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For Senate Republicans to get anything done, change must start at the top with Mitch McConnell

For Senate Republicans to get anything done, change must start at the top with Mitch McConnell

(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on November 13, 2017.)

Senate Republicans are faltering. Buffeted by adversity on every front, they appear exhausted and demoralized.

But their cause is not lost. New leadership can rally the Republican rank and file to action and get the Senate working again.

The bad news is that time is running out.

For the first time in 11 years, Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the presidency. Yet, instead of celebrating its passage, their agenda languishes in the Senate. The GOP majority there lacks a major legislative accomplishment to show for its work over the past 10 months.

The GOP's supporters are growing impatient. Voters and donors alike are not persuaded by Republicans' excuses, as evidenced by Roy Moore's victory over Luther Strange in Alabama and the National Republican Senate Committee's lackluster fundraising. A recent threat by a prominent donor to withhold future support "until they pass legislation or get new leadership" is illustrative of the discontent in the Republican electorate.

Nor do things look much better inside the Senate. Freshman Republicans are especially frustrated and are growing impatient with their leaders' languid pace in managing the institution. For example, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., observed after the GOP's recent Obamacare debacle, "There is a complete lack of congressional leadership and no accountability to get results."

The good news is that concerns like these should serve as warning signs that Republicans risk a complete rout if their leaders persist with their business-as-usual approach to running the Senate.

The rank and file can change course at any point because they hire leaders to make the Senate work. As such, they can demand that their leaders adjust how they do their jobs. And they can get new leaders if the current crop refuses to do so.

Despite the GOP's present predicament, the occupant of that position at present, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been among those most resistant to changing how the Senate makes decisions.

And therein lies the solution. McConnell can help unstick the GOP's agenda if he changes how he does his job. Taking three simple steps will get him off to a good start.

First, McConnell should change how he manages the Senate to better fit the challenges and opportunities the Senate faces today. This is easier said than done, because it requires McConnell to acknowledge that how he's done his job up until now has not worked.

Nevertheless, accepting responsibility for the GOP's failure to pass its agenda is important, because it focuses Republicans' attention on the things within their power to control. In contrast, doubling down on efforts to blame others for their misfortune makes it less likely that Republicans will adopt a different approach moving forward. The result will be that the GOP continues to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

Second, and related, McConnell should view his primary responsibility as Republican leader as helping to facilitate agreement between the party's various factions. But being a middleman in this sense requires that GOP senators view him as an impartial arbiter.

Uniting a diverse conference is next to impossible when the leader is viewed as an active combatant on one side. From this perspective, McConnell's habit of intervening aggressively in the GOP's civil war undermines his ability to do his job as Republican leader. Unable to play the middleman, McConnell is forced to rely on a mix of intimidation and peer pressure to get the party's factions to agree. While such an approach may be successful in the near term, its repeated use undermines its effectiveness in the medium and long term.

Finally, McConnell should empower his fellow Republicans in leadership. A reinvigorated leadership team will go a long way toward getting the GOP majority back on track.

The current dynamic in the Republican leadership is not the norm. Historically, the Senate GOP has had a corporate leadership structure. That is, the various roles inherent in it were separated into distinct positions that were then held by different members. This division of labor encouraged senators seeking those positions to think carefully about how they would perform the tasks associated with each to the betterment of their colleagues.

Within this structure, the top spot is the floor leader. That did not then mean that the other positions were subordinate to it. To be sure, leaders were not antagonistic to each other. But neither were they considered lieutenants to the floor leader, as is commonly the case today.

Yet during McConnell's tenure as Republican leader, the GOP has moved away from its traditional reliance on a corporate structure and instead embraced the more hierarchical arrangement used by Senate Democrats. Under that model, power is centralized in the floor leader and the other leadership positions are viewed as subordinate to him.

When combined with leadership term limits, the result to date has been an atrophying of the capabilities associated with each position below the floor leader. Instead of vigorously exercising their powers, senators in these positions now keep a low profile and wait to move up the ladder as vacancies occur above them. As they bide their time, senators look to McConnell for instructions on how to do their jobs. This saddles McConnell with responsibilities beyond those traditionally belonging to the Republican leader. The irony is that, in trying to do multiple things well, McConnell ends up making it harder to do the one job for which he was hired.

Senate Republicans must act quickly to turn things around. By taking these three steps, McConnell can signal that he is up for the challenge. If he refuses, the Republican rank and file should look for someone who will.

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