Majority Leader knows how the Senate should operate

On January 8, 2014, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a floor speech on the Senate's dysfunction. It is a terrific analysis of the Senate's proper role in our political system and the underlying problems that prevent it from functioning as it should.

In his speech, McConnell pledges to restore the committee process, allow members to offer amendments, and require the Senate to work longer hours if Republicans won a majority later that year and he became the majority leader.

Of course, Republicans did win a majority. And McConnell eventually became majority leader. Yet since then, the Senate has only further deteriorated.

McConnell's speech is important because it demonstrates clearly that the majority leader understands how the Senate should operate and recognizes the underlying problems responsible for perpetuating its dysfunction.

As McConnell acknowledged in 2014, the Senate majority leader plays an important role in determining how the institution works. As such, its continued dysfunction during his tenure in in that position suggests that he does not want it to be the deliberative and freewheeling institution that it has been in the past.


Senator Mitch McConnell, speaking on Senate dysfunction, 113th Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record (January 8, 2014): S 109-113.

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, over the past several years those of us

who are fortunate enough to serve have engaged in many fierce debates.

Some have been forced upon us by external events, including a searing

financial crisis, while others were brought about by an

unapologetically liberal President who promised dramatic change and who

has worked very hard to follow through on that pledge--in some cases,

even in the face of legal obstacles and widespread public opposition.

So change has, indeed, come.

 

Despite the daily drumbeat of headlines about gridlock and

dysfunction in Washington, the truth is that an activist President and

a Democratic-controlled Senate have managed to check off an awful lot

of items on their wish list one way or another. Yet just as important

as what they did, my colleagues, is how they did it because that also

has been at the heart of so many of the fights we have had around here

over the past few years. These conflicts haven't stemmed from personal

grievances or contempt, as some would have it. They are, instead, the

inevitable consequence of an administration that was in such a hurry to

impose its agenda that it neglected to persuade the public of its

wisdom and then cast aside one of the greatest tools we have in this

country for guaranteeing a durable and stable legislative consensus,

and that tool is the Senate.

 

Remember, I think we all know partisanship is not some recent

invention. American politics has always been divided between two

ideological camps. Today that is reflected in the two major parties,

but it has actually always been there. On one side are those who

proudly place their trust in government and its agents to guide our

institutions and direct our lives. On the other are those of us who put

our trust in the wisdom and the creativity of private citizens working

voluntarily with each other and through more local mediating

institutions, guided by their own sense of what is right, what is fair,

and what is good.

 

Recent polling suggests that most Americans fall squarely into the

latter camp. People are generally confident in their local governments

but lack confidence in Washington.

 

Despite the political and ideological divides which have always

existed in our country, we have almost always managed to work out our

differences--not by humiliating the other side into submission but

through simple give-and-take. It is the secret of our success. The same

virtues that make any friendship, marriage, family, or business work are

the ones that have always made this country work. And the place where

it happens, the place where all the national conflicts and controversies

that arise in this big, diverse, wonderful country of ours have always been

resolved, is in this Chamber.

 

I realize it may not be immediately obvious why that is the case, but

the fact is that every serious student of this institution, from De

Tocqueville to our late colleague Robert Byrd, has seen the Senate as

uniquely important to America's stability and to its flourishing. In

their view, it has made all the difference, and here is why--because

whether it was the fierce early battles over the shape and scope of the

Federal Government or those that surrounded industrialization or those

that preceded and followed a nation-rending civil war or those

surrounding the great wars of the 20th century or the expansion of the

franchise or a decades-long cold war or the war on terror, we have

always found a way forward, sometimes haltingly but always steadily,

and the Senate is the tool that has enabled us to find our footing

almost every time.

 

I mention all this because as we begin a new year, it is appropriate

to step back from all the policy debates that have occupied us over the

past few years and focus on another debate we have been having, and the

debate we have been having is over the State of this institution. What

have we become? It is not a debate that ever caught fire with the

public or with the press, but it is a debate that should be of grave

importance to all of us because on some level every single one of us

has to be at least a little bit uneasy about what happened here last

November. But even if you are completely at peace with what happened in

November, even if you think it was perfectly fine to violate the all-

important rules that say changing the rules requires the assent of two-

thirds of Senators duly elected and sworn, none of us should be happy

with the trajectory the Senate was on even before that day, even before

November, or the condition we find the Senate in 225 years after it was

created. I don't think anybody is comfortable with where we are. I know

I am not, and I bet, even though there is nobody over here at the

moment, I bet almost none of them are either.

