In 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they released a memo claiming that a bare majority of senators have the power to change the Senate’s Rules:
One way that Senators can restore the Senate’s traditional understanding of its advice and consent responsibility is to employ the “constitutional option” — an exercise of a Senate majority’s power under the Constitution to define Senate practices and procedures. The constitutional option can be exercised in different ways, such as amending Senate Standing Rules or by creating precedents, but regardless of the variant, the purpose would be the same — to restore previous Senate practices in the face of unforeseen abuses. . . . This constitutional option is well grounded in the U.S. Constitution and in Senate history. The Senate has always had, and repeatedly has exercised, the constitutional power to change the Senate’s procedures through a majority vote.
Six years later, a broad coalition of senators is considering something very similar to what the GOP advocated in 2005 — amending the Senate’s rules with a simple majority vote. Now that the GOP is in the minority, however, they are humming a very different tune. In a memo entitled “Senate Democrats Threaten Unprecedented Power Grab,” the GOP now warns that “Unilaterally changing the rules of the Senate by a bare majority would be unprecedented . . . it would forever change the nature of the Senate and constitute a naked partisan power grab.”
Of course, the GOP’s 2011 attack on its 2005 position is far from surprising, since they fell back in love with the filibuster the minute they lost their majority. In 2007, when Republican Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly found himself leading the minority, the number of filibusters immediately spiked:
Audaciously, McConnell defends his obstructionist record by claiming it was all the Democrats fault. According to McConnell:
[Reformers] have peddled the well-worn myth that changes are needed as a way of overcoming partisanship on the part of Republicans. Their evidence: a historically high number of so-called cloture petitions by the Democratic majority to cut off debate. Republicans forced these petitions, Democrats say, by blocking or slow-walking bills.
What these critics routinely fail to mention (and too many reporters fail to report) is the precipitating action: the Democratic majority’s repeated use of a once-rare procedural gimmick that has kept Republicans from amending bills that are brought to the floor. This practice, known as “filling the amendment tree,” leads to a question that answers itself: Why would Republicans vote for action on a bill that, we’ve been promised, we’ll be blocked from contributing to in any way?
There are any number of reasons why McConnell could not possibly believe his own claim here, but the most obvious is the fact that McConnell’s caucus hasn’t simply wielded the filibuster to block legislation, but has also waged an unprecedented campaign of obstruction against President Obama’s nominees. Nominees cannot be amended, so if McConnell really just wanted his caucus to be able to offer amendments he wouldn’t have led a scorched earth campaign against the president’s nominations.
In the end, however, the biggest problem with McConnell’s obstructionist campaign is not hypocrisy — it is the fact that his tactics are slowly destroying the nation’s ability to function. Because of the right’s abuse of the Senate rules, countless judgeships and other essential jobs are unfilled — even though the overwhelming majority of Obama’s nominees to these jobs face little opposition even from the GOP. Meanwhile, numerous federal agencies are currently operating without congressional authorization because the Senate is unable to move authorization bills. The United States government still does not have a budget, because GOP obstructionism prevented the Senate from performing this most basic task. And hundreds of bills that passed the House without any opposition whatsoever will never receive a vote in the Senate. McConnell wants to frame the debate over reform as a partisan showdown, but the whole nation is suffering because of his recalcitrance.