Escaping the Black Hole in the Heart of DC

Washington, DC — The black hole, of course, is the Senate Rules. Efforts to make major reforms in the Senate this week -- reforms that would allow the Senate to vote on public business -- fell afoul of... the Senate Rules. Lacking a clear majority for significant changes, Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley discovered that under the Senate Rules as they stand, there is virtually no way to get the issue of reforming the Rules onto the Senate floor, should there be resistance. So not only can't the Senate vote, it can't even debate whether it should be allowed to vote! And a few recalcitrant Democrats prevented them from assembling the 51 votes they needed to force real reform.

This resistance to dialogue is like the "singularity" that physicists tell us exists in a black hole: so powerful is the force exerted that even light cannot escape, once it is trapped.

The Senate will agree to more modest reforms -- not enough. But the good news is that Merkley and Udall have found a way to continue to bring this issue up before the Senate over the next two years, so that every time the Minority abuses the rules, they can be forced to publicly reject rules reform. Which means that filibustering the public's business is no longer a free ride for Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus, who can be held accountable and forced to vote, if not to
actually debate.

This is ironic, since what McConnell claims he wants is to preserve the Senate's right to debate the issues. Actually he's shutting down debate, for fear that debate might lead to actual voting by Senators. But ordinary logic doesn't apply inside a black hole.

The first chance to see how well reformers in the Senate can shine a spotlight on the abuses comes Thursday, but as Udall said on Wednesday, quoting his uncle, former Congressman Morris Udall, "Reform is not for the short-of-breath. It takes time."

Now that we have begun the battle to Fix the Senate, we need to make sure that those Democrats who undercut the reformers -- like North Dakota's Kent Conrad, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, and above all, Max Baucus of Montanta — hear from their constituents. And we need to put the Republicans on notice: if they abuse the Rules, the Rules can still be changed.