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McConnell maintains firm grip despite pledging to restore the Senate

McConnell maintains firm grip despite pledging to restore the Senate

(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on February 11, 2019.)

In January 2014, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made the case that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was running the "World’s Greatest Deliberative Body" into the ground: "I don’t think anybody is comfortable with where we are. I know I am not." McConnell was especially incensed about Reid limiting the opportunity of his colleagues to offer amendments. “Voting on amendments is good for the Senate and it is good for the country,” declared McConnell. McConnell then pledged to those listening that “amendments will be allowed” if Republicans were “fortunate enough to be in the majority” in 2015. 

Of course, McConnell now knows that Republicans would go on to be in the majority in 2015 and that he would replace Reid as the Senate’s majority leader one year after he gave this speech. At the time, however, the only thing McConnell knew with certainty was that when it came to amendments, the Senate, under Reid’s leadership, “could be better than it has been.” 

McConnell’s 2014 pledge raises a straightforward question: Did the Kentuckian honor it by rejuvenating the Senate’s moribund amendment process once he was in a position to do so? Evaluating senators' amendment activity over the last five years using McConnell's standard suggests that the answer is no. Despite McConnell's pledge to increase opportunities for senators to offer amendments, they are offering fewer today than they did back then.

For example, senators offered, on average, fewer amendments each Congress during McConnell’s tenure as majority leader than they offered during Reid’s. Under McConnell’s leadership, senators offered, on average, 827 amendments each Congress. In contrast, senators averaged 1,143 amendments per Congress when Reid was in charge. When amendments to budget resolutions and reconciliation bills, which technically cannot be blocked by the majority leader, are omitted, senators offered about half as many amendments when McConnell was majority leader than they did when Reid was in control. 

McConnell’s more restrictive approach to managing the Senate has impacted Republicans and Democrats alike. Senators in both the majority and minority parties have offered fewer amendments under McConnell than they did for much of Reid’s tenure. The most striking comparison, however, is that the total number of amendments offered by Republicans in the 112th Congress, only one year before McConnell excoriated Reid for how he managed the Senate, was just three short of the number they offered in the 115th Congress when McConnell was running the show. 

The Senate’s recent consideration of Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act, S. 1, offers a rare opportunity to track the intricate procedures McConnell uses to limit the number of amendments offered on the Senate floor. Immediately after the Senate began debate on the bill, McConnell offered an amendment to the legislation and, shortly after that, moved to end debate on it even though no senator had, as of that point, tried to filibuster it. McConnell then asked unanimous consent to, in effect, suspend consideration of S. 1 altogether. In doing so, McConnell prevented other senators from offering their amendments to the bill for the rest of the day. 

Before the Senate adjourned, McConnell also asked unanimous consent that senators only be allowed to debate S. 1, along with his own amendment, when they reconvened on the following day. Consequently, senators would not be allowed to offer an amendment to the legislation for the entire day. Significantly, the floor staff did not notify senators of McConnell’s intention to limit their ability to offer amendments. Moreover, McConnell’s colleagues were not present when he propounded his request. As such, no one was there to object. Had they known in advance about McConnell’s request, and had they supported it, the consent would not have been necessary. Senators would have instead observed its “debate only” restriction voluntarily. 

Notwithstanding McConnell’s day-long moratorium on amendments, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., tried to offer an amendment to S. 1 when the Senate reconvened on the following day. Instead of raising a point of order that the amendment was not permitted or objecting to Kennedy's request for unanimous consent to offer it regardless, the presiding officer, along with the Senate’s clerks and the Republican floor staff, essentially ignored Kennedy for more than 12 minutes while they waited for McConnell to assert control of the situation. McConnell suspended consideration of S. 1 as soon as he arrived on the floor and then adjourned the Senate for the rest of the day. 

When the Senate reconvened on the following day, McConnell filed cloture on S. 1 and then moved to proceed to an entirely different bill, S. 47. By using a so-called blocker motion to proceed in this way, McConnell again prevented his colleagues from offering amendments to S. 1. As long as the motion to proceed to S. 47 was pending before the Senate, S. 1 was not. Consequently, McConnell did not have to fill the tree to prevent other senators from trying to amend it. Senators would not have another opportunity to do so until after a scheduled vote to end debate on McConnell's amendment, which would automatically bring S. 1 back before the Senate. 

At that point, McConnell deftly exploited the long-established order in which the presiding officer recognized senators to maintain control of the situation instead of filling the tree, as Reid would have most likely done in similar circumstances. McConnell stood by while Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., offered an amendment which essentially blocked all other amendments. As the ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over S. 1, Menendez was entitled to recognition by the presiding officer before rank-and-file senators like Kennedy. Had McConnell not wanted Menendez, a Democrat, to offer his amendment, it is reasonable to assume that he would have taken action to prevent him from doing so. After all, McConnell had taken action to prevent Kennedy, a Republican, from offering a similar amendment just the day before. 

McConnell has used similar procedures to limit amendments during the government shutdown and during the Senate’s immigration debate in 2018. Despite mounting frustration among senators, McConnell’s low-key approach to controlling the Senate floor has spared him from the kind of criticism he leveled at Reid in 2014. 

The irony in all of this is that McConnell was right back in 2014. Forging “stable and enduring laws” requires a Senate “in which all 50 states are represented equally and where every single senator has a say in the laws” it passes. While Republicans, admittedly, did not have many amendment opportunities back then, they had more, in McConnell's words, than they do in "the hollow shell of the Senate we have today." Perhaps that is why so few senators appear to be comfortable with where they are today even though it looks like McConnell is.

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