The Graveyard of the Congress

The U.S. Senate has become the graveyard of Congress! Dozens of bills passed by the House of Representatives—to improve the health, safety and economic well-being of Americans—are locked up in the Senate month after month.

This was not always the case. In the sixties and seventies, legislation affecting consumers, workers and the environment often started in the Senate and was sent to the House in the hope that that body would not weaken or defeat these bills.

Committee chairs like Senators Warren Magnuson, Gaylord Nelson, and Walter Mondale would move legislation after great public hearings open to the citizenry. Auto safety, product safety, meat and poultry inspection, gas pipeline safety in the late sixties, followed by the sweeping air and water pollution control bills in the early seventies, were examples of Senatorial initiatives.

Today, the Senate lies paralyzed even as it is controlled by 59 Democrats—usually enough for comfortable passage of legislation sought by a majority party that also controls the presidency.

A combination of a few reactionary Democratic Senators, a unified pro-corporate Republican opposition, anti-democratic Senate rules and the decades-long weakening of citizen and trade union groups have combined to produce a constipated Senate.

The usually mild House Democratic Caucus Chairman, John Larson (CT) showed his irritation recently when he said that people are tired of the House passing legislation that stalls in the Senate.

Some of the bills passed by the House include the financial reform bill regarding Wall Street’s abuses, the omnibus energy bill, a long overdue adjustment of Postal Service pension payments, vision care for children, a job security act for wounded veterans, a paycheck fairness bill, an elder abuse victims bill, a water use efficiency and conservation research bill, an act to prohibit the importation of certain low-level radioactive waste into the U.S., an imposition of additional taxes on executive bonuses awarded by financial companies under bailout salvation, a mortgage reform and anti-predatory lending bill, food safety legislation, stronger enforcement authority for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and a student aid and fiscal responsibility bill.

These are some of the 290 bills already passed in the House—many of them minor to be sure—that House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (Dem. CA.) has noted. (See:

Granted the major House bills are not as strong as some citizen groups would like, which is why they try to get them strengthened in the Senate. Fat chance, as long as Rule 22—the notorious filibuster mechanism—exists, and as long as the Senators remain marinated in corporate campaign cash and prospective jobs for them or their relatives.

The filibuster is now virtual, unlike the traditional filibuster where its practitioners would have to go on the Senate floor for hours straining their bladders and the patience of the public.

Presently, all Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep. KY) has to do is merely notify Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid (Dem. NV) of the intent to extend debate and, voila, a minority of forty-one Senators defeats the majority rule of fifty-nine Senators.

So Senator Reid bewails that: “We had to file cloture some seventy times last year, seventy times. That’s remarkably bad. Let’s change that.”

So why don’t the Democrats “change that?” In 1975, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in his role as president of the Senate, ruled that fifty-one Senators could amend Senate rules. Senator Tom Udall has a resolution to do just that—predictably languishing in the Senate without even a hearing.

Moreover, Senator Tom Harkin proposed a resolution that would require a series of votes to cut off a filibuster. The first stage would need sixty votes, the second would need fifty-seven, then fifty-four and finally a simple majority over a period of weeks. That proposal is going nowhere.

Obviously, the Democrats could end the filibuster with a majority vote but choose not to because they may wish to use this tool of obstruction should they be in the minority. In fact, Harry Reid has ruled out any filibuster reform. Well then, why not end the “virtual” filibuster and make the Republicans hit the floor with round-the-clock debate televised around the nation. People are waiting and suffering from corporate-desired inaction.

Chicago lawyer and scholar, Thomas Geoghegan wrote an open letter to Senator Reid urging that he make the Republicans actually filibuster. Either make them stall the Senate on a minor bill to generate public ire or generate public outrage by making them filibuster a popular bill aimed at curbing corporate crime, waste and abuse or one that would save people money or their health.

Still, no response, other than debilitating talk by the Democrats about seeking bi-partisan support for their bills.

Face it—the Senate is breaking an already broken Congress into little pieces which are then sold for a mess of pottage. Organize Congress Watch Locals in every state, folks, for nobody will save you but yourselves.

RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.


Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!