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Udall Calls for Reform to Fix Broken Senate

Unprecedented abuse of Senate rules holding up work to help New Mexicans, all Americans.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -Today, following a rare meeting of Republicans and Democrats to discuss how to end unprecedented obstruction, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) said he was hopeful that the Senate would move forward to confirm several nominees for key administration positions. But he added that “obstruct and delay” has become the norm, and said a permanent change in the Senate rules must be made so the Senate can get work done for the American people.
 
Since 2009, Udall has called on the Senate to reform its rules – including by requiring a talking filibuster. 
 
“I have said for a long time: The Senate is broken. That we had to hold an unprecedented meeting of both Democrats and Republicans to discuss how we can work together highlights that fact,” Udall said. “I hope that what comes out of this is good — that we can find a way to confirm the pending and future nominations. This isn’t just an obscure debate about Senate procedure. We need to confirm these qualified nominees to key positions so they can protect consumers and American families. 

“We shouldn’t be in this situation. New Mexicans – and all Americans – expect better from us,” Udall continued. “We called for changes in the Senate rules at the beginning of this Congress, and we didn’t do enough. And we know that even if we have an agreement to move forward on these nominees, we’ll be right back in this situation next time we’re asked to confirm an appointment one side doesn’t like. I’m going to keep fighting for a talking filibuster and other changes to ensure the Senate will work for the American people again.”

Earlier in the day, Udall delivered a speech on the Senate floor, urging his colleagues to end the gridlock on presidential nominees. Watch his speech here.

The following are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

I have listened to this debate, and the word “broken” gets tossed around: Broken agreements; breaking the rules to change the rules. 

Those are sideline comments. And they miss the real point, because what is broken is the Senate itself. 

I have said for a long time: The Senate is a graveyard for good ideas. And the shovel is unprecedented abuse of filibusters – of delay and obstruction. It all adds up to one thing: broken. 

We called for changes in the Senate rules at the beginning of this Congress. We should have put in a talking filibuster and other changes. We didn’t. 

So we have this tyranny of the minority. Where the minority governs – just the situation that our Founding Fathers feared. 

Too often, the Senate is still a graveyard for good ideas, and the bodies just keep piling up. Especially with executive branch nominees. 

In January, the two leaders agreed to “work together to schedule votes on nominees in a timely manner by unanimous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances.”

The Minority Leader said, “On the subject of nominations, Senate Republicans will continue to work with the majority to process nominations, consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate.” 

That was the agreement, and it has not been kept. 

The only “extraordinary circumstance” has been continual obstruction, and it began very early on. 

For openers, we saw the filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s nomination – the first time a Secretary of Defense was ever filibustered. 

But this is part and parcel for President Obama’s Cabinet secretaries. 

By way of comparison: 
  • Not one of President Carter’s cabinet nominees was filibustered. 
  • President George H.W. Bush: zero. 
  • President Reagan: one. 
  • President George W. Bush: one. 
  • President Obama: FOUR, and still counting. 
I’m old enough to remember the era when my father was Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. 

When I joined the Senate, I told him, we can’t get executive nominees in place. The President and cabinet secretaries don’t have their team. He said “Tom, I had my whole team in place the first two weeks.” 

Imagine that. Imagine if the whole team for the Department of the Interior, or any department, was confirmed in the first two weeks. Agencies could function. Our government could do its work.

Instead, the President’s nominations are ambushed by filibusters. Confirmation now almost always requires 60 votes, contrary to the historical practice of the Senate. 

And more importantly, contrary to the explicit simple majority requirement in the U.S. Constitution. 
 
This is not the “traditions and norms” the Republicans committed to. It is anything but. 

Still, that is what we have seen. One nominee after another: Blocked. And key leadership posts left unfilled. 

Americans thought they spoke with a clear voice last November. No doubt now they wonder, and why wouldn’t they? 

The will of the majority is drowned out by a small minority. 

People in my home state of New Mexico want to know – Americans want to know – who is minding the store? The answer, in too many cases, is no one. 

We still don’t have a Secretary of Labor.  

The National Labor Relations Board is an empty shell. The Senate has failed to confirm a full five-member board and general counsel. Two of these nominees are Republicans. Even they couldn’t get through. 

This has real impact for 80 million Americans who rely on workplace protections – for the rights of workers and the integrity of the collective bargaining process. 

Some believe this is a good thing that we toss out the enforcement of labor law in this country. I don’t share that view. 

