Minding the Minority

Jon Kyl, December 4, 2012

As the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) once noted, James Madison said at the Constitutional Convention that the Founders intended the Senate to be ‘a necessary fence’ that could ‘protect the people against their rulers.’ In contrast to the House of Representatives, which was set up to represent the people’s passions, the Senate was conceived to both represent the states and serve as a chamber of sober reflection. "[The] Founding Fathers intended the Senate to be a continuing body that allows for open and unlimited debate and the protection of minority rights," Byrd said. "Senators have understood that…since the Senate first convened."

And, indeed, for more than 200 years, the Senate has served exactly that role. One of the tools most important to the Senate’s proper functioning has long been the so-called "filibuster," which essentially encourages compromise among senators. It requires the majority party to build a 60-vote coalition to pass major legislation, rather than simply ramming through its agenda without input from colleagues in the minority.

Senators from both parties have long agreed that the filibuster is necessary as, among other things, leverage to guarantee the right to offer amendments. The current majority leader, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), recognized its importance when he became leader in 2006. "The need to muster 60 votes in order to terminate Senate debate naturally frustrates the majority and oftentimes the minority. I am sure it will frustrate me when I assume the office of majority leader," he said. "But I recognize this requirement is a tool that serves the long-term interest of the Senate and the American people."

Yet, today, Senator Reid has come to regard the same things he once championed as an inconvenience. And worse, he wants to allow a bare majority of senators to change the rules, rather than the two-thirds majority required by the Standing Rules of the Senate. In other words, he wants to break the rules to change the rules.

Allowing the Senate’s majority party of the day -- Democrat or Republican -- to write its own rules would mean it could control everything, rendering the minority powerless. Without the filibuster, as noted, senators could be totally shut out of the amendment process.

Political majorities in Washington are fleeting. Republicans controlled the Senate a few years ago, Democrats a few years before that. While Democrats form the Senate majority today, they might not tomorrow; that’s why they should be especially careful about taking tools away from the minority -- and, in so doing, cause the Senate irreversible harm.

For the past few years, there has been less and less committee consideration of important legislation, and fewer and fewer amendments allowed on the floor. These are the bricks and mortar of our democratic institutions. Do we really want to wake up one day and find that these important decisions are no longer decided on a collaborative basis by 100 senators representing 50 states, but by one man who happens to lead the Senate’s majority party?

Our Founders knew the tyranny of one-man rule -- that’s why they rebelled against a King. They knew the importance of inserting checks and balances into the system, with the Senate ensuring minority representation. We should respect the Founders’ wisdom, the rules of the Senate, and each other. It’s what’s best for America.

Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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