The Marvelous Mr. McConnell

And the Emmy award goes to...the Senate Majority Leader?

Fans of the hit television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” know that it has a fine ensemble of characters, revolving around its high-energy, outgoing, career-bending female lead.  She’s trying to be the mother of 2 young children while holding down various jobs, but her passion is her raw, racy, stand-up comedy.  She and her fellow cast members have been nominated for, and won, multiple Emmy awards.
Now Senator Mitch McConnell can scarcely be characterized as high energy, outgoing, or extremely funny.  But he could easily win an award for acting as he pretends to be a patriotic national leader who believes in our Constitution, plays fair, and wants to do what’s best for the citizens of America.  That’s a pretty harsh assessment.  And to be fair, it could be applied to many of our U.S. senators.  Our Imperfect Union promises to be non-partisan, so why pick on poor Mitch?
Senator McConnell is simply the latest in a long line of senators, and in particular Senate Majority Leaders, who exploit weaknesses in our constitutional system to get what they want.  In particular, Senator McConnell abuses the rules of the Senate to advance his party’s agenda, while ignoring the views of the minority party and regularly snubbing the entire House of Representatives.  He likes to think of himself as the obstructionist-in-chief.   How does he get away with that?
It is surprising when we realize that Senate Majority Leader is not even a constitutional officer.  The Constitution identifies a President of the Senate, who is actually the Vice President of the United States.  It also identifies a President Pro Tempore of the Senate, who presides when the VP is absent, which is most of the time.  This person is 3rd in line of succession to the presidency, after the Speaker of the House.  By contrast, the majority and minority leaders, whips, and so forth are artifacts of the political parties and rules of the Senate.  Their role is loosely defined by the rules and by general agreement. 
So let’s use the Marvelous Mr. McConnell as a foil to illustrate how our imperfect union allows one person, elected by 800,000 people in one state, to run roughshod over the Constitution.  Try to keep in mind that he’s not the only one.
Recently, Mr. McConnell gave away some of his secrets.  He wrote an Op-Ed in the NY Times explaining why the United States needs the filibuster.  Viewed in a larger context, the op-ed shows that McConnell is concealing his methods behind the tradition of the filibuster.

What did Mr. McConnell say…and what didn’t he say?

Let’s look at the history of the filibuster.  Since the very beginning, the Senate has had a tradition of allowing nearly unlimited debate.  It was only in the early 20th century that the Senate defined a rule known as cloture that allows a super-majority of senators to vote to close debate.  And for most of the Senate’s history, filibusters were very rare. 

As politics have become extremely partisan, use of the filibuster as a tool of gridlock and obstruction has skyrocketed.  Because there is no easy way to identify a gridlocking filibuster from a productive but long debate, we have to count cloture votes as a good approximation for senators trying to shut one down.  As we discussed in Partisanship vs. Tribalism, the 20th century was an era of partisanship, but progress was possible through compromise.  In the chart above, we notice an increase in cloture votes starting in the 1970s representing an increase in filibusters.  The Senate changed its rules so that a single bill for which a filibuster was in progress or threatened could be set aside while another was considered.
But in the era of tribalism, the 21st century, the use of cloture votes has skyrocketed as senators routinely threaten to filibuster any measure they don’t like, and this is especially true for judicial nominees. 
What Mitch said in his Op-Ed
What Mitch didn’t say
The filibuster fulfills the intent of the framers for a deliberative body.
The framers didn’t envision the filibuster.  They designed the Senate to operate under majority rule.   The cloture vote to shut down unproductive debate was only invented in 1917.
The Senate’s design makes legislation hard. 
The Senate was designed to give all states equal voice, not to create endless obstruction by political parties.
Half-baked, liberal radical ideas are the problem, not the Senate’s rules.
Mitch doesn’t let any bills he doesn’t want on the floor for a vote.  He alone decides what’s too liberal for the country, not the other 99 senators.  (That includes, for example, enhanced gun safety laws that are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans.  Those are bipartisan, not half-baked liberal ideas.) 
Voting on some of those ideas would endanger the majority party senators come election time, so they are swept under the rug.
Strong minority rights have always been the Senate’s distinguishing feature.
See above; like many majority leaders, Mitch rules today’s Senate with an iron fist.  The minority has literally no chance to advance, or even debate, obstructed legislation. 
Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid made a grave error in 2013 by allowing federal judges (except Supreme Court) to be confirmed without meeting the 60-vote cloture threshold.  Democrats should regret the day they did that.  In 2017 Republicans took the Reid precedent to its “logical conclusion”, extending it to Supreme Court nominees.
McConnell could have restored the 60-vote threshold for judges.  Instead, he escalated the “nuclear exchange” by A) removing the threshold for Supreme Court justices and B) refusing to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland.  McConnell ignored his constitutional duty to advise and consent on the Garland nomination, stealing the seat for his party.  He admits his goal is to stack the federal judiciary with conservative judges.
In sum, Mr. McConnell is using the Senate as his own personal legislature, hiding behind the filibuster and other arcane rules to advance his party’s agenda at the expense of what’s good for the country.  And by sweeping difficult votes on big issues under the rug, he’s protecting his fellow senators from having to vote and be held accountable by their voters.  No one person in our government should have this much power over 325 million Americans, especially one elected by 800,000 Kentuckians.  And that goes for all Senate Majority Leaders, past and present.

