Schiller and Kelley

Distributed June 13, 2000
Copyright ©2000 by Wendy J. Schiller
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 640 Words

The dangers of Trent Lott’s new regime

In ruling the Senate with an iron fist, Trent Lott is going far beyond the innocuous goal of achieving efficient government. The consequence of his actions, whether intended or not, are to undermine and weaken the very purpose of the Senate as an institution.

By Wendy J. Schiller and Curtis Kelley

Imagine a courtroom where only the prosecutor was allowed to make his or her case and the jury deliberated only on the prosecutor’s arguments. That is essentially the way that Trent Lott is running the U.S. Senate these days. Any bill that reaches the Senate floor is a product of the majority party, and the minority party is forced to vote yes or no, take it or leave it, with no real debate, no chance to offer amendments, and no chance to filibuster.

Why should anyone care how the Senate governs itself? The answer lies in the very role of the Senate plays in our federal legislative process. We have two distinct parts of our legislative branch of government for a reason, which Madison eloquently states in The Federalist Papers (No. 63):

The people can never wilfully [sic] betray their own interests; but they may possibly be betrayed by the representatives of the people; and the danger will be evidently greater where the whole legislative trust is lodged in the hands of one body of men than where the concurrence of separate and dissimilar bodies is required in every public act.

The key word there is dissimilar. The Senate is not, nor should it be, just like the House of Representatives. The Senate has evolved, in accord with Madison’s and Hamilton’s grand scheme, into the place where the minority – whether it is economic, partisan, religious, or geographic – has real power. That power lies in the rights of every senator to be heard, and to be able to fight for his or her constituents as vigorously as possible. Lott’s ways of running the Senate deny each senator – and every state – these fundamental rights.

In the Senate, a single senator of either party has the right to offer an amendment or to obstruct its passage by a filibuster. However, Lott has managed to impose two floor procedures that thwart such efforts. The first is to seek cloture on almost every major bill he brings to the Senate floor, effectively shutting down a filibuster. Second, Lott uses all seven opportunities to offer amendments to a bill, denying other senators chances to offer their own amendments. Lott uses this procedure more than any other majority leader in the modern era. The result is that any bill that passes the Senate these days is one that is constructed according to the majority leader’s viewpoint, with no input from the minority.

The Senate is the only federal institution where minority viewpoints can be freely expressed and incorporated into federal legislation. The House is a majority party-controlled institution, whose rules allow little opportunity for minority representation of any kind. Lott cut his political teeth in the minority party in the House (he was the prototype for Newt Gingrich) and upon assuming the post of senate majority leader, has embarked on a plan to make the Senate more like the House.

Some people may applaud these maneuvers because the House does produce legislation and runs more efficiently at most times than the Senate does. Moreover, when the majority party passes a bill in the House, it is clear who should get the credit or blame. Chalk one up for accountability.

But what if that bill abrogates minority rights, for example by imposing the reading of the Ten Commandments in public schools or by declaring English the national language? In truth, the Senate is the nation’s bulwark against such irresponsible legislative behavior. It is far more than procedure that is at stake here. In ruling the Senate with an iron fist, Lott is going far beyond the innocuous goal of achieving efficient government. The consequence of his actions, whether intended or not, is to undermine and weaken the very purpose of the Senate as an institution. If the Senate devolves into an institution that only manages to rubber stamp the House, it may as well dissolve itself.

And then where will the minority turn?

Wendy J. Schiller is an associate professor of political science and public policy
at Brown University. She is the author of Partners and Rivals: Representation
in U.S. Senate Delegations
(Princeton University Press, April 2000). Curtis Kelley
is a former staff assistant to Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan.