The McConnell Senate’s weekly 30-hour fake-out must end

CPI Staff — Tuesday, April 10, 2018

This week in the “Lazy Senate,” the spotlight is on the Senate’s pesky 30-hour rule — the one that Republicans constantly blame for the Senate’s slow pace of confirmations.

But is it? The short answer is, no. It’s just another excuse by Republican leadership to be, you guessed it, lazy.

Here’s why.

In 2013 and again in 2016, the filibuster was eliminated for nominations. This means that 60 votes are no longer required to get to a confirmation vote. However, the cloture requirement still exists. That is, the Senate must achieve cloture (with a simple majority) before they are able to vote on a nomination.

Cloture comes with a waiting game, in the form of, at most, 30 hours. These hours are allowed for debate, and must transpire in between achieving cloture, and voting to confirm the nomination.

The first thing to know about cloture is that each senator is only allowed to give two speeches. And the two speeches cannot total more than one hour.

The second thing to know is that 30 hours is the maximum time for debate. It can be far less, for example, if 30 Democrat senators don’t use all their time for debate.

However, it’s been the complaint of Republicans this year that Democrats are hell-bent on running all 30 hours, which is intended to limit the number of nominees that Republicans can process to no more than four or five a week.

What does “running” for 30 hours look like? In the Lazy Senate, it looks the same as the Senate doing nothing.

The hours are intended to allow senators to debate, but no debate happens. Quite literally, absolutely nothing happens. The Senate floor sits empty, locked into an endless quorum call.

What goes on in the 30 hours — what does happen, and what could actually happen — is the difference between a lazy Senate, and a Senate that wants to do the work necessary to get its president’s nominees confirmed.

So what could actually be happening?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could force Democrats to speak for all 30 hours, post-cloture.

Recall the two fundamental facts about cloture: senators can only speak twice, and both speeches can total no more than an hour.

Currently, McConnell is not enforcing these rules. He’s not forcing the Democrats to actually talk for 30-hours, he’s allowing them to delay confirmation of Trump’s nominees. For free.

Instead of simply rolling over and letting Democrats off easy, McConnell should make them work for it. He should make them talk for all 30 hours.

Now consider if McConnell did this in the middle of the night, over the weekend. Do you think the Democrats will be able to produce 30 senators after midnight on a Saturday? How about at 4 in the morning? Maybe, if they’re determined, Democrats could pull it off for the first nominee. But what about the second, or the third, or the tenth?

At that point, I’d bet five dollars and a ham sandwich that Democrats would be more than willing to allow McConnell to collapse the 30 hours, especially since they have 23 senators who need to go home and campaign for re-election next year, and Republicans only have six.

Even if Democrats don’t agree to collapse the time, they’ll still have to produce 30 different senators to “run” all 30 hours. If they cannot, under the rules, the Senate immediately moves to a vote. Those 30 hours become 10, or five, or two.

Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) keenly observed that there are “only two rules in the U.S. Senate — exhaustion and unanimous consent. And the second rule only applies when the first has been reached.”

Unlike the current Senate, the Lott Senate knew that consensus can be reached, but sometimes it takes a hard-working majority to outlast the will of a determined minority.

If the McConnell Senate wants to be remembered for anything other than a distinguished record of unaccomplishment, they’ve got to start working.

This post was originally published on November 13, 2017 in The Hill