As the 112th Congress convenes for the first time on Wednesday, senators are expected to consider revising Senate rules to address procedural dysfunction highlighted during the 111th Congress. Increased use of Senate rules for the purpose of obstructionism during the 111th Congress led to, among other things, delayed executive branch appointments, including a virtual standstill on the appointment of equality-minded judges, and multiple filibusters to delay passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation. In response, HRC has joined a coalition of groups calling on the Senate to prioritize open debate, increase transparency and accountability, and prevent needless partisan obstructionism.
Proposed reforms to Senate rules include eliminating “secret holds,” a tactic that allows any senator to anonymously block a vote on a presidential nomination. In addition, a central topic in the discussion of reform is the filibuster. As the coalition notes, “[t]hough the Senate averaged approximately one filibuster per year until 1970, senators in the past two sessions have used this tactic roughly 70 times per year.” A filibuster was invoked on 139 occasions during the 111th Congress, a record high and also a 100% increase from the 110th Congress. This abusive use of the filibuster has led to a new standard in the Senate that requires senators to meet a 60 vote threshold for a large number of votes. Potential filibuster reforms include reducing the threshold number of votes required to avoid a filibuster and requiring senators who invoke a filibuster to remain on the Senate floor while the filibuster is taking place.
While there were landmark achievements in the 111th Congress for the LGBT community – including passage of a hate crimes bill and the legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – the exploitation of current Senate rules led to delays and partisan warfare over both bills. It is time for the Senate to take a hard look at whether its current rules lead to unnecessary partisan obstructionism, safe havens for senators to avoid discussing substantive issues, and distortion of the views and beliefs of the American people.