 

I wish to share a few thoughts on what I think we have lost over the

last 7 years and what can be done about it together. ``Together''

obviously requires the involvement, one would think, of some people on

the other side of the aisle. Even though they are not here to listen,

they have been invited.

 

Let me state at the outset that it is not my intention to point the

finger of blame at anybody, although some of that is inevitable. I

don't presume to have all of the answers either, and I am certainly not

here to claim that we are without fault. But I am absolutely certain of

one thing: The Senate can be better than it is. Many of us have seen a

better Senate than we have now, no matter who was in the majority. This

institution can be better than it is. I just can't believe that on some

level everyone in this Chamber, including the folks on the other side,

doesn't agree. It just can't be the case that we are content with the

theatrics and the messaging wars that go on day after day. It can't be

the case that Senators who grew up reading about the great statesmen

who made their name and their mark over the years are now suddenly

content to stand in front of a giant poster board making some poll-

tested point-of-the month day after day and then run back to their

respective corners and congratulate each other on how right they are. I

can't believe we are all happy about that on either side.

 

Don't misunderstand me--there is a time for making a political point

and even scoring a few points. I know that as well as anybody. But it

can't be the only thing we do. Surely we do something other than

scoring political points against each other. It cheapens the service we

have sworn to provide to our constituents. It cheapens the Senate,

which is a lot bigger than any of us.

 

Hopefully, we can all agree that we have a problem. I realize both

sides have their own favorite account of what caused it. We have our

talking points, and they have their talking points. We all repeat them

with great repetition, and we all congratulate each other for being on

the right side of the debate. I understand that. People over there

think Republicans abuse the rules, and we think they do. But, as I

said, my goal here isn't to make converts on that front; my purpose is

to suggest that the Senate can be better than it has been and that it

must be if we are to remain great as a nation.

 

The crucial first step of any vision that gets us there is to

recognize that vigorous debate about our differences isn't some

sickness to be lamented. Vigorous debate is not a problem. When did

that become a problem? It is actually a sign of strength to have

vigorous debates.

 

It is a common refrain among pundits that the fights we have around

here are pointless. They are not at all pointless. Every single debate

we have around here is about something important. What is unhealthy is

when we neglect the means that we have always used to resolve our

differences. That is the real threat to this country, not more debate.

When did that become a problem?

 

The best mechanism we have for working through our differences and

arriving at a durable consensus is the U.S. Senate. An Executive order

can't do it. The fiat of a nine-person court can't do it. A raucous and

precarious partisan majority in the House can't do it. The only

institution that can make stable and enduring laws is the one we have

in which all 50 States are represented equally and where every single

Senator has a say in the laws we pass. This is what the Senate was

designed for. It is what the Senate is supposed to be about, and

almost--almost--always has been.

 

Take a look at some of the most far-reaching legislation of the past

century. Look at the vote tallies. Medicare and Medicaid were both

approved with the support of about half the Members of the minority.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed with the votes of 30 out of the 32

Members of the Republican minority--all but two Republican Senators.

There weren't many of them. That was the year after the Goldwater

debacle. Only two Senators voted against the Social Security Act, and

only eight voted against the Americans with Disabilities Act.

 

None of this happened, by the way--none of it happened--by throwing

these bills together in the back room and dropping them on the floor

with a stopwatch running. It happened through a laborious process of

legislating, persuasion, and coalition building. It took time and it

took patience and hard work and it guaranteed that every one of these

laws had stability--stability. Compare that--compare that, if you

will--to the attitude behind ObamaCare. When Democrats couldn't

convince any of us the bill was worth supporting as written, they

decided to do it on their own and pass it on a party-line vote and now

we are seeing the result.

 

The chaos this law has visited on our country isn't just deeply

tragic; it was, my friends, entirely predictable--entirely predictable.

That will always be the case if we approach legislation without regard

for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, we

guarantee a food fight, we guarantee instability, and we guarantee

strife.

 

It may very well have been the case that on ObamaCare the will of the

country was not to pass the bill at all. That is what I would have

concluded if Republicans couldn't get a single Democratic vote for

legislation of that magnitude. I would have thought: Well, maybe this

isn't such a great idea. But Democrats plowed forward anyway. They

didn't want to hear it. The results are clear. It is a mess, an

absolute mess.

 

The Senate exists to prevent that kind of situation. Because without

a moderating institution as the Senate, today's majority passes

something and tomorrow's majority repeals it; today's majority proposes

something, and tomorrow's majority opposes it. We see that in the House

all the time. But when the Senate is allowed to work the way it was

designed to, it arrives at a result that is acceptable to people all

along the political spectrum. That, my friends, is the whole point.

