(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on March 29, 2018).
Some things, it seems, never change.
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.
Consider last week’s omnibus appropriations bill that funded the government for the rest of the year. It’s just the latest example of an important bill crafted behind closed doors by a handful of senators under the supervision of party leaders with little or no input from the rest of the chamber. In such circumstances, rank-and-file members on both sides of the aisle are unable to monitor what transpires in these secret bill-writing sessions and are routinely kept in the dark until the final product is unveiled – that is, when leaders place legislation like the omnibus on the Senate floor for a perfunctory debate and block members from offering amendments to it.
What makes Cato’s timeless observation so interesting today is that the Senate’s current majority leader explicitly promised to manage the institution differently just four years ago.
In January 2014, then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he accurately diagnosed the underlying problems preventing the institution from operating as he felt it should. He singled out committees’ increasing irrelevance in the legislative process, members’ inability to offer amendments, and the chamber’s truncated workweeks as the key factors contributing to gridlock.
More importantly, McConnell promised to run the Senate differently if Republicans won a majority later that year and he became majority leader. Specifically, he promised that important bills would be considered first by the Senate’s committees instead of being drafted behind closed doors by party leaders and placed on the floor at the last minute to confront the rank-and-file with a fait accompli, thereby increasing their chance of passage. McConnell also promised that members would be able to freely debate and amend legislation on the Senate floor. And finally, he promised that the Senate would work longer hours to accommodate greater member participation in the legislative process.
Of course, Republicans did win a majority that November, and McConnell’s colleagues chose him to serve as majority leader. Yet despite his earlier eloquence on the need for reform, the Senate’s dysfunction has only gotten worse. Indeed, the process by which last week’s omnibus was crafted and passed serves as a stark reminder that the Senate is still broken.
To be fair, the Senate’s dismal state is not McConnell’s fault alone. His Republican colleagues appear unwilling to work the longer hours needed to accommodate greater member participation in the legislative process. And the Democratic minority has not been particularly helpful in making the Senate work either.
But even so, McConnell, as the Senate’s majority leader, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., before him, are more responsible for the institution’s internal environment than are other members. For instance, the current apathy endemic in the Republican rank-and-file appears to be a direct consequence of the way in which both leaders have managed the Senate in recent years. Put simply, both men helped create the expectation among rank-and-file members that they would not be permitted to participate meaningfully in the legislative process. Devaluing the contribution individual senators could make to the Senate’s business has made them less willing to put in the effort required to legislate in a contentious environment when they are allowed to do so.
Given this state of affairs, fixing the Senate requires that its members recognize the crucial role their leaders play in facilitating or stymieing reform efforts. McConnell’s speech is important because it demonstrates that he understands perfectly well the reasons for the Senate’s current dysfunction. The persistence of that dysfunction during his tenure as majority leader, however, suggests that he may not want the Senate to be the deliberative and freewheeling institution that he outlined in his 2014 speech.
Members who are truly frustrated with the status quo and desire change are left with no other option but to force their leaders to manage the Senate differently. Doing so starts with allowing an open debate and amendment process on all legislation – on the Senate floor.
If their leaders refuse, then senators should find new leaders who will do so. It’s as simple as that. Or, as Cato admonished his readers in 1722, many of whom were also desperate to change the status quo, “Choose those who have no interest to continue it, and it will not be continued.”