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‘Tis the season for changing how the Senate works

(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Legislative Procedure on October 22, 2018.)

In the Senate today, the legislative process is centralized under the control of the party leaders — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY. McConnell and Schumer work together to make the legislative process more predictable by limiting what rank-and-file members are allowed to do on the Senate floor. Senators’ support of their efforts is implicit in the status quo. While an increasing number have expressed frustration in recent years, they have not yet used their power to act on the Senate floor to change how the institution operates.

Of course, senators may not act on their frustration because they believe that challenging their leaders’ control of the legislative process during a two-year Congress could be counter-productive. But such logic does not mean that senators will never act. Rather, it simply suggests that otherwise frustrated senators will act to change how their leaders manage the Senate when doing so is least disruptive. Put simply, we should expect senators to change the status quo at the end of a two-year Congress or at the very beginning of a new Congress.

Senators have a number of opportunities to change the status quo in the period after an election and before the adoption of an organizing resolution in January after the new Congress convenes. Legislative Procedure will explore these opportunities in several posts over the coming weeks.

Conference Rules

The first opportunity for senators to change the status quo arises when they meet after next month’s elections to adopt internal party rules and select their leaders for the 116th Congress. (Note: The rules of the Senate Republican Conference can be found here. The rules of the Democratic Caucus are not currently available to the public.) Internal party rules regulate the process by which members are assigned to committees and select their chairmen/ranking members. They may also limit the number of terms senators can serve as committee chairmen/ranking members or in a party leadership position.

Given the party-centric nature of Senate decision-making at present, rank-and-file members can affect significant changes in both procedure and policy by proposing reforms to their party’s internal rules. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the rules of the Senate Republican Conference. Specifically, it will consider several potential reforms to those rules, as well as their likely effects.

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Topics: Legislative Procedure
Tags: James Wallner