Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Harry Reid: The Most Powerful Man in Congress

Created: 21 July, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
5 min read

The current era, dubiously named “the New Gilded Age” by more than a few journalists, is characterized not only by extreme inequality of wealth, and therefore power, but also the concentration of power in a very small class of people. The idea of an American oligarchy used to be accepted only in small dissident circles, but it has now entered the mainstream.

Princeton political scientists released a study in April concluding that the U.S. is a democratic republic only in theory. The real power lies with a few private monied interests, not the average citizen or even the politicians they elect. 

Yet, it’s a curious fact that even in these times of extreme alienation between the demos and their representatives (a misnomer if there ever was one), there is a remarkable parallel to American society happening on Capitol Hill, and in the Senate in particular.

The Senate was conceived as an august body of senior statesmen who, given their long six-year terms, could devote their collective energies to larger, longer-term issues and cool the hot debates that emerge from the rambunctious House. However, today’s Senate, like today’s America, can no longer be honestly described as a democratic institution.

The Senate has its own oligarchs -- Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Of course, by definition of their respective titles, it is Harry Reid who holds the most power between the two and he hasn’t been afraid to wield it, particularly when it comes to controlling the amendments process.

The not-so-inside joke of Hill staffers is “process matters more than policy.” In that sense, Reid is putting on a clinic.

The majority leader, according to parliamentary procedures in place, has the right of first recognition on the Senate floor. What this means is when the Senate floor opens, the presiding officer offers the majority leader first dibs on controlling the floor (to have the floor is to be able to talk and conduct business without interruption) if he or she so chooses. Reid has taken full advantage of the procedure almost every time a bill has reached the Senate floor for debate.

When a bill arrives on the floor for deliberation and debate, senators are typically allowed time to make statements and, more importantly, submit amendments to the bill (i.e. strike or add language to the bill).

Typically, the amount of amendments allowed for consideration is capped at eleven. However, Reid has completely usurped the power of other senators by consistently using his right of first recognition to “fill the tree,” which means to fill all amendment slots with his own amendments, thereby locking out other senators from submitting their own amendments.

Filling the tree is not unprecedented, but the amount of times Reid has used the tactic is extraordinary. From the Washington Times’ Stephen Dinan and S.A. Miller:

"Since the beginning of this year, Republicans have been granted roll-call votes on just seven amendments, or an average of one per month. Democrats are doing even worse, at just five. By contrast, in the House, where the minority is supposed to be at an even bigger disadvantage, there have been roll-call votes on 163 amendments, and a majority of those have been on proposals from Democrats.”

Even more telling is the amount of amendments coming from Reid himself:

“Before [Reid], the most amendments any previous majority leader had been responsible for was Sen. Bill Frist, who accounted for 7.5 percent of amendments in 2006. The average over the 25 years or so before Mr. Reid took office was slightly more than 2 percent. [...] Mr. Reid’s numbers are just the opposite: In 2007, his first year as leader, he accounted for 3.2 percent of amendments. That jumped to 12.4 percent in 2008, 5.3 percent in 2009, 19.3 percent in 2010, 14.2 percent in 2011, 18.4 percent in 2012, 12.8 percent in 2013 and a stunning 33.6 percent so far this year.”

Mr. Reid is wielding his power at the expense of his colleagues (including Democrats) and the entire "first branch" of government. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Senate Democrats proposed 676 amendments in the last year but were allowed votes on all of seven. Republicans proposed 812 and got votes on eleven.”

From the New York Times:

“Compared with 2011, the Senate saw a 20-percent decline in bills approved last year, and senators cast the second-lowest number of votes of any first session this century. Democrats say Republicans were given 74 amendment votes last year, 68 percent of the total. But half of them came over one grueling 24-hour marathon, when the Senate voted on 37 non-binding advisory amendments to the Senate budget last spring.”

So why is Reid wielding power so caustically? The answer is underwhelming and unsurprising: re-election –- not just for him, but for vulnerable southern Democrats.

There is a real chance that Democrats could lose control of the Senate in November and they have no chance of toppling the GOP majority in the House. Senate Republicans are well aware of southern Democrats’ vulnerability and want to use any opportunity available to force vulnerable senators to make controversial decisions that may give their challengers an advantage in upcoming elections.

It is the natural outcome of legislating that legislators take a stance on policy, but for southern Democrats, they are better off not taking a stance so that they can have flexibility on the campaign trail to appease voters.

Reid’s tactics give room for legislators to relieve themselves of the burden of having to legislate and make choices. It’s little surprise that analysts in the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan D.C. think tank, have designated the Senate, and Harry Reid in particular, as the primary cause of congressional inaction.

But perhaps even more dangerously, Reid has become the single most powerful man in the United States Congress. He alone gets to decide which laws are considered and ignored. He alone can decide which amendments are given consideration.

In short, for anyone interested in passing legislation (like lobbyists or those aforementioned monied private interests), the offices of Harry Reid, perhaps inadvertently, are now the one-stop shop. Reid has set a precedent that someone with even less scruples than he can exploit in the future.

All this leads to an uncomfortable thought: who does Harry Reid answer to?

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