The principal means by which Senate majorities have exerted greater control over the institution’s decision-making process in recent years has been through their ability to block amendments on the Senate floor. In a new R Street Institute policy study, Senior Fellow James Wallner traces the history of the Senate’s “amendment tree” and considers how it has evolved to allow a majority leader to use his priority of recognition to block floor amendments.

“The routine practice of filling the amendment tree in the Senate today, coupled with the cloture process to end debate, effectively prevents members from being able to perfect the underlying legislation before it receives an up-or-down vote on final passage,” Wallner writes. “Instead of a deliberative process designed to discern the true sense of the institution’s membership, senators are confronted with a fait accompli. This practice is inconsistent with the principles of general parliamentary law on which the amendment process is based.”

Despite the increased importance of the amendment process to Senate leadership’s efforts to control the agenda, Wallner notes we have, at best, only a limited understanding of how that process developed. This policy study fills the void through an analysis of the timing and sequence of the changes in how amendments have been considered on the Senate floor over time and the impact such changes have had on the number of amendments simultaneously permitted on legislation.

“In short, the process is no longer used to discern the true position of Senate,” he writes. “Instead, it is viewed from the perspective of party leadership and bill managers as a means to protect legislation developed elsewhere, off the floor, from being changed on it. Consequently, the Senate floor no longer represents a deliberative arena where consequential decisions are made.”

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