 

We have lost our sense for the value of that, and none of us should

be at peace. Because if America is to face up to the challenges we

face in the decades ahead, she will need the Senate the Founders,

in their wisdom, intended, not the hollow shell of the Senate we have

today--not the hollow shell of the Senate we have today.

 

First, one of the traditional hallmarks of the Senate is a vigorous

committee process. It is also one of the main things we have lost.

There was a time--not that long ago--when chairmen and ranking members

had major influence and used their positions to develop national policy

on everything from farm policy to nuclear arms. These men and women

enriched the entire Senate through their focus and their expertise.

Just as important, they provided an important counterweight to the

executive branch. They provided one more check on the White House. If a

President thought something was a good idea, he had better make sure he

ran it by the committee chairman who had been studying it for the past

two decades. If the chairman disagreed, then they would have a serious

debate and probably reach a better product as a result.

 

The Senate should be setting national priorities, not simply waiting

on the White House to do it for us. The place to start that process is

in the committees. With few exceptions, that is gone. With very few

exceptions, that is gone. It is a big loss to the institution, but most

importantly it is a big loss for the American people who expect us to

lead.

 

Here is something else we have gained from a robust committee process

over the years. Committees have actually served as a school of

bipartisanship. If we think about it, it just makes sense. By the time

a bill gets through committee, one would expect it to come out in a

form that was generally broadly acceptable to both sides; nobody got

everything, but more often than not everybody got something, and the

product was stable because there was buy-in and a sense of ownership on

both sides.

 

On the rare occasions when that has happened recently, we have seen

that work. The committee process in the Senate is a shadow of what it

used to be, thereby marginalizing, reducing the influence of every

single Member of the Senate on both sides of the aisle. Major

legislation is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the

majority leader's conference room and then dropped on the floor with

little or no opportunity for Members to participate in the amendment

process, virtually guaranteeing a fight.

 

There is a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive

influence of partisanship. If we truly want to do something about it,

we should support a more robust committee process. That is the best way

to end the permanent sort of shirts-against-skins contest the Senate

has become. Bills should go through committee. If Republicans are

fortunate enough--if Republicans are fortunate enough--to gain the

majority next year, that will be done.

 

Second, bills should come to the floor and be thoroughly debated. We

have an example of that going on right now, and that includes a robust

amendment process. In my view, there is far too much paranoia about the

other side around here. What are we afraid of? Both sides have taken

liberties and abused privileges. I will admit that. But the answer

isn't to provoke even more. The answer is to let folks debate. This is

the Senate. Let folks debate. Let the Senate work its will, and that

means bringing bills to the floor. It means having a free and open

amendment process. That is legislating.

 

That is what we used to do. That is exactly the way this place

operated just a few years ago. The senior Senator from Illinois, the

Democratic assistant majority leader, likes to say--or at least used to

say--that if you don't want to fight fires, don't become a fireman, and

if you don't want to cast tough votes, don't come to the Senate. I

guess he hasn't said that lately.

 

When we used to be in the majority, I remember telling people: Look.

The good news is we are in the majority. The bad news is, in order to

get the bill across the floor, you have to cast a lot of votes you

don't want to take--and we did it and people groaned about it,

complained about it. Yet the Sun still came up the next day and

everybody felt as though they were a part of the process.

 

Senator Durbin was right about that when he said it. I think it is

time to allow Senators on both sides to more fully participate in the

legislative process, and that means having a more open amendment

process around here. As I said, obviously it requires us, from time to

time, to cast votes we would rather not cast. But we are all grownups.

We can take that. There is rarely ever a vote we cast around here that

is fatal.

 

The irony of it all is that kind of process makes the place a lot

less contentious. In fact, it is a lot less contentious when we vote on

tough issues than when we don't, because when we are not allowed to do

that, everybody is angry about being denied the opportunity to do what

they were sent here to do, which is to represent the people who elected

us and offer ideas we think are worth considering.

 

At a meeting we just came out of, Senator Cornyn was pointing out

there were 13 amendments people on this side of the aisle would like to

offer on this bill, all of them related to the subject and important to

each Senator who seriously felt there was a better way to improve the

bill that is on the floor right now. But, alas, I expect that

opportunity will not be allowed because one person who is allowed to

get prior recognition can prevent us from getting any amendments or,

even worse still, pick our amendments for us, decide which of our

amendments are OK and which aren't.

