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NEW REPORT: It Is Time for Procedural Reform in the U.S. Senate

March 12, 2010

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Contact: Madeline Meth
Phone: 202.741.6277
Email: mmeth@americanprogress.org

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Download the executive summary (pdf)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today the Center for American Progress released a new report, From Deliberation to Dysfunction by expert Scott Lilly, that urges the Senate to adopt modest procedural changes to curb some of the filibuster’s worst abuses and make the Senate more responsible.

The U.S. Senate has a proud tradition of ensuring that important decisions are carefully weighed before they become law. This has served the nation well at times. But under current practices the latitude granted to individual senators to obstruct does not always contribute to more measured consideration of national policy. In recent years, the Senate has been less and less able to follow the regular order in the consideration of pending legislation, the confirmation of senior executive branch officials, and other work.

Increasingly, the Senate has been forced to rely on legislative shortcuts that severely undermine the philosophy of full and careful consideration of all matters before the body.

While many Americans continue to think of the filibuster as it was portrayed in the 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it has evolved into a very different practice over the course of the past 71 years. It has been decades since a senator actually took to the floor and attempted to block legislation through extended speechmaking. Now a senator merely needs to serve notice that he or she will not concur in a procedural motion by the leadership that the prospects for making progress on the legislation proposed for consideration are so diminished that it is often pulled from the legislative schedule. This practice applies to not only new laws altering national policy in some significant way, but also to the annual spending bills that keep the government operating and even the appointment judges, senior, and even not-so-senior executive branch officials and military officers.

While it is unlikely the Senate will abandon the filibuster, it is clear that the rules governing the use of the filibuster must change if the body is to be prevented from becoming a more serious impediment to competent governance. The chaotic, hit-or-miss process in which rather mundane matters are debated at great length while more important issues are slipped past the full Senate without significant debate or opportunity for amendment turns the concept of deliberation on its head.

At a minimum, the Senate needs to adopt modest procedural changes to its rules curbing some of the filibuster’s worst abuses and making the Senate not only more responsible in performing its work but at the same time more deliberative.

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