For more than two centuries, the U.S. Senate has been labeled the world’s greatest deliberative body because of its rule ensuring the right of every senator to force consideration and a recorded vote on any issue. The rule made the Senate unique as the world’s only legislative entity in which the rights of majorities and minorities were equally protected. But 221 years of tradition and majestic debate mean nothing to Senate Majority Harry Reid of Nevada, who, for no better reason than avoiding an embarrassing vote, used procedural legerdemain to obliterate minority rights in the upper chamber.
Parliamentary procedure is often complex and doesn’t lend itself to uplifting commentary, but Reid’s actions Friday were no more complicated than a single bullet to the back of the head. Here’s what happened: President Barack Obama has been stumping for a vote in Congress on his new, $447 billion proposal to stimulate the economy and create jobs. But the Republicans knew that Democrats facing re-election didn’t want to vote on the bill because it calls for increased taxes on higher incomes. So they tried to force a vote by attaching it to a measure dealing with China’s currency manipulations.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asked for a suspension of the rules so that the Senate could debate the jobs bill. Reid demanded a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian on whether this was permissible. When the parliamentarian ruled that it was, Reid responded with a motion, approved on a party-ine vote of 51-48, that stripped Republicans of their power to offer amendments. That vote effectively changed Senate rules, which had always required 60 votes.
During the Bush administration, some Senate Republicans wanted to do what Reid did as a way to stop Democratic filibusters against conservative judicial nominees. But they declined to invoke the so-called nuclear option, recognizing that it would inflict permanent damage to the legislative process by nullifying the right of minorities to be heard on the Senate floor. But Harry Reid apparently cares little for minority rights, at least when Republicans are in the minority.
The day will soon come when Democrats will bitterly regret what Reid has done. As McConnell said after the vote, “We are fundamentally turning the Senate into the House. No amendments before cloture. No motions to suspend after cloture. The minority is out of business. ... This is a free-wheeling body, and everybody is better off when we operate that way. Everybody is. Whether you’re in the majority or the minority, because today’s minority may be tomorrow’s majority.” Voters will have an opportunity to bring this truth home to Reid and his colleagues in November 2012.