For more than 219 years, the U.S. Senate has earned a reputation as the "world's greatest deliberative body." But in the year-and-a-half since Democrat Harry Reid took over as majority leader, the body has taken on a new role -- one that substitutes debate and deliberation for politics and expediency.
The latest threat comes in the form of what conservatives have dubbed "Reid's Monkey Pork Bill." It is legislation that combines some 35 bills, creates at least 34 new government programs and costs $11 billion in federal spending. The "monkey pork" part of the package refers to the Captive Primates Safety Act (S. 1498), which would make it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase nonhuman primates (such as monkeys and apes), costing taxpayers $17 million over the next five years.
What's even worse than all of the bad policy is how Reid is trying to ram this legislation through the Senate. Frustrated by conservative champions such as Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who are blocking many of these bills, Reid has decided to put them together in one giant package. The first vote could come as early as Saturday.
Coburn and DeMint have argued that at the very least these bills deserve debate on the Senate floor. But that’s a rarity under Reid. According to the Congressional Research Service, a shocking 94% of all of the bills passed this Congress were approved under a unanimous consent agreement, meaning no debate, no amendments and no votes.
"If Republicans let this go through, they're basically giving up their rights as the minority," DeMint told conservative bloggers in a conference call this morning.
Coburn said many of the provisions in the package would tempt Republicans to vote with Reid and Democrats, but he cautioned his GOP colleagues to stand firm on principle.
"The problem in Washington is that we have a bunch of short-term, politically expedient thinkers who worry about their re-election more than the job they were sent to do," Coburn said. "The problem isn't just Democrats. It's Republicans and Democrats. And if our No. 1 goal is to get re-elected, then it means our No. 1 goal isn't to follow our oath."
Coburn said the bills included in Reid's omnibus have virtually no requirements for accountability, making it impossible to measure their effectiveness. "If we send a billion dollars in one direction, how do we know we accomplish what we what we intended to do?" he asked. "They refuse to put metrics on to hold people accountable. … It's the hard job that we're paid to do to provide oversight and get rid of waste, fraud and abuse."
In addition to the Captive Primates Safety Act, Reid's package also includes the one of the largest earmarks in congressional history ($1.5 billion for the Washington Metro), a provision directing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study historic shipwrecks, and a bill to spend $12 million on a botanical greenhouse in Suitland, Md.
Reid has invoked a parliamentary tactic known as "filling the tree" 14 times since becoming majority leader, preventing other senators from offering amendments. By comparison, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) used it twice in the last Congress.
If Senate Republicans are unable to stop Reid from bringing the legislation to the floor, they will be faced with the same predicament.
"Harry is ruining the institution," DeMint said. "We're no longer a deliberative body. Harry Reid is essentially a Rules Committee of one, where just like in the House, you need to beg to have an amendment on a bill."