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

(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on July 12, 2017.)

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.

To that end, senators can ensure that this extra time will be put to good use by clearly signaling that they are determined to get their job done, regardless of how hard or inconvenient it might be. In the absence of such signals, we should not expect the Senate to accomplish more in a mere 10 extra days of work than it has in the 100-plus days it's been on the job so far this year.

It addition to what measures the Senate considers, and when it considers them, how the legislative process unfolds during this extra time is also important. Unfortunately, the change in schedule announced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was not accompanied by any indication whether the GOP will continue to make important decisions regarding healthcare, the debt ceiling, and government funding behind closed doors and out of the public's view.

Deliberation characterized by such secrecy has rarely, in recent years at least, resulted in good outcomes. Instead, it has exacerbated the frustration of rank-and-file senators and the people they represent. Not surprisingly, this makes it more difficult to identify compromises and pass legislation dealing with controversial issues. In contrast, broad support generated by an open debate and amendment process makes legislative success more likely in the current environment.

Such a process takes time. And delaying the start of the August recess is an indication that Senate Republicans get it. Many of them are no doubt open to canceling it outright if needed to give themselves ample opportunity to meaningfully participate in the legislative process.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to have an open and freewheeling process on controversial bills when the Senate's work week is effectively squeezed into the short period between Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons.

There is also no reason why Senate Republicans should wait until August to demonstrate their newfound resolve to enact their agenda. By working Mondays and Fridays for the rest of July, the Senate can increase the time available for legislative work each week by nearly 100 percent.

Small steps like delaying the start of the August recess and showing up ready to work on Mondays and Fridays would signal to the Democrats that they should take the majority's newfound determination seriously. It would also help reduce the minority's obstruction, which has reached near-record levels over the last seven months.

Forcing members to work at inconvenient times raises the costs of obstruction by increasing the suffering of the minority's rank and file; it exhausts them physically and mentally. It also has the potential to raise the political costs of obstruction to the extent that the spectacle of the Senate voting at odd times and in August focuses the public's attention on the policy substance of the underlying debate. Senators' realization that the expenditure required to obstruct now exceeds the value of what they are trying to block will decrease their willingness to obstruct in the first place.

The GOP's willingness to delay the August recess is a welcome sign. For the first time in this Congress, its members have explicitly acknowledged that prevailing in the current environment requires a new approach to lawmaking. But it remains to be seen whether senators are prepared to suffer the inconveniences needed to triumph in the end.

If they are not, delaying the August recess will have been in vain. If they are, the Republican majority will have gone a long way towards reassuring the American people that it is up to the job its members were elected to do.