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A pretty view, hiding some ugly stuff inside (AP photo)

What a broken Senate looks like from far away...and why it matters

COMMENTARY | August 30, 2010

Our correspondent in Australia has ideas on how to improve things a little. But he’s not optimistic that anyone on Capitol Hill will be interested.

By William Claiborne

As they watch the never-ending dysfunction of the U.S. Senate from the far side of the world, many Australians are simultaneously amused and aghast, unable to understand how the so-called world’s greatest deliberative body can continue to act so self-destructively against legislative imperatives that affect the future of generations of Americans and indeed, the entire world.

Currently, the Republican Party’s use of arcane loopholes, which include relics from 19th Century Senate rules, to impede the majority’s legislative agenda seems oddly nihilististic to many of my fellow Aussies. Naturally they come to me for explanations because I’m the “bloody Yank” who migrated to Australia nearly a decade ago and took up Aussie citizenship. I’m an “old journo” as well.

Some of my friends watch American political news on cable TV and can’t understand why so many purely partisan and seemingly vexatious amendments are used by both sides, depending on who’s in power, to sabotage even routine bills and appointments. They scratch their heads uncomprehendingly over the use of the filibuster in the Senate to delay proceedings and push narrow ideological purposes, even when public opinion overwhelmingly favors enactment.

Australians are quite sensitive to what happens in Washington. This country is a key partner with the United States in free trade agreements, mutual defense treaties, scientific and cultural exchanges and numerous other cooperative arrangements. When things go sour in America, politically or economically, it is felt Down Under.

Once a great rarity, filibusters now are used by Republicans an average of twice a week to obstruct the Democrats, as Norman Ornstein pointed out in a New York Times op ed piece recently. One suggestion offered by Ornstein was to replace the majority’s responsibility to end the debate with the minority’s responsibility to keep it going. For the first four weeks of debate the Senate would require the majority party to find 60 votes for cloture, but once that time had lapsed, the debate would automatically end unless the minority could find 40 votes to continue it. 

Another informative analysis of the Senate’s current dysfunction is offered in “The Empty Chamber,” by George Packer in the Aug. 9 New Yorker Magazine. Packer observed that “the two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body.” He noted it is unlikely that comprehensive energy-reform legislation will be taken up during the rest of this year. 

I don’t think it’s too whimsical to wonder if there are any aspects of Australia’s parliamentary system that could be adopted as reforms in America to address the kind of gridlock described by Ornstein and Packer. I don’t mean abandoning the equal branches of governments or the principle of checks and balances. Nor do I suggest that Congress should try to become substantially more like a parliament. I’m talking about rules changes and the tweaking of some procedures that might lead to more civility and cooperation among the lawmakers. These things can be exported. After all, when the Australian House of Representatives adopted a bipartisan procedural change to speed up votes on non-contentious legislation in 1994, the British Parliament copied the change. 

I’m not Pollyannish enough to think that in the U.S., even just tweaking the Senate rules is achievable, or would even substantively change anything on Capitol Hill. But it is a measure of how self-destructive and shortsighted the Republicans have become in their relentless obstructionism and how degraded the Senate has become as a consequence, that almost any change is at least worth considering.

So here are some ideas from Australia:

The Main Committee, sometimes called the “second chamber,” sits in a large committee room in the Canberra Parliament building that has been converted to look like a small-scale House of Representatives floor. Its members  meet simultaneously with regular proceedings on the House floor, spend most of their time debating legislation at the second reading stage to save time for the main legislative body. The Main Committee can significantly reduce the time wasted in partisan bickering by processing and approving committee reports and other documents presented to the House. 

The committee is less formal than the House and its declared guiding principle is co-operation. It has no provision for divisiveness. Normally, only business on which it is hoped that agreement can be reached is referred to the committee, and any disorder closes it down on the motion of one member. Unresolved business is then referred back to the House floor. 

In short, the Main Committee is intended to cut through the kind of obstructionism currently being used by Republicans in the U.S. Senate to delay or kill bills proposed by the majority Democrats. There is some evidence that it works. Experts say that typically about 220 proposed laws are presented during most parliamentary terms, and 80 per cent of them are eventually resolved through bipartisan cooperation. Obviously, there are still major bills upon which the major parties are unable to reach agreement, most notably carbon emissions trading legislation and how to deal with refugee boat people attempting to sail to Australia from Indonesia. 

There are similarities—and major differences—between Australia’s Main Committee and the Committee of the Whole in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is frequently used to temporarily suspend House rules and move ahead speedily in a different guise on major bills to which a committee may have added many amendments. The U.S. Senate does not have a committee of the whole. 

In the U.S. House Committee of the Whole, 100 members are needed for a quorum, debate is limited to five minutes on each side for each amendment and all business is conducted on the House floor. In Australia all members of the House are eligible to participate in Main Committee meetings, but the quorum is only three, including the chairperson, who is the deputy House Speaker, and one government and non-government House member. The smaller number of members is thought by some parliamentary observers to increase the chances of bipartisan agreement, even though all bills approved by the Main Committee still have to be enacted by the full House. 

Unlike the Committee of the Whole, the Australian Main Committee meets two days a week at fixed times which may be extended if the volume of business necessitates. 

As Ornstein observed in his analysis of the filibuster, the U.S. Senate once was a place for careful—and cooperative—deliberation. Even in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights debates, filibusters and cloture votes were relatively rare. Lawmakers like Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen got things done with bipartisan civility and respect. The1964 Civil Rights Act was drafted largely in Dirksen’s Senate office, and the following year Medicare was passed by a vote of 70-24. 

I don’t profess to be an expert in parliamentary politics, although I have lived and worked as a journalist in five countries with parliamentary systems, most of them similar to Australia’s (the others are Israel, India, South Africa and Canada). 

My impression is that although there are plenty of theatrics and raucous posturing on the floor of Parliament in Canberra, there also are far more enduring comity and mutual trust than on the floor of the U.S. Senate. There seems to me to be more willingness to sit down together after the partisan showboating of Question Time is finished, and members talk seriously with the opposition about legislative imperatives. 

My Australian friends often ask me why the seemingly broken U.S. Senate doesn’t try the Question Time model to see if it might help reduce some of the venom on the Senate floor during formal debates. It would at least be an attempt to reach those all-important principled decisions about when to support and when to oppose the opposition’s legislative initiatives on a bipartisan basis. 

Also, Australians are puzzled about why the U.S. Senate doesn’t at least attempt to reform the kind of obscure and arcane rules—apart from the filibuster—that are so often used by minority parties to stall or even kill votes on contentious bills, such as one relic Senate rule that was written in the 1800s for the sole purpose of guaranteeing senators enough time to get to the Capitol by horseback to be present for a vote. 

I tell my friends, somewhat weakly, that I don’t know. Maybe it’s because Australia, which didn’t break its colonial ties to England and become a federation of Commonwealth states until 1901, hasn’t had enough time to acquire such arcane rules. Or maybe “seemingly broken” isn’t the right description of the U.S. Senate. Maybe “flat-out broken” would be more apt.  


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