The Colorado Springs Gazette: The Senate should restore its old ways
Author: The Colorado Springs Gazette Editorial Board - January 24, 2018 - Updated: January 24, 2018
Senate Democrats have given up their brief, pointless, and mostly harmless shutdown of the federal government. They did so by agreeing to the very same bill they had filibustered the week before, in hopes of gaining something Republicans had promised.
It was a silly shutdown, a fact made crystal clear by the Democrats’ quick fold on its first actual business day.
Their objection was that the spending bill didn’t include an immigration provision. It was always silly for Democrats to insist that immigration reform be attached to a spending bill. But they had a hint of a legitimate gripe: They wanted to vote on the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program (relief for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children), and they suspected there was no way to get a real debate on this measure unless they had leverage, such as a government shutdown.
The deal that lawmakers reached Monday has two salutary effects: It separates immigration from appropriations, and it sets up a real, open debate with actual amendments and floor votes on DACA.
Here’s hoping it’s a precedent, and that this marks the return of the Senate to being … well, the Senate.
The Senate, for a decade has been defined by the number 60. That’s the number of votes it takes to break a filibuster. Historically, though, the most important number in the Senate has been one. That’s not one as in the majority leader is the one senator who decides what is voted on, but one as in it takes only one senator to offer an amendment or introduce legislation.
It shouldn’t take a shutdown or a threatened shutdown to get a real open debate on immigration policy. It ought to simply involve one senator introducing an immigration bill and roping in enough others to try and force a debate.
Debates in the Senate have been unworthy of the name in recent years. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but also to a lesser extent his successor Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have used parliamentary tricks to prevent amendments from being offered on the floor. They preferred backroom deals, in part because that increased the leader’s ability to predetermine the outcome, but mostly because backroom deals protect senators from having to take tough votes.
An open amendment process, which McConnell promised in exchange for the votes to reopen the government, ought to be the norm. It’s the best way to build consensus (if you lose on your amendment, you might still support the bill if you had a fighting chance), and it’s the proper function of the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”
Most senators want to provide permanent relief for DACA recipients. The majority party generally also wants tougher border security. And there’s bipartisan agreement that the visa lottery is a silly way to determine who gets to enter the country.
What’s the right way to combine these elements? We don’t know. Neither do McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, or President Donald Trump.
That’s the beauty of an open debate with amendments. That may be scary for party leaders who are used to controlling everything. Difficult votes will be even scarier to vulnerable members. But the job of U.S. senator was never supposed to be a safe job.