 

I remember the late Ted Stevens telling the story about when he first

got here. Senator Mansfield was still the majority leader, and he tried

to offer an amendment--Senator Stevens did--and the Member of the

majority who was managing the bill prevented it, in effect. Senator

Mansfield came over to Senator Stevens, took his amendment, went back

to his desk and sent it to the floor for him. He sent it to the floor

for him. That was the Senate not too long ago.

 

If someone isn't allowed to get a vote on something they believe in,

of course they are going to retaliate. Of course they are going to

retaliate. But if they get a vote every once in a while, they do not

feel the need to. Voting on amendments is good for the Senate and it is

good for the country. Our constituents should have a greater voice in

the process.

 

Since July of last year, there have been four Republican rollcall

votes. In the whole second half of 2013, Members on this side of the

aisle have gotten four rollcall votes--stunning. That is today's

Senate.

 

So let me say this: If Republicans are fortunate enough to be in the

majority next year, amendments will be allowed, Senators will be

respected, and we will not make an attempt to wring controversy out of

an institution which expects, demands, and approves of great debates

about the problems confronting the country.

 

A common refrain from Democrats is that Republicans have been too

quick to block bills from ever coming to the floor. What they fail to

mention of course is that often we have done this either because we

have been shut out of the drafting process--in other words, had nothing

to do with writing the bill in the first place--or it had been made

pretty clear that there wouldn't be any amendments, which is, in all

likelihood, the situation we are in this very day.

 

In other words, we already knew the legislation was shaping up to be

a purely partisan exercise in which people we represent wouldn't have

any meaningful input at all. Why would we want to participate in that?

Is it good for our constituents? Does it lead to a better product? Of

course not. All it leads to is a lot more acrimony.

 

So look. I get it. If Republicans had just won the White House and

the House and had a 60-vote majority in the Senate, we would be tempted

to empty our outbox too. But you can't spend 2 years emptying your

outbox and then complain about the backlash. If you want fewer fights,

give the other side a say.

 

That brings me to one of the biggest things we have lost around here,

as I see it. The big problem, my colleagues, has never been the rules.

Senators from both parties have in the past revered and defended the

rules during our Nation's darkest hours. The real problem is an

attitude that views the Senate as an assembly line for one party's

partisan legislative agenda rather than as a place to build consensus

to solve national problems. We have become far too focused on making

a point instead of making a difference, making a point instead of making

good stable laws. We have gotten too comfortable with viewing

everything we do here through the prism of the next election instead

of the prism of duty, and everyone suffers as a result.

 

As I see it, a major turning point came during the final years of the

Bush administration, when the Democratic majority held vote after vote

on bills they knew wouldn't pass. I am not saying Republicans have

never staged a show vote when we were in the majority. I am not saying

I don't even enjoy a good messaging vote from time to time. But we have

to wonder, if that is all we are doing, why are we here? It has become

entirely too routine, and it diminishes the Senate. I don't care which

party you are in; you came here to legitimate, to make a difference for

your constituents. Yet over the past several years the Senate seems

more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body.

 

Both sides have said and done things over the past few years we

probably wish we hadn't. But we can improve the way we do business. We

can be more constructive. We can work through our differences. We can

do things that need to be done. But there will have to be major changes

if we are going to get there. The committee process must be restored.

We need to have an open amendment process.

 

Finally, let me suggest that we need to learn how to put in a decent

week's work around here. Most Americans don't work 3 days a week. They

would be astonished to find out that is about it around here.

 

How about the power of the clock to force consensus? The only way 100

Senators will be truly able to have their say, the only way we will be

able to work through our tensions and disputes is if we are here more.

A number of you will remember this: Not too long ago, Thursday night

was the main event around here. There is a huge incentive to finish on

Thursday night if you want to leave on Friday. It is amazing how it

worked.

 

Even the most eager beaver among us with a long list of amendments

which were good for the country--maybe 10 or 12--around noon on

Thursday, it would be down to two or one by midnight on Thursday. It

was amazing how consent would be reached when fatigue set in. All it

took was for the majority leader--who is in charge of the agenda--to

say: Look, this is important. There is bipartisan support for this.

This came out of committee. We want to have an open amendment process,

but we want to finish this week, and we can finish on Thursday

afternoon or Thursday night or Friday morning. We almost never get worn

out around here.

 

What happened to the fatigue factor to bring things to a close?

Amendments voluntarily go away, but important ones still get offered,

and everybody feels like they have a chance to be involved in the

process no matter which side of the aisle they are on. This is

obviously particularly effective on bills which come out of committee,

with bipartisan support, so there is an interest in actually passing

it. We almost never do that anymore--almost never. On those occasions,

we worked late, sometimes well into the morning.

