U.S. Senate’s rules place any majority leader in untenable position
Study authors Anthony J. Madonna and Kevin R. Kosar lay out the current state of play in the Senate, where the rules allow unlimited debate of amendments that aren’t always germane to the bill under consideration. This open and deliberative process allows any senator, including those in the minority, to offer amendments motivated purely by politics. Roll-call votes on these amendments exacerbate the problem, providing fodder for future campaign ads.
Majority leaders often deal with the issue through arcane procedural motions. “Filling the tree,” an especially popular procedure, allow the leader to offer his or her own set of amendments to fill up all available consideration, thus denying any other member the ability to offer amendments of their own.
In recent congresses, the Senate has accounted for more than 78 percent of all the amendments offered in Congress and the proportion that stem from the minority party has increased sharply over time. In the 111th Congress, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, was forced to deal with more amendments than any of his predecessors.
“Given the opportunity, members will abuse the amending process to generate roll-call votes for electoral purposes,” write the authors. “They will do this because they know voters respond to it.”
Although a number of reforms have been suggested over the years, most are simply impractical or would be met with strong political opposition. The authors conclude that whether to continue the open-amendment process is something only the Senate can decide for itself.
“As long as members have incentives to take greater advantage of their individual rights to offer amendments, we should expect to see leaders use whatever tools they have at their disposal to protect electorally vulnerable fellow party members and increase legislative efficiency,” they wrote.