Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Senate Misses First Key Opportunity for Reforms.

It could have been worse, but it should have been better. Fortunately, there's still time for the Senate to right itself.

As has been reported, yesterday the Senate Majority introduced a resolution for the chamber to adopt the new rules. Senate Democrats have rightly complained that they were provided with the rules only 2 hours before a vote. While the rules were posted on the web, Senate Republicans did not provide a memo explaining the rules changes, or a red-lined version that would allow the public to understand what changes were being made. This is not a good start for those of us hoping legislators might finally be a bit chastened by public anger and therefore be willing to conduct themselves in a more open manner.

There's still time to improve this process. We learned last night that the majority fell one vote short of pushing the bill to the floor for a vote. We hope the Senate uses the extra time to consider, publicly debate and (hopefully) adopt some additional changes.

And what of the substance? The news is not all bad. The Senate Republicans deserve credit for keeping most of the important advances made last session: for the most part keeping term limits on leadership and allowing members to move legislation to the floor over the wishes of leadership. It does not look like we will return to the era of Bruno, where favored members of the majority received nearly all of the spoils, and disfavored members, especially those in the minority, are given almost nothing.

But little has been done to improve the rules. The Brennan Center and other good government groups reached out to members of the Senate on two occasions, calling on the Senators to adopt rules that would build upon reforms introduced during the last session to increase the power of rank and file members, and create for a more open, transparent and accountable chamber. While we have not had sufficient time to thoroughly review the proposed rules, our preliminary analysis reveals the Senate missed a key opportunity to alter the committee process. The new rules failed to advance the power of rank and file members to introduce bills. They fall short of requiring robust committee reports, of strengthening the ability of committee chairs to control their own budget and to make hiring and firing decisions.

Furthermore, where we called for a consolidation of the number of committees, the Senate rules instead created an additional committee -- bringing back the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. The only reason we can see for this is to give another Senator a "lulu," or $12,500 "bonus" for chairing a committee that will do the "work" one of the dozens of already existing committees surely could have done. Since the rules also failed to reduce the number of committees on which a member may serve, we can expect another session where some members will serve on 10 or 11 committees.

We urge the Senate to publicly debate and consider the rules improvements the Brennan Center and other good government groups have proposed for this session. If they can't or won't adopt these changes, they should provide some explanation. The public deserves no less.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Any notion that the Senate Majority will be reforming the Senate Rules (i.e. making the legislative process more fair to all Senators, and less subject to the total control of the Majority Leader) is laughable.

The Senate Republicans may be stuck with some of the reforms the Senate Democrats made in 2009, but that doesn't mean they are committed to them.