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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.