The Dysfunctional Senate: Exploiting Senate Rules To Undermine Democracy

The Dysfunctional Senate: Exploiting Senate Rules To Undermine Democracy


Lacking The Votes To Kill Health Reform, Republicans Exploit Senate Rules To Kill The Bill Through Procedure


— Two weeks before inauguration, Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) devised a strategy for blocking all reform, including healthcare, by holding all 40 Republicans together and voting no in unison. [NYT]

— The day after inauguration, Rush Limbaugh demands: “There’s one thing we gotta stop is health care. I’m serious, now.” [Transcript]


— In the first month of the Obama administration, there are more cloture motions filed than between World War I and the moon landing. Republicans essentially attempt to obstruct the Senate more in one month than the Senate has endured in 50 years. [CongressMatters]

MARCH 2009

— Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is picked as one of the Republican members of the “gang of six” to negotiate a bipartisan health reform bill. Grassley quickly broadcasts his intentions by telling reporters that lying about health reform is “the only way you’re going to get [public] attention.” [WR]

JUNE 2009

— Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) says committee markup of health reform legislation is a “waste of time,” urges Republicans to abandon process. [ABC]

— Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee attempted to delay and obstruct markup of health reform, offering amendments that had little or nothing to do with solving the health care crisis. [TP]

— Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) says GOP negotiator Grassley has “been given no authority to negotiate anything” with Democrats. [Politico]

— Kyl tells talk radio host Hugh Hewitt: “Our objective is to slow [health reform] down.” [HH]

— Senate Republicans block President Obama’s nominees to delay Senate consideration of health reform. [TP]

JULY 2009

— Senate Republicans organize to slow down health reform, sow doubts about the legislation. [NJ]

— Chamber of Commerce consultant Alex Castellanos pens memo on how to kill health reform: “If we can slow this sausage-making process down, we can defeat it.” [RollCall]

— Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this [health reform] it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” [Plumline]

— The Republican National Committee wrote in an internal memo outlining how it would “engage in every activity we can to slow down this mad rush” on health reform. [HuffPo]

— Key GOP negotiator Grassley tells reporters: “I take pride with being an obstructionist.” [Politico]


— Insurance companies and right-wing Astroturf groups urged people to lobby Congress and go to Town Halls events. Some also provided instructions on how to disrupt and “rattle” Members at the meetings. [WaPo, TP]

— Key GOP negotiator Grassley sends fundraising letter boasting of his obstruction of health reform. [WaPo]

— Republicans, including GOP negotiators, repeat false and debunked claims about health reform, most notably that health reform will “pull the plug on Grandma.” [TP]


— Senate Republicans walked away from the “Gang of Six” after Senate Democrats reached out for months in an attempt at bipartisan negotiations. [Hill]


— Senate Republicans unveiled their strategy to “delay, define and derail” health reform. [CNN]


— Republican Senators, led by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), demand that health reform be scrapped to focus on the war in Afghanistan. [Guardian]


— Sen. Jon Ensign (R-NV) tries to manufacture a conspiracy that Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-NE) healthcare vote is being coerced by the White House. He cites a debunked story, propagated by Glenn Beck, about Offut Airforce Base. [TWI]

— Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) penned a memo outlining all the tools at Senate Republicans’ disposal to delay health reform. [Politico]

— Senate Republicans attempted to filibuster the defense spending bill that provided funds to our men and women in uniform. Senator Sam Brownback admitted the reason he filibustered the defense bill was because he didn’t “want health care.” [WaPo]

— Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) demanded Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) amendment be read in its entirety on the Senate floor, which was estimated to take 12 hours. [HuffPo]

— Despite foregone conclusion that Senate bill would pass, GOP forces Christmas Eve vote. No Republicans vote for the bill. [TPM]


— Scott Brown, who said the Senate health bill considered in Congress “mirrors” the Massachusetts health system he helped enact, was elected partially on a promise to kill health reform. [TP]


— Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) exploits his privileges as a Senator, places a hold on the extension of unemployment benefits. His move slows down the pace of legislation in the Chamber as members from both parties try to release his hold. [CongressMatters]

MARCH 2010

— President Obama embraces more Republican health reform ideas offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and others into the bill. [MSNBC]

— Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TX) admits that the Senate GOP will obstruct fixes to improve the health bill simply for partisan gain. [TP]

— Protesting health reform, Senate GOP attempts to bring all Senate hearings to a halt. [TP]

— Coburn, supported by Kyl and other GOP Senators, plan new stalling tactics, including a hold on an extension of COBRA health and unemployment benefits. [NationalJournal]


“Where just one Senator makes a majority” [McClatchy]

The shadowy practice of Senate “holds” — the power of one lawmaker to block nominations or legislation indefinitely — is a big reason that the Senate is gridlocked. Republicans have used holds to block an unprecedented number of legislative agenda items and key nominees in the Obama administration. For instance, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) used a hold to successfully block President Obama’s initial pick to head the Transportation Security Administration — Erroll Southers — because of his views on unionization. This ploy meant the nation had no TSA chief during the Christmas day attempted suicide attack in 2009. Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has noted that “one senator can subvert the entire democratic process. We don’t have the Senate confirming political appointees promptly, and that means decisions are not made at agencies.” Indeed, a single a corporation or industry group can subvert the democratic process by purchasing a single senator to block laws or nominees viewed as unfavorable.

This chart illustrates how corporations exploit the Senate to derail reform:


Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN)

— FedEx misclassifies its drivers as contractors (instead of full employees), depriving them the right to collectively bargain, and denying 15,000 drivers benefits, paid vacation or sick leave. [WR, 3/18/10]

— FedEx, based in Memphis, gave Corker $105,600 in campaign contributions.
[OpenSecrets, accessed 3/16/10]

— Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), another ally to FedEx, then promised to use ‘every right and privilege’ he has to stop FedEx drivers from unionizing. [WR, 3/10/10]

— Corker and Alexander place a hold on the Federal Aviation Reauthorization bill to force provisions to ensure FedEx workers cannot unionize. [WR, 3/10/10]

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL)

— Northrop Grumman is seeking a federal contract worth up to $35 billion to build a refueling tanker in Mobile, Alabama. [Federal Times, 2/4/10]

Northrop Grumman has donated $108,223 to Shelby in campaign contributions.[CFPI, 2/5/10]

— Shelby placed a “blanket hold” blocking all of Obama’s nominees to every office to force the Obama administration to accept Northrop Grumman’s demands. [TP, 2/5/10]

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

— Business groups, led by the Chamber of Commerce, opposed President Obama’s nomination of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board because he favors the rights of unions. [Hill, 1/25/10]

— Chamber board members donated $373,150 to McCain in 2008, pledged support to his reelection campaign in 2010. [TP, 11/14/09; McCain website, 2/26/10]

— Despite winning approval from the Senate HELP committee, Becker’s nomination did not move forward for months because McCain placed a hold on him. [Hill, 1/25/10]

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY)

— The oil lobby, organized by the American Petroleum Institute and other polluter lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce, wants to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating climate change-causing carbon emissions. [PR, 1/20/10]

— The oil and coal industry has donated $173,250 to Barrasso [Open Secrets]

— Barrasso placed “hold” on EPA Secretary nominee Lisa Jackson in an attempt to force the EPA from regulating carbon and from enforcing the Clean Air Act. [E&E, 7/15/09]

Research compiled by Lee Fang