(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on June 4, 2018.)
Americans are justifiably underwhelmed by the 115th Congress’ lackluster record. And despite recent promises by Republican leaders for an action-packed summer, there is little reason to expect Congress’ overall record to change much between now and November.
Most observers blame the Senate for the dismal status quo. Unlike in the House, members there can filibuster important legislation, like bills to fund the government. Senators can also slow the confirmation process by objecting to unanimous consent requests to schedule votes on executive and judicial nominees. Even though Republicans control the House of Representatives and the presidency, this results in gridlock; Republicans simply can’t enact their agenda over Democratic obstruction in the Senate.
When viewed from this perspective, it seems clear that Senate Democrats are to blame for the government’s dysfunction. At least that’s how Senate Republicans want voters to see the situation.
To be fair, Democrats deserve their share of responsibility for Congress’ current predicament. Their objections are partly to blame for the persistent inability of Republicans to move their agenda through the upper chamber.
But that is hardly the whole story.
On closer inspection, 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.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has acknowledged in the past that he understands how to use the Senate’s rules to legislate. But the fact that he has chosen not to do so is precisely why voters should not expect things to change. Neither McConnell nor rank-and-file Republicans (not to mention Democrats) have indicated that they are up to the task of legislating in the current environment. Absent that, any promises they may make to the contrary should be viewed by voters with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Consider the appropriations and confirmation processes. The Senate has struggled in recent years to find its footing in both areas.
The way in which Congress has traditionally appropriated money is in shambles. Instead of methodically funding the government bill by bill over the course of several months, party leaders and appropriators now regularly craft omnibus legislation behind closed doors with little or no input from the rank and file. Once an agreement has been reached and the text locked in, leaders wait until the last minute to unveil it in order to confront members with a fait accompli — that is, a government shutdown — thereby increasing the likelihood of the bill’s passage.
Similarly, the confirmation process has grown increasingly contentious over the last two decades as Democrats and Republicans have tried to thwart each other’s ability to approve favored, yet controversial, nominees. Hostilities boiled over in 2013 when Democrats used the so-called nuclear option to effectively eliminate the filibuster for all presidential nominations other than the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans followed suit in 2017, going nuclear to effectively eliminate senators’ ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominees.
Against this backdrop, Senate Republicans are signaling that they plan to focus their efforts over the coming months on funding the government and processing presidential nominations. But they have yet to change their behavior accordingly.
Reflecting the mounting frustration among the Republican rank and file with McConnell’s stewardship of the Senate, 16 members recently called on the majority leader to cancel the August recess if more time is needed to fund the government and confirm the president’s nominees. Trump and conservative leaders outside of Congress are also supportive of the effort.
There is reason to believe that McConnell has gotten the message. After first cautiously agreeing to merely study the request, he has since embraced it, most recently suggesting that senators refrain from purchasing nonrefundable tickets when booking their travel home for the end-of-summer break.
Nevertheless, McConnell is running out of time to prove that he is serious about changing his ways. For example, the end-of-September deadline for action on appropriations bills is quickly approaching. And Republicans continue to maintain their languid pace of processing presidential nominations.
When senators return next week, they are scheduled to be in session a mere 40 daysbefore the scheduled start of the August recess. And that’s counting Fridays. If members stick to their current practice of only working four days a week, they will have only 32 days to deliver on their promises.
Threatening to cancel the August recess is indeed a step in the right direction. But it won’t be enough to reverse Congress’ current trajectory, absent Senate Republicans acknowledging their role in perpetuating gridlock and changing their behavior accordingly. Even if fully embraced, the effectiveness of threatening to cancel recess is still dependent on the credibility of the Republicans’ commitment to carrying it out. As long as Republicans appear unwilling to legislate, Democrats will not take the threat to work through recess seriously and will continue to object to unanimous consent requests to expedite the Senate’s business.
Given this situation, it is unlikely that voters will witness a sudden burst of productivity on Capitol Hill in the coming months. Until they change how they manage the Senate, Republicans will continue to affirm Democrats’ expectations that they are not prepared to follow through on their threats.