Friday, November 20, 2009

Senator Coburn's newsletter

Here's the text of an email newsletter I received from Senator Coburn today:
The United States Senate regularly passes major legislation without even voting on it.

That disturbing fact caught my attention when I first arrived in the Senate, and frankly, it still bothers me.

The legislative process as it taught in eight grade civics class is logical, consistent, and most of all, transparent. The legislative process as it is practiced in the Senate today is nothing like that ideal.

Every week, the Senate routinely passes legislation that is never voted on, never debated, and rarely, if ever, read by the full Senate. Now surely, you say, this process is reserved for non-controversial bills like renaming post offices or honoring the Super Bowl champions, right?

Wrong. The “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” regularly passes major legislation that creates new programs and authorizes billions in new spending without you knowing until after the fact.

The game works this way: the leaders of both parties send an email and recorded phone message to each Senate office notifying them they would like to pass certain bills sometime that day by unanimous consent. If no senator calls his or her party leader to object, it usually passes at the close of business that day without a recorded vote. Sometimes, I am given just a few minutes to read lengthy bills, and unless I pick up the phone to object (“hold”), it is considered passed by the US Senate.

I would be willing to bet that few senators even take the time to read the request, let alone the bill. Worse, the decision is usually left to an unelected staff member.

And they expect you to find out by noting the bill’s passage in the congressional record on the day after passage.

They call this process “unanimous consent” when in reality it is consent by default.

You have probably heard or read numerous stories about how I am “holding” important legislation, and preventing it from passing. They say “Dr. No” is standing in the way of progress again.

The truth behind that growing mythology is simple. I object to the Senate passing major legislation behind closed doors, off the record, and out of sight of the American people.

When you hear the word “hold,” that simply means I am objecting to the Senate doing business in the dark. It means that I believe substantive legislation ought to see the light of day, senators should have the right to offer amendments (including cuts to lower priority or duplicative programs), and most important, you should be able to see how your senator voted on important bills.

Supporters of the current process describe my objections as “preventing the Senate from doing the business of the people.”

That is an interesting charge, but again it is false.

The United States Senate spends fully a quarter of its time—nearly 300 hours this year alone—in quorum calls. For those unfamiliar with Senate terminology, that is the Senate’s equivalent of a time-out. During this time, the Senate clerk periodically calls the attendance roll, though few, if any, senators are actually present in the chamber. In other words, the Senate is in session, the flag is flying over the Capitol building, senators and their staff are drawing a pay check, and yet, nothing is happening on the floor of the US Senate.

There is plenty of wasted time that could be put towards debating bills, and for senators to overcome objections I may have. I am beginning to think that some politicians would rather score a few cheap political points than actually fight for something they believe in.

We should never fear serious debate. Our Founders created the Senate precisely for this purpose, and if we will honor that great heritage, we will be a better country for it.

I thank you again for your willingness to stay informed, and for the many comments you have sent in response to previous newsletters.


Tom A. Coburn, MD

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