The Senate goes old school

Something interesting happened in the U.S. Senate again this week - the Senate acted like the Senate, and produced a major farm bill minus the usual partisan rancor and gridlock that has come to typify the operations of Congress in recent years.

I have joked for years that I will title my book about Capitol Hill, "Alcohol is a depressant, but so is the Senate" - mainly because the Senate can often be a dysfunctional legislative body.

The Farm Bill looked like it might become yet another wreck on the Legislative Rocks earlier this month, but key Senators managed to forge a deal to consider 73 different amendments this week, producing a bill that was approved on a 65-34 vote on Thursday.

"Two o'clock, and we're going to be able to finish this bill," said a smiling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"And it's two o'clock in the afternoon, not two in the morning," Reid added to chuckles on the Senate floor.

"This is one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill," said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

"I think we're all feeling good about the way this has been handled," McConnell added.

So, what was different?

It boiled down to something pretty simple - both sides got to offer lots of amendments and have them actually voted on.

Sounds simple enough, right? But recent history shows it doesn't happen very often, both because of the filibuster and the use of a parliamentary tool by the majority known as "filling the tree" in order to limit amendments.

Watching from up in the Press Gallery since the mid-1980's, I've seen both sides pull all kinds of stunts in order to stop the other party from offering amendments in Congress; one party will denounce the other for the tactics and then later employ them when that party reaches the majority.

Often the majority actually unifies the minority party by using tough parliamentary maneuvers, so I often found myself thinking of ways for a majority to divide and conquer without a full frontal assault by the Senate rule book.

To me, the best way forward in the Senate is simply to allow all kinds of amendments and all kinds of votes. Just make Senators work.

After awhile, lawmakers get tired of all that legislating and they want to go home.

This is the fourth time in the last two months that the Majority Leader has allowed for a number of votes on a bill on the Senate floor; other measures involved a Food and Drug Administration bill that's about to become law, a measure on the Export-Import bank and a Postal Reform bill.

There were no filibusters, no fancy procedural votes to push the minority into a ditch - just regular legislating, the old fashioned way that the Senate can do its business.

So when you hear complaints that the Congress is broken or that nothing gets done because of extreme partisanship - don't believe that.

The Senate can get its work done - even if they only work three and a half days a week for the most part.