It is time to question the way in which we think about politics.
Mitch McConnell is a tough guy to figure out. Everyone agrees he’s one of the most consequential figures in American politics. Yet it’s not entirely clear why.
The six-term Republican senator from Kentucky and current majority leader has cultivated a reputation over the years as a master tactician and skilled legislative leader. Still, few can list his legislative accomplishments. Whether he’s squaring off against Democrats or his own party members, the outcome always appears to be the same: McConnell wins. Even so, it isn’t clear what winning means for Republicans or the Senate.
Perhaps because of this ambiguity, McConnell set a record this week as the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history. In doing so, he moved one step closer to eclipsing Mike Mansfield (D-MT) as the longest-serving leader of either party in the Senate.
Breaking Mansfield’s record would be the perfect capstone to McConnell’s career. He often cites the Senate legend as an example of the kind of leader he aspires to be. Unlike the ever-enigmatic McConnell, however, people know why Mansfield is important. From 1961 to 1977, Mansfield deftly guided the Senate through a thicket of domestic unrest, political assassinations, wars, congressional investigations, and a presidential impeachment controversy. And through all the controversy, the Senate managed to keep legislating — in large part due to Mansfield’s leadership.
While there are many similarities between today’s Senate and that of Mansfield’s time, the institution has, under McConnell’s leadership, proven largely incapable of legislating in the face of even the slightest controversy. This contrast is a testament to the impact a truly skilled leader can have. For that reason, comparing McConnell’s tenure with Mansfield’s can help us form an accurate assessment of McConnell’s record-breaking reign as Republican leader.
In “Great Expectations,” Mr. Jaggers counsels Pip, “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”
Like Pip, today we often take things on looks instead of evidence. This is especially true in politics.
Consider political dysfunction. Most Americans — including many scholars — base their understanding of what’s wrong with our politics today simply on how it appears. And who could blame them? Things look pretty clear.
According to social science data, polarization is the reason why politics is so dysfunctional. The data tell us that more polarized constituencies send more polarized members to Congress who, in turn, chose more polarized party leaders. These party leaders subsequently pursue a more polarized legislative agenda by exploiting congressional procedures for partisan gain. The practical effect? Congress is now more partisan and confrontational. And this leads to obstruction and gridlock, because the incentives for Democrats and Republicans to oppose each other in a polarized environment are greater than the incentives to bargain and compromise.
Social scientists tell us that we can expect this gridlock to continue as long as our electorate remains polarized. And so it seems that ending congressional dysfunction is inseparable from ending, or at least reducing, polarization. That is, if the ideological distance between the parties is what drives dysfunction, then our only hope is a public that somehow transcends current differences and elects candidates cut from a different mold — politicians more interested in solving America’s problems than are our current partisan warriors. Absent such changes in the electorate, reform-minded members seeking to make Congress work are left with no choice but to wall off the legislative process from the polarized conflict endemic in politics today and try their best to weather the storm.
Notwithstanding the apparent persuasiveness of such an argument, observers of American politics would do well to heed the advice Mr. Jaggers gives Dickens’ precocious protagonist: “Take everything on evidence,” he says. “There’s no better rule.”
On closer inspection, it turns out that the evidence on which the polarization thesis depends is hardly decisive. Rightly understood, polarization is more an optical illusion than a solid fact about American life. A better way to understand politics today is to focus on what members actually do in Washington.
The long-simmering debate over the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will come to a head in Congress this week as Republican leaders try to fend off a rogue effort to force the House to vote on a series of immigration proposals.
But lost amid the analysis of what this means for DACA recipients is what it reveals about how Republicans understand the relationship between individual representatives and the party to which they belong when their views are in conflict. In such situations, members are effectively forced to choose between complying with their party or heeding the wishes of their constituents. This inevitably creates tension within the majority party and makes it harder for it to address issues on which its members are divided.
There is a lot more to the Senate’s dysfunction than Democratic intransigence alone. The way in which Republicans have managed the chamber over the last year and a half has made it possible for lone members to single-handedly disrupt the Senate’s business without breaking a sweat.
