The GOP is in a civil war, and Mitch McConnell is making it worse

The Republican Party is in the middle of a civil war. And instead of trying to resolve it, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is making it worse.

According to a recent report, the Senate majority leader has decided to escalate his feud with Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump and current Breitbart News executive chairman.

McConnell’s allies cite the decision as evidence of his toughness.

But it illustrates instead the limits of his leadership.

Jeff Flake’s Indictment of American Politics

Dudes and Pharisees. Mugwumps. Those were just some of the names that party regulars called the disaffected Republicans who refused to support James G. Blaine for President in 1884.

That contest, which pitted Blaine against Democrat Grover Cleveland, was one of the nastiest in American history. And it has much to teach us about Senator Jeff Flake’s indictment of American politics today.

Will the Reconciliation Route Work?

Republican efforts to reform the tax code received an important boost with last week’s passage of the annual budget resolution in the House of Representatives. But the GOP should not celebrate just yet. How Republicans overcome the remaining challenges will determine whether they actually cross the finish line.

Confusing GOP rhetoric made it harder for them to 'repeal' or 'reform' Obamacare.

The Republican Party is gearing up for a critical push to reform the tax code. After the spectacular collapse of its seven-year effort to repeal Obamacare this summer, the GOP is in desperate need of a victory.

And according to Republican leaders, that victory is all but assured. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., observed, “If there’s anything that unifies Republicans, it’s tax reform.”

But it’s far from clear that’s the case.

Conspicuously absent from such platitudes is any indication of what, exactly, tax reform means.

That’s because it means different things to different people.

And therein lies the problem for Republicans. The vague language they use to communicate with voters implies a level of agreement within the GOP that may not exist.

The Course of the Confirmation Process Isn’t Supposed to Run Smoothly

The debate in Washington over who’s to blame for the slow pace in filling judicial vacancies (or whether the pace is even slow to begin with) reflects an assumption that is shared by both sides: that the Senate should generally defer to the President in the confirmation process.

But that represents a flawed understanding of the Constitution’s Appointments Clause and the separation-of-powers doctrine on which it is based. Senatorial deference, far from facilitating the proper working of the confirmation process, risks undermining the judiciary’s independence as a coequal branch of government by making the Senate less likely to check the President in determining the composition of the federal bench.

What is healthy, and constitutionally legitimate, is competition between the Senate and the President in the confirmation process. Competition makes it more likely that the judges and justices who are ultimately confirmed will discharge their duties in a manner consistent with the Framers’ designs.

Trump can't predict the future of the filibuster

Last week, President Trump called on Senate Republicans to nuke the filibuster, predicting the chamber's Democrats would not hesitate to do so in the future if their roles were reversed.

While Trump's assertion was intended to goad Republicans into action, it is based on speculation and should thus be viewed with skepticism. Just like in the real world, accurately predicting what will happen in some theoretical future Senate isn't that easy.

How Senate Leaders Can Use Existing Rules To End Democrat Stonewalling

Democrats have threatened to filibuster Republican efforts to debate important legislation on the Senate floor. But this is nothing new. The filibuster has been used in the past to frustrate both Democratic and Republican majorities. It has prevented both liberal and conservative policies from passing. This has made it the bane of Senate majorities, their co-partisans in the House of Representatives, and the president.

Consequently, senators have proposed various reforms over the years to clamp down on the minority’s ability to delay the legislative process. Most recently, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., called for changing the Senate’s rules to make it easier to start debate on the floor. He would do so by making the motion to proceed to legislation non-debatable (i.e., not subject to a filibuster).

But Lankford’s proposal is unnecessary. The Senate’s current rules already give majorities the power to end needless delays. And using those rules to clamp down on minority obstruction will be of greater benefit to Republicans than eliminating the filibuster, which would have long-term repercussions for the institution more generally.

What the budget process can tell us about the state of the Senate

Congress is running out of time to fund the federal government for the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

In July, the House of Representatives passed four appropriations bills bundled together in a so-called minibus. But senators chose to leave town for their August recess rather than take up that spending package.

And there won’t be much time to do so when they return in September. The Senate is currently scheduled to be in session for only 17 days next month. The House and Senate will be on the job at the same time for only 12 of those days.

That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the Senate to take up and debate the House-passed minibus, much less the other eight appropriation bills that have yet to be considered by the full House or Senate. A short-term continuing resolution to keep the government open while Congress finishes its work appears inevitable.

