Run the U.S. Senate like the N.H. Legislature
In a democracy, we expect our Legislature to operate based on democratic principles. The right to free speech dictates that there should be spirited debate where every viewpoint has a chance to be heard. After full debate, decisions should be made by majority vote.That’s not how things work in the U.S. Senate, where a bill does not come up for a vote unless at least 60 senators agree to allow a vote. The result is an often-gridlocked legislative process where inordinate time is spent on procedure and posturing, rather than doing the people’s business.The U.S. Senate ought to be run like the New Hampshire Legislature:• Every bill in Concord has a public hearing before a committee.• Every bill is voted up or down in committee. The committee vote is only a recommendation to pass, defeat, or amend a bill, or to refer the bill for further study.• Every bill then has an up-or-down vote on the floor of the house of the Legislature where it was introduced. • A majority can vote to cut off debate. However, the chair (the president of the Senate or the speaker of the House) can refuse to cut off debate if she or he believes there are still opinions that need to be heard.In short, the New Hampshire House and Senate have rules that ensure that every bill has a public hearing, an opportunity for debate and an up-or-down vote.The rules governing our Legislature have resulted in no public policy fiascoes. After all, if a mistake is made, a majority can vote to correct it.In Washington, dozens of bills that have passed the House by majority vote are waiting for action in the Senate. Senate Rule 22 requires 60 votes before a bill may come up for a vote. A filibuster – a word derived from the Dutch for pirate — is when a minority of at least 41 senators refuse to end debate on a matter.Essentially, under Rule 22 nothing passes unless there is a supermajority in favor. This is decidedly undemocratic — 41 people decide whether the Senate takes action on anything.Filibuster proponents claim it is a necessary part of the process that promotes bipartisanship and careful legislating. They point to George Washington’s comment to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was created as a saucer to “cool” legislation originating in the House. The filibuster is not a part of our constitution. Instead, it is an accident resulting from the history of the Senate and the evolution of its rules.Today, the rules require a two-thirds vote for any amendment of the rules, so change is glacial. Only three of the current members of the Senate have ever voted on a major rule change.Majority rule works in our town meetings, in our state Legislature, in the legislatures of other states, and in the U.S. House. It also can work in the U.S. Senate. Of course, if that comes to pass, it means that some day there will be a majority in the Senate that passes laws that I don’t agree with. But that’s what democracy is all about — majority rule.
Mark Fernald is a former state senator and was the 2002 Democratic nominee for governor.