The good news for Republicans is that while they are far more responsible for the gridlock on Capitol Hill than they would like voters to believe, they can change the status quo at any point in the limited time they have left in this Congress.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Senate’s rules empower majorities to legislate. The members composing those majorities just have to be willing to put in the effort required to do so over the minority’s obstruction.
Americans believe that their government isn’t working. And they have good reason to do so. At present, Democrats and Republicans can’t find common ground on issues like healthcare reform, government spending, and immigration. Gridlock is the result.
Most observers blame the Senate for this dysfunction. Unlike in the House, the minority there can influence policy outcomes in several ways. Chief among these is the fact that the Senate’s rules permit a minority of its members to filibuster (i.e. block) legislation they oppose.
In theory, polarization makes it harder for senators to compromise by increasing the distance between the two parties. Senators agree on less and less as that gap widens and, as a consequence, the majority goes to greater lengths to avoid negotiating with the minority. Gridlock results when the gap becomes unbridgeable. At that point, the majority is left with no other choice but to eliminate the minority’s ability to obstruct if it wants to pass its agenda.
But in reality, the problem underlying Congress’s present dysfunction is a lack of effort, not polarization. That is, the Senate is mired in gridlock because its members are unwilling to expend the effort required to legislate successfully in a polarized environment.
The legislative process is in shambles. Members of Congress are paralyzed by indecision. And once-mighty appropriators appear powerless, incapable of passing their bills without the intervention and active involvement of party leaders.
It’s been years since Congress completed its appropriations work before the Sept. 30 deadline. Just last month, leaders in both chambers had to resort to yet another omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government, almost six months behind schedule. To do so, party leaders had to craft the legislation behind closed doors, unveil it at the last minute, and force it through Congress with little debate and no opportunity for the rank and file to amend it.
This dismal state of affairs has prompted calls from across the political spectrum for enacting reforms to make it easier for Congress to pass appropriations bills. Of particular note are calls from Democrats and Republicans to revive the banned practice of earmarks in an effort to end the dysfunction. President Trump renewed the debate over earmarks when he suggested recently that Congress reconsider its nearly eight-year ban on the practice.
But before doing so, reformers would do well to consider the likely impact earmarks will have on the status quo. On closer inspection, it turns out that reviving the practice will not end present dysfunction. Rather, it will only make it worse.
Writing on the similarities between political parties in 18th-century England under the pseudonym Cato, Thomas Gordon observed that “all men dread the power of oppression out of their own hands, and almost all men wish it irresistible when it is there.”
It turns out this timeless dynamic also explains well the similarities between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to managing the Senate today. The truth is, leaders of both parties appear uninterested in fixing what their members universally disparage as a broken process.
History is important. We ignore its lessons at our peril.
But don’t just take my word for it. Consider Niccolò Machiavelli’s observation in The Discourses that from the past we gain “knowledge of things honorable and good as opposed to those which are perilous and evil.” Or John Dickinson’s assertion at the Federal Convention of 1787: “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”
We shouldn’t dismiss such observations today simply because they appear to be disconnected from the realities of modern life. We are not as far removed from the days of Machiavelli and Dickinson as we may think.
In his memoirs, the American portraitist George P.A. Healy recounted a conversation with John Quincy Adams decades before in which the sixth president recalled having met Voltaire as a child. “Writing about these things in 1890 gives one an impression of the long succession of generations holding each other by the hand until they fade into the far-away past.”
Given all of this, the optimism with which fiscal policy wonks are greeting Congress’ latest attempt to fix the broken budget process appears to be misplaced.
Republicans are growing impatient with the Senate’s pace in processing President Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominations, and they blame Democrats for the delay.
But contrary to Republican finger-pointing, the Senate’s unhurried pace is not due solely to Democratic obstruction. On closer inspection, it turns out that Republicans are also to blame for the status quo. Specifically, the way in which McConnell and his Republican colleagues have structured the confirmation process this Congress has empowered Democrats to delay work on otherwise uncontroversial nominees.
Given their role in the matter, Senate Republicans could speed things up. To do so, they must refuse to cooperate with Democrats in delaying presidential nominations and instead enforce the Senate’s existing rules governing the confirmation process.