Senate majority leader uses position to make powerful legislative decisions
Harry Reid is one of 100 senators, but so far in 2014, he’s been responsible for one-third of all the amendments proposed on the Senate floor — a number that underscores just how much one man has come to dominate the legislative process.
More so than House Speaker John A. Boehner or even President Obama, it is Mr. Reid, a Nevada Democrat in his eighth year as majority leader, who has the most single-handed power to shape what gets done and what falls to the wayside in Washington.
Mr. Reid is increasingly bullish on using that power, deciding what bills make it to his chamber floor, what amendments will be allowed to those bills that do get there and whether the debate will become a serious policy discussion or a political tool designed to rally his party’s supporters and annoy his tea party opponents.
His control has been of incalculable benefit to both Mr. Obama, who is able to avoid embarrassing legislative rebukes, and to Senate Democrats, who are sometimes able to avoid having to take tough votes that could cost them the support of voters back home.
Republicans, though, attack Mr. Reid as a tyrant who is silencing their voices and those of the millions of Americans the GOP senators represent.
“It is quite disgraceful,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, fumed on the chamber floor earlier this year in what has become a running debate with Mr. Reid. “But it’s no surprise either, since the Democratic majority clearly ran out of ideas a long time ago. Their refusal to engage in serious debate is just another symptom of that.”
Mr. Reid counters that Republicans have gotten hung up on Senate rules rather than working on the issues he’s offered for the chamber’s agenda.
“They’re focused on procedure,” he said late last month in the latest floor battle with Mr. McConnell. “What the American people want [is] they want us to do things. They want the minimum wage raised. They want unemployment benefits extended.”
The evidence of a shutdown in the Senate is overwhelming.
Just 14 Senate bills have been signed into law so far this year. That’s nine fewer than at the same point in 2013, which itself is the most futile completed year on record, according to The Washington Times’ Legislative Futility Index.
Through the end of June, just 41 measures have been reported as being out of committees and gone to the Senate floor, which puts senators on pace for their worst year in more than three decades. Total bills considered are also down, as are roll-call votes on amendments.
But it’s Mr. Reid’s own personal record on amendments that stands out.
Before him, 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. Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, who passed away late last month, actually averaged less than 1 percent during his four-year tenure.
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.
It was actually closer to 40 percent just a few weeks ago, but Mr. Reid agreed to allow his colleagues to offer a few amendments to a bipartisan job-training bill, which ended up passing overwhelmingly.
‘That’s too bad’
Mr. Reid has been unapologetic. “If that makes me too powerful, that’s too bad,” he told reporters earlier this year. “The only reason that we’re doing this is because for 51⁄2 years, everything that this president’s tried to do, they’ve stepped in the way.”
Mr. Reid also argues that even when he agrees to give Republicans a vote on something they want, they change their stance and ask for more, thereby presenting a moving target.
During a debate on an energy-efficiency bill earlier this year, Republicans wanted a vote on a proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Mr. Reid said he would allow a vote on a stand-alone bill as long as the GOP allowed the energy-efficiency legislation to clear unmolested.
But Republicans said in addition to Keystone, they should be allowed to offer other amendments. One popular one would undo the Obama administration’s proposed regulations that target coal-fired power plants.
One of the major sticking points is whether the Senate should informally adopt a new standard that every bill