Let’s make a deal around the filibuster

So how do we put a stop to this?  Some will argue that we must defeat Mitch McConnell in his 2020 election.  If that’s your cup of tea, be my guest.  But that will simply hand the same power to the next person in line, either a Democrat or Republican. 
The central question is:  Can we have a deliberative and productive Senate without the obstruction caused by the filibuster?  Can the Senate fulfill its original purpose regardless of which party is in the majority?  Can the citizens of all states be represented with an equal voice?
Of course there is more than one point of view.  McConnell’s predecessor, Harry Reid, wrote his own Op-Ed on why we should eliminate the filibuster. 
At Our Imperfect Union, we have a proposal to stop the endless debate about the filibuster (pun intended).  We can institute some rules changes that will allow the Senate to be productive and actually vote while fulfilling its role.  Try these on for size:
  • Require the Senate to vote up or down on every presidential nomination within 120 days.  If no vote is held, the Senate’s consent is considered granted.  By definition, the debate will be time-boxed to 4 months.  No one can talk for that long anyway.
  • Require the Senate to debate and vote on any bill that has passed the House within 30 days (and vice versa).  The Senate (House) could vote it down, and then refer it to a committee for revision, but the Senate (House) must at least act on the matter. 
  • Allow a substantial minority, say 33 senators, to force a floor debate on any measure.  The majority could vote all these down, but then all senators are on record as having so voted, which allows voters to hold them accountable.
  • Require that senators who want to filibuster something actually stand up and talk about it instead of making idle threats. 
The key thing about these changes is that it allows the senators to debate, but at some point they have to go on record with an actual vote.  In other words, they have to do their job.  When all is said and done, voters want accountability.  Senators should have to answer come election time for their actual votes, not their rhetoric.
Should we abolish the filibuster?  If the Senate really wants it, they can keep it, but include these rules changes, which will prevent unaccountable obstruction by the majority leader and his/her party. 
In future posts, we’ll look into other problems with the operation of Congress including other strange rules in the Senate.  Changing the rules of the Senate and House are part of our agenda for change; see About this blog.

So what can I do now? 

If your senator is up for election in 2020, ask the candidates to support these common-sense rules changes.  If your senator isn’t, ask them to support these rules changes.  We have to reform the institution so that regardless of whom we elect, the Senate returns to its role as the deliberative, and decisive institution we need.  

Call your Senator and demand votes on pending bills.  As test cases, consider:

You don’t even have to express an opinion on the bills, pro or con.  You are simply demanding that Senators do their job.  Is that too much to ask?  Let’s see where our Senators really stand, and let’s hold them accountable at their next election.

Your comments are welcome, as long as you’re not filibustering.

Recommended reading

Federalist Paper #62 explains the founders’ view of the Senate.
Wikipedia has an excellent primer on the history of the filibuster.

Upcoming posts
·      How is our government is supposed to work?
·      Democracy or Republic – which are we?
·      What’s the matter with Congress?



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