Byrd’s legacy

A chunkier parliamentary procedure:

The most obvious example was his status as longtime lord of congressional appropriations, which built his state’s economy on pork but also built the Washington lobbying culture of favors for campaign contributions and the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. It’s no accident that veterans of the Appropriations Committee have almost all of the top jobs in Congress at this time of reckless spending and influence-peddling scandals.

Byrd was also the leader of the opposition to limits on filibusters and secret holds. His motive was noble, and he fought for it until the end. His final speech, entered into the record last week but not delivered, defended an individual senator’s right to block legislation in secret. “Our Founding Fathers intended the Senate,” he lectured colleagues last month in one of his last appearances, to have “unlimited debate and the protection of minority rights.”

But the Founders probably didn’t envision how how the process would be abused. Between 1917 and 1971, according to the Congressional Research Service, there was an average of one “cloture motion” — a maneuver to overcome a filibuster — filed per year. That’s now up to 70 per year.

This, along with the secret holds, explains why some 400 bills in this Congress that have passed the House — more than 80 percent unanimously or with a majority of Republicans — have not been taken up by the Senate. Twenty-two judicial appointees — 13 of whom received unanimous support in committee — languish awaiting a vote. The Senate isn’t broken because it gets snarled on contentious issues. It’s broken because it gets snarled when there’s no dispute.


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