hundred years of tradition and set a precedent by declaring that the Senate is NOT a continuous body. If the Senate is deemed to not be a continuous body, then it stands to reason that the Senate rules would need to be ratified every two years when the new Congress convenes on opening day. If Sen. Reid successfully makes the case that the Senate is not a continuous body, and thereby needs to ratify the rules at the beginning of each Congress, then the rules governing the new Congress could be put in place by a simple majority vote and not the supermajority vote of 67 now needed under the “Standing Rules of the Senate.”

Where does Sen. Reid get the idea that the Senate is not a continuous body? Maybe he should read the U.S. Senate website, which clearly states what the Senate has lived by for over 200 years. The site reaffirms that when our founding fathers created the Senate, they clearly intended for it to be a continuous body, since two-thirds of senators continue serving notwithstanding the elections that are held every two years. The Senate website states:

The Senate’s three-class system was established by the Constitution that has been in operation since 1789. Every two years, one-third of the members of the Senate are elected/re-elected, leaving the other two-thirds of the members to carry on business. Never is there a total turnover of members. (In the House of Representatives, on the other hand, the entire membership is elected/re-elected every two years.) When the Framers set-up this system of election — dividing the Senate into three “classes” for election purposes — they had in mind that the business of the Senate would continue from Congress to Congress without interruption.

The last time the Senate made major rules changes was in 2000. These rules changes were passed unanimously. The latest rules changes, which were passed in 2007, were also negotiated and passed using traditional Senate procedures.

The special election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) back in early 2010 is a perfect example of how the Reid rules change would disenfranchise the American electorate. Remember, Candidate Brown focused much of his campaign on being the GOP’s 41st vote in the Senate. The significance of being the 41st GOP vote was to deny Sen. Reid the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster of Obamacare. That filibuster-cloture rule is the law of the Senate until changed by a supermajority of senators or by unanimous agreement.

If Sen. Reid uses his majority of Democratic senators to change the Senate rules by a simple majority vote, this blatant abuse of power should be a major campaign issue in the election of the 23 Democratic senators up for election in 2012. If these 23 Democratic senators vote to destroy over 200 years of Senate tradition in order to advance their agenda, where will this abuse of power end?

The Huffington Post, Washington Post and the president himself have touted this Congress as the most successful Congress since WWII. If the Senate is broken and needs to be changed, then how did the president achieve such a successful record? Maybe the American electorate should remind Reid and the 23 Democrats up for election in two years of the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Stay tuned to see if Harry Reid will ruin over 200 years of Senate procedure when the Senate opens the 112th Congress on Wednesday. If that happens, the American people may have to develop very long memories.

Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, elected United States Senate Secretary for the Majority and Minority. Currently she is a senior legislative adviser for Covington & Burling, LLC and is the founder of GradeGov.com .