 

I know that sounds kind of quaint for people who haven't been around

here very long, but it actually worked. There is nothing wrong with

staying up a little later and getting to a conclusion. I can remember

the majority leader himself, when he was whip, walking around late at

night on Thursdays with his whip card making sure he had enough votes

to do whatever he wanted to do.

 

When you finished one of those debates, whether you ended up voting

for the bill or voting against the bill, you didn't have the feeling

that, unless you chose to go away with your amendment, you had been

denied the opportunity to participate and to be a part of the process

and actually make a difference for your constituents.

 

That is how you reach consensus: By working and talking and

cooperating through give-and-take. That is the way everyone's patience

is worn down, not just the majority leader's patience. Everyone can

agree on a result even if they don't vote for it in the end. Using the

clock to force consensus is the greatest proof of that, and if

Republicans are in the majority next year, we will use the clock.

Everybody gets an opportunity, but we will use the clock, we will work

harder, and get results.

 

Restoring the committee process, allowing Senators to speak through

an open amendment process, and extending the workweek are just a few

things the Senate could and should do differently. None of it would

guarantee an end to partisan rancor. There is nothing wrong with

partisan debate. It is good for the country. None of it would cause us

to change our principles or our views about what is right and what is

wrong with our country.

 

Partisanship itself is not the problem. The real problem has been a

growing lack of confidence in the Senate's ability to mediate the

tensions and disputes we have always had around here. There are many

reasons some have lost that confidence, and ultimately both parties

have to assume some of the blame.

 

But we can't be content to leave it at that. For the good of the

country, we need to work together to restore this institution.

America's strength and resilience has always depended on our ability to

adapt to the various challenges of our day. Sometimes that has meant

changing the rules when both parties think it is warranted. When the

majority leader decided a few weeks back to defy bipartisan

opposition--there was bipartisan opposition to what happened in

November--by changing the rules that govern this place with a simple

majority, he broke something. He broke something.

 

But our response can't be to just sit back and accept the demise of

the Senate. This body has survived mistakes and excesses before. Even

after some of its worst periods, it has found a way to spring back and

to be the place where even the starkest differences and the fiercest

ideological disputes are hashed out by consensus and mutual respect.

Indeed, it is during periods of its greatest polarization that the

value of the Senate is most clearly seen.

 

So let me wrap it up this way. We are all familiar with the Lyndon

Johnson reign around here. Robert Caro has given us that story in great

detail. Some look at LBJ's well-known heavyhandedness as a kind of

mastery. Personally, I have always believed the leader who replaced him

was a better fit for this place, and evidently so did Johnson's

colleagues who elected Mansfield upon Johnson's departure with

overwhelming enthusiasm. They had had it up to here with LBJ, and they

were excited that he was gone.

 

In fact, Caro reports that he tried to come to the first lunch after

he became Vice President and was going to act as the sort of de facto

majority leader even though he was now Vice President. That was, shall

I say, unenthusiastically received, and he was almost literally thrown

out of the lunch never to return, and Mansfield was, as I said,

enthusiastically chosen to replace him.

 

The chronicles of LBJ's life and legacy usually leave out what I just

told you, but by the time he left the Senate, as I indicated, his

colleagues had had enough of him, right up to here. They may have bent

to his will while he was here, but the moment they had a chance to be

delivered from his iron-fisted rule, they took it.

 

With their support, Mike Mansfield would spend the next 16 years

restoring the Senate to a place of greater cooperation and freedom. As

we look at what the Senate could be--not what it is now, but what it

could be--Mansfield's period gives us a clue.

 

There are many well-known stories about Mansfield's fairness and

equanimity as leader. But they all seem to come down to one thing, and

that was his unbending belief that every single Senator was equal. That

was Mansfield's operating mode: Every single Senator is equal. He acted

that way on a daily basis and conducted himself that way on a daily

basis: The unbending belief that every Senator should be treated as

equal.

 

So, look. Both sides will have to work to get us back to where we

should be. It is not going to happen overnight. We haven't had much

practice lately. In fact, we are completely out of practice at doing

what I just suggested as the first steps to get us back to normal. But

it is a goal I truly believe we can all agree on and agree to strive

toward together, and it takes no rules change. This is a behavioral

problem.

 

It doesn't require a rules change. We just need to act differently with

each other, respect the committee process, have an open amendment

process, and work a little harder. None of that requires a rules

change, because restoring this institution is the only way we will ever

solve the challenges we face. That is the lesson of history and the

lesson of experience. We would all be wise to heed it.

 

I yield the floor.