Orrin Hatch: It's time to fix the United States Senate

By Orrin Hatch, For the Deseret News

Published: Wed, Sept. 3, 2014, 8:40 p.m. MDT

 This July 9, 2014, file photo shows, from left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as they listen to the National Anthem during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington.

This July 9, 2014, file photo shows, from left, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as they listen to the National Anthem during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington.

(Susan Walsh, Associated Press)

At a time of deep political division, most observers agree on one thing: the United States Senate has become dysfunctional. This view is shared by Americans across the ideological spectrum and by current and former senators of both parties.

The public's perception matches the political reality. The Senate is dominated by petty partisanship and accomplishes little. It is in worse shape now than at any other time during my 38 years of service here. The American people deserve better. But to improve the situation, we must identify the true source of the problem.

Some observers demand that the Senate simply do more—and do its work more efficiently by majority vote. To these critics, the Senate’s longstanding rules and procedures are relics of a bygone era that must be swept away so that Congress can rush to pass additional laws and approve nominations more quickly.

The purpose of the Senate, however, is not simply to duplicate the work of the House of Representatives, where a bare majority can rule. Our work is of a different sort. America’s Founders designed the Senate to refine the immediate impulses of popular will, and to apply considered judgment to produce thoughtful legislation aimed at the common good.

The Framers of our Constitution were deliberate in structuring the Senate to fulfill this unique function. In addition to their careful constitutional architecture, the Senate’s rules, traditions, and precedents have developed over more than two centuries as means of reinforcing and facilitating its fundamental purpose.

Throughout the Senate’s history, the rights of all senators to debate issues and to amend legislation have become the twin pillars that ensured its lofty purpose of thoughtful judgment. As the late Robert C. Byrd, a respected Democratic majority leader and the longest-serving senator in history, wisely observed: “As long as the Senate retains the power to amend and the power of unlimited debate, the liberties of the people will remain secure.”

Many of the Senate’s greatest legislative achievements have been the direct result of robust debate and an open amendment process that allowed senators to deliberate earnestly and arrive at eventual consensus.

Sadly, the current majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, has largely done away with these critical and defining practices. Under his leadership, the Senate has departed from its constitutional functions and become an embarrassing failure.

The Senate no longer adheres to an open amendment process that encourages collaboration and results in well-considered legislation. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, Majority Leader Reid has used his position to deny amendments to minority senators more than twice as often as the previous six majority leaders combined. Recently, Reid allowed votes on only 11 Republican amendments over the course of an entire year—while the Republican-controlled House voted on 174 Democrat amendments.

The other defining feature of the Senate, the right to debate, is also fast becoming a thing of the past. Majority Leader Reid typically files cloture on legislation at the very same time he brings it up for consideration, seeking to end debate on a bill before debate has even begun. He has used this tactic far more often than his predecessors, and its effect is to prevent meaningful deliberation altogether. Reid wrongly labels Republican efforts to debate legislation as “filibusters,” and he even employed the so-called “nuclear option” to change the Senate’s rules and empower a bare partisan majority to curtail our right to debate.

This abuse of the Senate is a national travesty. It is a primary reason why our government in Washington is now broken. Majority Leader Reid has discarded much of what enables the Senate to serve the common good, simply in order to advance his own party’s temporary political gain. Such a betrayal of the public trust is nothing short of tragic.

The Senate’s essential role in our constitutional system must be restored. It should once again be the primary source of lasting legislative achievements borne out of thoughtful deliberation and bipartisan consensus to advance the national interest.

If and when Republicans regain control of the Senate, we must reject the slash-and-burn tactics employed by the current majority leader, which serve only to destroy an institution carefully designed to promote good government.

Instead, restoring the Senate will require both Republicans and Democrats to stand up for the Senate’s longstanding rules, traditions, and precedents — especially the right to robust debate and an open amendment process — that served our nation so well for so long. Only by doing so can we reestablish the U.S. Senate as the world’s greatest deliberative body and begin to fix what’s broken in Washington.

Orrin Hatch is Utah’s senior U.S. Senator and the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.

1. jashill
Mapleton, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

Orrin Hatch is not a defender of the Constitution. He should have retired before his last election. He shamefully questioned Elena Kagan regarding her alteration of evidence in the federal courts pertaining to partial birth abortion. Though he skillfully led her to admit her participation in changing evidence, he did not follow through with a challenge to withdraw her nomination because her conduct was illegal and required her disbarment. Instead he acquiesced in her placement on the high court. He is no defender of the U.S. Constitution. He ignominiously joins his Democrat friends in criticizing Utah's Senator Mike Lee for his courageous defense of our Constitution and Liberty.

Retire Senator Hatch! Utah needs another Senator pledged to defend our Republic rather than serve the Secret Combinations of the Republican Senate and allow the continuance of the treasonous conduct of Harry Reid. You speak for the self-serving Old GOP, not for the people of this great Republic.

2. clearthink
Salt Lake City, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

The Senate broke when the 17th Amendment was adopted. Instead of having state legislatures elect senators, now the general public does, which has led to the domination of special interests, money, and populism. Lack of term limits also contributes to the broken Senate, with entrenched Senators such as Reid and Hatch who harbor bad feelings based on personality conflicts.
The Republicans did control the Senate not too long ago, and they made enough of a mess that the people elected Democrats, who are probably worse in most areas. Neither party represents the people, and neither will unless we revert to the original Constitution.

3. Informed Voter
South Jordan, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

So Senator, what can be done to spotlight the complicent democrat senators who support Harry Reid, thus enabling him? It seems they all vote in lock step. How about calling them out on what they are doing to the Senate as you stated in your article? 95% of the public have no idea of the harm they are doing since they never hear anything except the Republicans are the problem. For heaven's sale (and ours), will you and others go public via the mass media? The Republicans in Congress rightly deserve the wimp reputation they have. And yet when Senators Lee, Cruz, and Paul speak up, they are criticized by their fellow Republicans!

4. Irony Guy
Bountiful, Utah,
Sept. 3, 2014

Hatch conveniently leaves out the outrageous Republican obstructionism that forced Reid to alter the rules on filibuster. Of 168 presidential appointments rejected in the entire history of the Senate, 86 of them--nearly half--were Obama appointments!!! Republicans like Mike Lee childishly refuse to vote for cloture on any Obama appointments. The result has been near breakdown of the gov't. All of Orrin's high-toned talk about "the deliberative traditions of the Senate" is just political eyewash.

5. sensible advocate
slc, UT,
Sept. 3, 2014

If you are around for 38 years, you have time for unlimited debate. Presidents are only around for 4 or 8 and they need competent people on their team that they have vetted. The Senate is a wreck because people waste time up there blocking reasonable nominations and sending up legislation over and over that just sais kill obamacare 40 different ways like a child begging for sucker while their parent is trying to get something productive done.