But, it isn’t just workers who are left hanging. Leadership positions at other vital agencies remain unfilled:
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 
  • The Environmental Protection Agency. 
  • The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 
  • The Federal Election Commission. 
These are important jobs, important work for the American people affecting the environment, consumers., health care and even our elections.

Earlier this year we debated gun safety legislation. Republicans argued that we don’t need new laws, that we just need to enforce the existing laws. 

Unfortunately, the agency responsible for enforcing many of those laws - the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – has not had a Senate-confirmed director in seven years. Why? Because Republicans do not want ATF to function.

Many of these highly qualified Americans get tired of having their lives put on hold because of partisan obstruction. Rather than continue to languish in a dysfunctional system, they withdraw from consideration. 

One such example was Dawn Johnsen, nominated to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Johnsen was a respected law professor and former top assistant in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton Administration. But Republicans blocked her nomination. In 2010, after her nomination was stalled in the Senate over a year, she withdrew.

Another example is Peter Diamond. In 2011, he withdrew as President Obama’s nominee to the Federal Reserve Board. Diamond’s nomination was blocked because a small minority of senators questioned whether he was qualified. I tend to believe that he was, as he won the Nobel Prize in economics the year before.

It makes you wonder why anyone would subject themselves to a Senate confirmation – people who want to serve their country, often at a significant pay cut from their private sector careers, but know they will be subjected to a partisan fight that may have nothing to do with their qualifications.

So, months and years go by. Work is left undone with no one at the helm of major government agencies. And that is why the Senate is in crisis. That is why we are here today. The American people deserve better than this. 

We need a government that does its job. That’s not possible without leadership.  

Congress’ approval rating remains in the cellar. Why? Because of a failure to get things done. Even things as basic as allowing the President to select his own team. 

Find 60 votes, or find someone else, or leave the position empty. 

This is the status quo. And it must change. 

It’s time for us to act. It’s time to restore the confirmation process; restore it to how it has worked for over 200 years. 

And doing so is not “breaking the rules to change the rules.” They have been changed before, and it’s often done by a simple majority – when the minority is abusing Senate procedure. 

As Senator Merkley pointed out last week, it’s been done at least 18 times since 1977. And contrary to the Republicans’ dire warnings, making these changes has never lead to the death of the Senate. 

In fact, the Republicans themselves made a strong argument for such changes back in 2005. They were up in arms. Why? Because 10 judicial nominations had been blocked. Ten. That number seems quaint now. But it was enough for Republicans, and they were very clear about it. 

Here’s what the Republican Policy Committee said in 2005:

“This breakdown in Senate norms is profound. There is now a risk that the Senate is creating a new, 60-vote confirmation standard. The Constitution plainly requires no more than a majority vote to confirm any executive nomination, but some Senators have shown that they are determined to override this constitutional standard…Exercising the constitutional option in response to judicial nomination filibusters would restore the Senate to its longstanding norms and practices governing judicial nominations, and guarantee that a minority does not transform the fundamental nature of the Senate’s advice and consent responsibility. This approach, therefore, would be both reactive and restorative.”
…restore the Senate to its longstanding norms and practices. It would be difficult to state the case more clearly. 

This isn’t just about rules. It is about the traditions and norms of the Senate and their collapse under the weight of filibusters. 

I know the winds can change. Positions can change. Neither side is 100 percent pure. Both sides have had their moments of obstruction – and no doubt had their reasons at the time. 

But I don’t think the American people care much about that. They don’t want a history lesson. They don’t want a primer on parliamentary procedure. They just want a government that works. That gets things done. Period. 

I came to the Senate in 2009. My position on this has not changed since then. The Senate needs to do its job, and it’s missing in action. 

When we proposed to change the rules at the beginning of the Congress, we were very clear. We called for a talking filibuster. 

If you want to hold up legislation, you should have to stand here in this chamber and make your case. We did not intend to trample on the legitimate rights of the minority. And we were willing to live with these rules. No matter if we were in the majority of the minority. 

I do not believe the Constitution gives me the right to block a qualified nominee. No matter who is in the White House. I say that today, and I will say it if I am in the minority tomorrow. 

A Republican president may have nominees I disagree with – most likely so – but the people elect a President, and they give him or her the right to select a team to govern.

If those nominees are qualified, a minority in the Senate should not be able to block them – on either side of the aisle. 

Oversight. Yes. Review. Yes. But not block because you don’t like their policy or their program or the law they are commanded to enforce. 

That is not advise and consent. It is obstruct and delay. New Mexicans want a government that works. The American people want a government that works. And they are tired of waiting. 


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