Passage of Legislative Agenda Requires Parlimentary Reform

Daniel Merritt

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Last Tuesday, President Obama laid out his vision for the next year in the State of the Union: His agenda included comprehensive immigration reform, gun control and expansion of American manufacturing.

Optimistically, we may see a number of these issues addressed in the next four years.What we can’t forget, however, is that many  of these issues are the same ones that Obama wanted to address while running for his first term in 2008. Rather than simply blame the opposing party, we need to dig deeper and look at factors that are exacerbating the intense partisan gridlock we’ve seen in Washington for the past four years. One of the biggest barriers to passing any kind of significant legislation is the abuse of congressional rules.

Following the passage of healthcare reform during Obama’s first term, the Republican party made a point of exploiting the filibuster, the secret hold and other parliamentary tactics in order to try and stall the passage of any legislation. This upcoming congressional cycle has the same structural potential for obstruction.

Thus, the key to passing Obama’s progressive agenda, or really any agenda in the future, is the passage of significant parliamentary reform. If we want to keep any party from simply being the “party of no,” we need to take away the structural tools that make blanket obstructionism possible.

At the start of every new congressional session, the House and the Senate get to vote on the rules that govern the procedure within their chamber. This broad power dictates the composition of committees, length of speeches, conditions for voting––they define how Congress will pass legislation and how long it will take. Although they have this power, it has been sorely underused. Most rules and procedures date back to Congress’ efforts at establishing joint rules for the chambers between 1789 and 1889. Efforts at maintaining coherent joint rules eventually dissolved when both abandoned the effort in favor of informal understandings, or provisions of law.

Although we like to consider our government the pinnacle of democracy, the truth is that petty parliamentary tactics corrupt the democratic process and ensure that members of Congress actually do anything but pass legislation.

The most commonly known example of parliamentary abuse is the filibuster. A filibuster occurs during debate when a Senator refuses to yield the floor and prevents a vote from happening. Traditionally the filibuster was used as a tool of last resort, yet now, it is used without a thought. Due to its infamy this year in the Senate there have been several purposed reforms to the use of the filibuster. Unfortunately, the purposed reforms fell short of progressive expectations.

Reforming the filibuster is just the first step in removing parliamentary tools that allow endless delays in Congress. Less commonly known about are archaic rules: One requires unanimous consent for committees and subcommittees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon while the Senate is in session, another––which dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s “Manual of Parliamentary Practice”––bars senators from imputing unworthy conduct or motives to another senator, and from insulting any senator’s state. These are just a couple of rules which are currently binding which govern how our nation can and cannot pass laws.

Parliamentary reform is something that should garner bipartisan support. The American people are fed up with Congress and deserve a system that makes their representatives work for them. If Congress is serious about any kind of reform, it should begin looking at the very rules it has chosen to govern itself. If we can’t agree on an effective process to pass laws without resorting to endless delays and wasteful parliamentary games, how can we hope to tackle some of the biggest issues we face as a country? It’s time for Congress to rewrite the rulebook.

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