Many reports on the late Robert Byrd’s long career as a US Senator are pointing out that Byrd literally wrote the book on Senate rules and history. And while it is true that Byrd did write the quintessential four-part history of the chamber, his real importance comes from the fact that it was Byrd himself who rewrote Senate rules and precedent.
Robert Byrd was in the Senate in 1975 when the number of votes needed for cloture was dropped from 67 to 60. Two years later, in an attempt to circumvent cloture, Senators Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) and James Abourezk (D-SD) performed a post-cloture filibuster (PDF). They did this by offering a slew of amendments without debate, forcing a roll-call vote for each. Now elevated to Senate Majority Leader, Byrd decided he’d had enough, and he created a plan to destroy the possibility of a post-cloture filibuster by changing Senate precedent. With the help of then-Vice President Walter Mondale, Byrd raised a point of order to require the chair to rule all post-cloture dilatory amendments out of order. When Metzenbaum and Abourezk lost their appeal of the chair’s ruling, Byrd used the new precedent to rule all of their amendments out of order. With this he created the precedent that a bill, after securing the needed cloture vote, could not be stopped.
Just one year later, Byrd set in motion another plan to change how the Senate was run to get around a filibuster, this time of a nominee. Byrd was afraid that the nominee would face a double filibuster: the motion to proceed to executive session and then the motion to proceed to the first nominee. So when the moment came, Byrd offered a motion to proceed to executive session to consider the first nominee. This was declared a violation of Senate precedent, but Byrd won a simple majority appeal of the ruling by a 54-38 vote and in effect changed how the Senate operated.
Similarly, in 1979, Byrd faced the possibility of a filibuster of several of his proposed rule changes at the beginning of a new Congress. He stated clearly that he believed in the right of a simple majority of Senators to change the rules as Congress began its session. The threat, while never executed, helped Byrd enact many changes to Senate rules.
What’s the relevance of these instances? They show that the Senate’s rules and precedents are not fixed in stone since the birth of the Republic. They are modified and changed, often in a blunt manner, by the majority of members who serve in the chamber. Even Byrd, the man who was seen as the great defender of Senate tradition, did not hesitate to use a simple majority vote to change the rules and precedents so the chamber could do its actual work of governing. Byrd defended the rules of the Senate, but he rewrote, exploited and officially ignored those rules when it fit his needs.
I hope reporters and elected officials recall this part of Byrd’s history in the Senate and his showdown with Metzenbaum and Abourezk. As we watch the Senate become an ineffectual forum crippled by the ridiculous exploitation of its rules, remember that a majority of senators can put a stop to the nonsense if they want to. The Senate does not exist to protect its rules, traditions and precedents. The rules and precedents should only facilitate the Senate’s ability to execute its real, constitutionally prescribed duties. When and if the rules get in the way of that, they need to change.