WASHINGTON – Today, Senator Mike Lee called on the Senate Majority Leader to end the abuse of procedural tactics used to prevent debate on legislation. In a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Lee said that by “filling the tree” the Majority Leader blocked other senators from offering “any amendments other than those few that the majority leader decided could be offered.”
The Senate is currently considering legislation that would have a wide range of effects on public land use, as well as wildlife conservation and management. Lee said he voted to proceed to the bill believing he would have an opportunity to offer up amendments.
“The bill is important to me in many respects. One of the things that has gotten my attention is that it addresses a number of issues related to federal public lands. It addresses a number of other issues related to wildlife conservation, wildlife management and other issues that are important to hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts across the country. One of the reasons why this bill is especially important to me is that I represent the great state of Utah, a state that has a lot of federal land,” Lee remarked in the speech.
He inquired as to why the Majority Leader felt it necessary to block the amendment process when the Senate has shown the ability to debate and amend broad and complicated pieces of legislation in the past, such as the National Defense Authorization Act and the Farm Bill.
“I appreciated the Majority Leader's willingness in that circumstance to allow us to have a pretty open, robust debate and discussion and an open amendment process. We still passed the bill even though we had to conduct a lot of debate, a lot of discussion, and a lot of votes,” he said.
Lee concluded: “I ask him, I implore him as my friend to reconsider this practice of ‘filling the tree’ and thereby forestalling the introduction of amendments. We need an open amendment process. Our status as the world's greatest deliberative legislative body requires nothing less.”
Read the full text of the speech below:
Mr. president, I stand today to explain my “no” vote on cloture this morning in connection with the Sportsman's Bill, s. 3525. This is a large bill made up of a number of legislative proposals that have been put together in many settings. This is a good way to legislate. In many respects, it is, and we utilize this procedure on a constant basis in order to make the laws of our country. Like many other pieces of legislation that have come before us that have been formed in this fashion, this is a bill to which I can say I support it in part and I don't support in part. There are parts of it that a like a lot and there are other parts that I like a lot less. That's exactly why we have an amendment process. True debate in this country, especially in this body presupposes and depends for its existence on the availability of an open amendment process. You see, when you go into a store you can decide which items you want to buy. You can decide to buy bread and milk and eggs or any combination of the three or other products you might want. However, it would be disturbing if you got to the grocery store counter and were told that you may not buy bread and milk and eggs unless you also buy a bucket of nails, a half ton of iron ore, a book about cowboy poetry and a Barry Manilow album. Sometimes that's what we're told when we vote in the senate. In order to get some things you want, you have to buy a whole bunch of other things that you might not want. That is the reality of the legislative process. It's the reality of compromise and it's one that we experience everyday. But again, this is why it's important for us to have an amendment process, so that we can at least debate and discuss the relevant merits of each piece of legislation and more importantly, so that we might figure out how to take a good piece of legislation and make it better.
In this circumstance, the majority leader has used a procedure known as filling the tree. He filled the tree, which means, in effect, that we can't offer amendments other than those few that the majority leader decided could be offered. It shuts down debate. There can be no significant debate beyond that which will lead to a vote once the tree has been filled. This is a problem. Republicans in this body, myself included, voted recently to proceed to this bill believing in good faith that there would be an opportunity to amend it.
The bill is important to me in many respects. One of the things that has gotten my attention is that the bill addresses a number of issues related to federal public lands. It addresses a number of other issues related to wildlife conservation, wildlife management and other items that are important to hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts across the country and in my state in particular. One of the reasons why this bill is especially important to me is that i represent the great state of Utah, a state that has a lot of federal land. in fact, two-thirds of the land in my state is owned by the federal government. For that and other reasons, I'd like the opportunity to address this piece of legislation by offering up amendments, amendments that would make a good bill better. But this process, a process whereby the majority leader rules this body by dictate is not good for the senate. We come to expect that the United States Senate will be a great deliberative body. In fact, the United States senate has long prided itself on being the world's greatest deliberative legislative body. There are a number of realities about the senate that make this possible, far more possible than it might be in the House of Representatives. Here in the senate, we have only a hundred members. Just down the hall in the House of Representatives, they have 435 members. In that body, it's not always possible to have an open amendment process. In this body, it is assumed. This is the usual order. This is the way we're supposed to operate, is to have an opportunity for members to offer and debate and discuss amendments in advance of voting for the procedure at the end of the day. Yet we have not had such an opportunity in this case because the leader filled the tree. This is significant and I want to emphasize this point. It is true, of course, that majority leaders from both political parties have utilized this procedure from time to time for one reason or another, perhaps out of professed need to expedite the legislative process in certain instances. But this majority leader has utilized this procedure a lot more than others. In fact, he's utilized it, by my count, a total of 67 times, more than any other majority leader in history. Why, I ask, has he done this? Why has he done this in this circumstance? Why has he done it in so many other circumstances in this congress and throughout his service as majority leader? Is it because the senate has demonstrated an inability to debate and discuss bills and amendments to bills in a reasonable, responsible manner? I don't think so.
