June 27, 2007

June 27, 2007 | Commentary on Immigration

Senate Rules

Usually, life in the U.S. Senate pokes along at a snail's pace. All the members insist they're working hard, but in a body that usually requires unanimous consent, it's often difficult to make any headway.

Ah, but that's not the case with the immigration amnesty bill, now being ushered through the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. That bill's shooting forward like a shotgun blast. And, fittingly, Reid's pulling the trigger with the help of an arcane and complicated procedure called the "Clay Pigeon."

Of course, using the terms "arcane" and "Senate" in the same sentence may seem redundant, yet understanding this particular procedure can help us understand how President Bush and Sen. Reid have put together an "Axis of Amnesty" to get this bill signed into law.

Polls repeatedly show the American people don't want amnesty for illegal aliens. Conservatives realize that, and it's put our irascible movement in a rage the likes of which has not been experienced in years.

Yet the crafters of this deal seem determined to ride this train to passage in the Senate at any cost. This bill is an expensive amnesty, and the "coalition of the willing" President Bush has put together is an odd mix of conservatives and liberals who support an effort they may not even realize would change our nation irreparably.

Now, let's get back to the methods a few senators are using to force the bill through.

The "Clay Pigeon" is a rarely used tactic that is used almost exclusively by the Senate minority party. Its purpose: to get multiple amendments considered when the leadership, blocks the minority's right to offer multiple amendments to a bill. Senate Rule X reads that "(i)f a question in a debate includes several points, any member may have the same divided." The Senate rules forbid the consideration of more than one amendment at once, yet under this rule, it is permissible to write a carefully crafted amendment with divisions to get multiple amendments pending.

According to The Congressional Quarterly, Reid may use the "Clay Pigeon" maneuver to get approximately 24 hand-picked amendments pending. He will then file a cloture petition to shut off debate, thereby blocking consideration of any non-approved amendments. This, of course, isn't the way the Senate traditionally operates, and is highly offensive to those who respect its traditional role as the world's most deliberative body.

If used, the "Clay Pigeon" would set a bad precedent and turn the Senate, at least on this bill, into a body without debate. There would no longer be the chance for one member to significantly affect debate and the amendment process.

The irony here is that Majority Leader Reid has long championed the Senate's traditional rules. Just two years ago, he wrote to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist that, "(t)he Senate should not become like the House of Representatives, where the majority manipulates the rules to accommodate its momentary needs." Sen. Reid might want to reread that letter.

At the time, Reid was criticizing efforts by the Republican majority to change the Senate rules and effectively abolish the filibuster rule for judicial nominees. In the letter, Reid quoted former Republican Leader Howard Baker who argued that limiting the right to extended debate "would topple one of the pillars of American democracy: the protection of minority rights from majority rule. The Senate is the only body in the federal government where these minority rights are fully and specifically protected." Perhaps not anymore.

Evidently, the principle enunciated in Reid's letter expired when his side switched from minority to majority and decided to push for amnesty for illegal aliens.

Another quote from Reid's letter came from Democratic leader (and later president) Lyndon Johnson who said: "In this country, a majority may govern but it does not rule. The genius of our constitutional and representative government is the multitude of safeguards provided to protect minority interests." One of those safeguards, unfortunately, may soon be kicked to the curb to accelerate the amnesty train.

The Senate is an esteemed body that conducts almost all of its business by unanimous consent. The minority lets bills move with the understanding that the majority will not railroad them through the body.

The right to offer amendments and debate is critical to the core right of any senator. If the majority ignores these fundamental rights, the minority should react swiftly by stopping the work of the Senate in its tracks.

A good friend of mine used to drive around Washington, D.C. with a license plate that said, "I Object." Those are the two most important words that a senator can learn upon his swearing into the most exclusive club in Washington, D.C.

I hope a senator walks down to the floor and utters those words over and over again during the debate to stop the Senate leaders from destroying the rules. America wants a brakeman to stop this amnesty freight train before it causes a horrible crash.

Brian Darling is director of U.S. Senate Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brian Darling Senior Fellow for Government Studies
Government Studies

First appeared in the National Review