Toward a More Democratic Legislative Process.

Article excerpt

A host of issues face the Senate as members return to Washington for the 106th legislative session. While the fate of President Clinton, the future of Social Security and the changing face of our military hang in the balance, the Senate would be wise to take a long, hard look at its own future as well.

In the last few years, the Senate has embarked on a dangerous trend toward centralizing the lawmaking process in the hands of a small, elite group of senators, placing the integrity of our democratic process in peril.

Last October, in the waning days of the 105th session, member after member of the Senate strode to the floor to berate the process and means by which the body had concluded its business. Members found themselves outraged over the secretive nature in which a small triumvirate of leaders had negotiated the mammoth federal budget. And rightfully so. While power in the Senate has always relied on seniority; the power of Congress' elite few reached a new height last fall as final deliberations over the budget were relegated to an air-tight "war room" on Capitol Hill controlled by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, their staffs, and the White House.

Conservative Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's words were reflective of the Senate's general sentiment. "It will take months for us to study the more than 3,000 pages of text and learn what is in it. Yet we are asked to vote on this package, up or down, no amendments, with a couple of hours of debate. Take it or leave it. Mr President, that is irresponsible."

Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate leader on matters of rules and tradition, declared the budget, "A creation, without a mother or a father, rather more like a Frankenstein creature, a being of some sort that has been patched together from old legislative body parts that do not quite fit. And just as Dr. Frankenstein was quite surprised by the results of his creation, so may we be startled by the result of ours."

Certainly, with a legislative branch based on open, democratic, and thoughtful deliberations, this is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. Unfortunately, such an abomination of the democratic process is an all too familiar sight in today's United States Senate. Perhaps most damaging to the institution and the people it represents is the means by which the powerbrokers dictate their preferences during pivotal conference negotiations. After a bill has passed both the House and Senate (and assuming there are differences between the two versions), party leaders annoint a small number of conferees to work out the differences. Conference reports, which encompass the legislative compromise between competing House and Senate bills, are not open for amendment prior to final passage. As a result, new items added in the conference process avoid independent debate and scrutiny before being sent to the president.

With increasing boldness in recent years, party leaders have bucked their colleagues and inserted to the conference report unrelated, nongermane measures that were in neither the House or Senate bills.

Such an abhorrent practice is reserved for moments when leaders recognize that the measure would never withstand scrutiny. Until 1996, when the Senate overturned a prior precedent, inserting nongermane provisions during the conference process was prohibited by Rule 28 of the Senate's Standing Rules.

In 1997, without informing other conferees, Messrs. Lott and Gingrich inserted a provision in the Taxpayer Relief Act to allow tobacco companies to credit proceeds from a 15 cent cigarette tax increase against payments related to the tobacco industry settlement. …