You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Just Rewrite the Senate Rules Already

Stunts like forcing legislation to be read aloud would be trivially easy to get rid of, if anyone wanted to.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, flanked by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Roy Blunt, talks to reporters on March 2.

As part of their ongoing effort to delay passage of the Democratic Covid-19 relief bill, Republicans are forcing Senate clerks to read the entire text aloud on the Senate floor. The bill is around 600 to 700 pages long. On Wednesday, South Dakota Republican John Thune predicted the process would take 10 hours. (The Senate clerks expected they could get it done in half the time.)

The stunt has plenty of precedent. House Democrats believed Republicans would try something similar with their cap-and-trade bill in 2009, so they hired a speed-reader. Then-Senator Tom Coburn forced a reading of a Bernie Sanders single-payer amendment that same year. Democrats did it, too, in 2017, for an amendment none of them had had a chance yet to read. (They cut the reading short.)

Senators can get away with these antics because Senate rules require all amendments to be read aloud. Normal Senate procedure is to ask for unanimous consent to skip the reading, which is typically granted by custom.

In 2009, the Republican minority sent around an obstruction memo outlining all the ways they could gum up the works during President Barack Obama’s first term. A similar memo, for Democrats, circulated last year, though this one was drafted by outside groups urging Senate Democrats to obstruct the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. What these strategies rely on, almost uniformly, is a willingness to abuse rules that were not intended to allow a minority to block everything but that now serve only that purpose.

Presumably, the rule about reading everything aloud was created to ensure that senators were familiar with the text of amendments before voting on them. The Senate is supposed to be a body where members do most of their business on the floor, in regular session, listening to arguments from their colleagues and engaging in colloquy. Unfortunately, that is not how the Senate has operated for, really, more than a century. It doesn’t even vaguely resemble how it operates now.

The intended effect, giving senators time to figure out what amendments do before voting on them, makes sense. But the rule, as written, is obsolete, and only persists as a tool that allows the minority to slow things down. If the Senate were a legislative body with any interest in operating effectively, members would replace an archaic rule that is regularly abused with one that better fits the spirit of the original: something like just allowing some set amount of time, based on the length of the proposals, for senators (or, more accurately, their staffs) to read and understand newly introduced amendments. But the Senate isn’t interested in operating effectively—and it hasn’t been for quite some time.

The abuse of this particular rule, like most Senate dysfunction, stems from the fact that the body does nearly everything through unanimous consent. The “hold,” which for years allowed senators unilaterally to block bills and nominations—without publicly revealing who was doing it!—was never even a formal Senate rule. Senators placed holds by sending the majority leader a letter announcing their intent to object to a unanimous consent agreement.

Senate rules are not part of the Constitution. They can be changed with the support of a simple majority. Senators, current and former, regularly complain about how pointless and archaic the rules that govern the Senate are. They are well aware that most of what happens on the floor is meaningless theater with a predetermined outcome. They know the idea that the Senate is a “deliberative body,” let alone the greatest deliberative body, is a mirthless joke. George Packer’s classic story on Senate dysfunction, and senatorial dissatisfaction with that dysfunction, is a decade old, and very little has changed, besides the Democrats having a much slimmer majority.

Many Senate lifers seem convinced there was a time in living memory when the institution worked correctly, with the same rules that currently strangle it. Over the years, the decline of the Senate has been blamed on Reaganites, C-SPAN, blogs, the spectacular growth of lobbying, increased fundraising demands, and the fact that there are now senators who aren’t from homogenous elite backgrounds. But this consistent unwillingness to undertake any comprehensive rewriting of Senate rules suggests that maybe the problem is that senators are more satisfied with how it operates than they claim.

Senate rules ought to reflect how they are meant to be used. If the purpose of the filibuster is to protect and require debate, write rules about how many hours of debate there should be on legislation. If it’s about enshrining the 60-vote requirement for all Senate business, write a rule making the 60-vote requirement explicit instead of accidental. If it’s about just giving the minority party veto power, write a rule saying the minority party has veto power. At the very least, senators owe it to us to create a set of rules that clarify and codify methods of obstruction, instead of pretending that escalating procedural hardball and twisting of the original meaning of badly written Senate rules is somehow a sign of respect for tradition.

It’s exhausting and demoralizing to see political possibilities forever limited by a series of successive historical accidents and exploits. Senators, just put down in writing the way you want your absurd body to work. It would save the parliamentarian some work and the rest of us a lot of time spent on dull arguments about precedent and history.