Let’s point to a couple of examples of when the open-amendment process has benefitted us. One example is the National Defense Authorization Act, which this body passed toward the end of last year. It passed out of this body overwhelmingly, notwithstanding the fact that there were a number of amendments introduced. I believe there were dozens of amendments that were introduced, debated, discussed and ultimately voted upon. Another example involves the farm bill that was passed by this body earlier this year. If I’m not mistaken, we had over 70 amendments to that bill. I appreciated the majority leader's willingness in that circumstance to allow us to have a pretty open, robust debate and discussion and an open amendment process. We still passed the bill even though we had to conduct a lot of debate, have a lot of discussion and hold a lot of votes. But this, you see, is what makes this the greatest deliberative body in the world. This is what separates us from other legislative bodies around the country and throughout this planet. So it's not the case that the senate simply isn't responsible enough to be able to handle something like an open amendment process because it has demonstrated its ability to do so time and time and time again.
Now let's talk about some of the things I like in this bill. I support the fact that this bill would reduce access to public lands and would remove some burdensome regulations on some activities occurring on those lands. On the other hand, I am not as enthusiastic about the fact that this bill devotes $6.5 million on neo tropical migratory birds on a program that would require 75% of those funds to be spent outside the United States. Now, I know in the big picture of things this is a very, very small figure in terms of our total national budget. Nevertheless, this is a lot of money to hardworking Americans who are paying their taxes in order to fund programs like this. We ought at least to have an opportunity to debate and discuss amendments so that Americans can feel like their money is being spent in the United States for causes that are important to Americans and not on birds outside the United States. Other senators have other differences with the bill and other concerns. I agree with some of those concerns. I disagree with others. Each of them should have an opportunity to have those concerns aired, to have them debated and discussed in connection with amendments of their own choosing, that they might choose to introduce. We should be debating all of them. Instead, in effect, we're debating none of them. That kind of process is especially important in this circumstance because, this bill, as I understand it, has never gone through committee. Normally in committee we have an opportunity to put a bill through the markup process, to make amendments in committee. This didn't go there, which is all the more reason why we should have an open amendment process.
I have introduced several amendments. I’ll refer to just a few of them. One of them would involve a proposal to not spend money that we don't have in order to support the conservation of multinational species, saving $150 million over five years. In other words, it's one thing to spend money on habitat preservation and species rehabilitation for species that actually exist in the United States but it's another thing to spend a lot of money on species outside the United States, on creatures that have never entered our borders and never will. That’s something that I think Americans are concerned about and it's something that I think we ought to have a chance to debate and discuss as long as we are debating and discussing and voting on this legislation.
I have another piece of legislation that would require state legislative approval for any new federal land designations. As I said a few minutes ago, with the federal government owning two-thirds of the land in my state, I’m especially concerned about the possibility of, for example, the president deciding to just designate a new national monument within my state. This happened a few years ago when president Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It's beautiful land and territory, but all of this was accomplished by the stroke of a pen of one chief executive without any opportunity for input from Utah, from its 3 million residents, from its elected officials. I think that any time the federal government takes this kind of action, the type that will have a profound impact on the state, on its sovereign rights, on its ability to raise revenue, on its ability to encourage and promote economic activity within its boundaries, there ought to be input and approval from the state legislature. I have an amendment that would address this concern.
I have another amendment that would offer certain federal lands for disposal by competitive sale process. We have an enormous amount of land in this country. Some of it is being put to good use and some is being set aside because of its wilderness characteristics. Other land still is just sitting there not doing anything. I think some of that land could be sold and some of that money could be used to fund our programs, programs that are cash strapped along with everything else in this country right now. These and other amendments need to receive consideration. I’m not saying that every one of them has to pass in order for this legislation to proceed, but every one of them ought to be discussed, every one of them ought to be debated. American people should have an opportunity to have their input through their own elected U.S. Senators. I would deeply regret it if this were somehow an indication that our majority leader intends to operate the senate this way, not only throughout the duration of this congress but into the next congress as well. I want to be clear that I have great respect and admiration for our majority leader. I’ve known him for most of my life, since I was 11 years old, in fact. I consider him a friend. I ask him, I implore him as my friend to reconsider this practice of filling the tree and thereby forestalling the instruction of amendments. We need an open amendment process.
Our status as the world's greatest deliberative legislative body requires nothing less. Thank you, Mr. President.