Senatorial Scrums Make Members into Rubber Stamps

Look behind every major legislative success the U.S. Senate has had in recent years and you will find a small group of senators who negotiated quietly in private. Working under the supervision of party leaders, these groups are tasked by the collective, explicitly or implicitly, with resolving difficult issues, writing legislation, and helping to structure the process by which the Senate considers important bills.

Under reconciliation, it'll be harder than you think to amend the Senate healthcare bill

Changing a reconciliation bill in the Senate is harder than you think. And the reason why has nothing to do with healthcare policy.

While senators are correct to note they have a "virtually unlimited opportunity" to offer amendments to reconciliation bills, the special rules governing that process make it less likely that alternative proposals will receive serious consideration on the floor. Given this, senators should not be quick to assume that beginning debate on the healthcare bill this week will lead to a different outcome if their amendments are not allowed to be debated openly and do not receive up-or-down votes on the merits. Ensuring this requires senators to know exactly what it is that they are amending.

Mitch McConnell delays the Senate's August recess, but showing up is only half the battle

Senate Republicans should be applauded. They were right to delay the start of their August recess.

Doing so gives them time to jump-start their stalled effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, devise an acceptable way to raise the debt ceiling, and forge a budget agreement to guide Congress's work in the appropriations process for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.

But Senate Republicans would be wrong to think that pushing back the start of their summer vacation by two short weeks is all that's needed to overcome the challenges they face. Indeed, it is going to take a lot more than simply showing up for work to pull the Senate out of the rut it is currently in. It's going to take a different approach to lawmaking.

Debt ceiling debate gives Congress opportunity to chart new fiscal course

The federal government creates an inflection point every time it hits the debt ceiling.

The decision to raise it, by how much, and for how long, confronts Congress with a turning point at that moment in the nation's politics. Regardless of one's views about the direction Congress should take today, everyone should agree that the nation's present fiscal course is unsustainable.

The upcoming debt debate gives members of Congress, and the people they represent, an opportunity to consider their options and to chart a new course. As part of that debate, members in the House and Senate should leverage the debt ceiling to enact much-needed policy and process reforms.

Not surprisingly, this is easier said than done.

1950s Control Tactics Can’t Manage Today’s Freewheeling Senators

Healthy institutions require effective leadership. This is evident in the dysfunction surrounding the health-care debate in the Senate today.

Legislative leadership is difficult because legislators are notoriously hard to lead. This makes sense for the Senate, where the majority leader’s job has been described as “herding cats.” Nevertheless, some Senate leaders have been more effective than others.

This suggests legislative leadership is a craft. That is, it can be done well or poorly. Mastering it depends on correctly identifying the challenges and opportunities inherent in the Senate’s environment. It requires acknowledging that a leadership style that works in one environment may not work in another.

This is an important lesson for the Senate’s current leaders. How they practice their craft bears directly on how the Senate makes decisions. And the deterioration in the institution’s decision-making process has been a major driver of its current dysfunction.

Why the GOP is struggling to repeal Obamacare

It's almost July and the Republican Party has yet to repeal Obamacare due to divisions within its own ranks. Everything that we thought we knew about the GOP suggests that this should not be the case.

What explains this sudden change in the policy views of Republicans? One explanation is that party affiliation is not as important as previously thought in explaining member behavior once in office. But far from suggesting that parties don't matter, the GOP's present struggles demonstrate that parties matter in a different way. Obamacare's fate ultimately depends on how Republicans view their party.

Congress needs to rethink how it makes a budget

Congress has a problem. The federal budget is a mess, and its members have yet to demonstrate the willingness to fix it.

This is a problem because it's their job to budget.

Budgeting requires trade-offs between appropriate levels of taxes and spending. It also forces members to prioritize some programs over others. Doing so is controversial. Some people will be unhappy with the decisions their elected representatives make.

And therein lies the problem.

How Senate Republicans can break Democratic obstruction

One big reason why the Senate is gridlocked today is that Republicans have yet to put in the kind of effort required to break the Democrats' obstruction.

Republicans should want the Senate to work. After all, the party retained its majority in the chamber after last November's elections and the GOP also controls the House of Representatives and the presidency for only the fourth time since the end of World War II.

Given this fact, it would be reasonable to assume that the Senate would be raring to go. Instead, the institution looks to be barely moving.

Constitutional Restoration: A DIY Project

Regardless of where people are on the political spectrum, many Americans—in fact most—believe that something is gravely wrong with the political system today. According to a recent report from Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans are frustrated with the federal government. Similarly, popular trust in government is near historic lows. The Pew survey found that only 16 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing “most of the time.” A paltry 4 percent of respondents reported trusting the government to do the right thing “just about always.”