It is not unusual for sitting members of Congress to twitch and moan that the other party is destroying the institution. The majority party lambastes the minority for obstructing the important business of the country and the minority counter-bastes the majority for excluding it from making those important decisions.
What is unusual is for a sitting member to admit that both parties are to blame for the sorry state of affairs in Congress, let alone suggest ways to correct it. The exceptions, of course, are those members who vent their pent-up frustrations with Congress and both parties upon announcing their retirements. Never mind they did little to correct matters when they could.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the exception to that exception: He is not retiring and has a primary challenge from a tea-party-backed candidate this fall. And yet, in a floor speech on Jan. 8, McConnell confessed that both parties are at fault for the current state of dysfunction in Congress.
Granted, he does not abandon his partisan lens in portraying the process used for passing Obamacare or Majority Leader Harry Reid’s unilateral change in filibuster rules last November. But he acknowledges that both sides use “theatrics and messaging wars that go on here day after day” and says that “show votes” have become “entirely too routine and it diminishes the Senate.” Over the past several years, he observes, “the Senate seems more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body.”
Rather than replay the blame game, McConnell suggests returning to what the Senate does best and that is resolve legitimate differences between the parties through vigorous debate in which all 50 states are represented “and every single senator ... has a say in the laws we pass here.”
He reminds his colleagues that the great laws of the past were not made by “throwing these bills together in a backroom and dropping them on the floor with a stopwatch running.” Instead they were made through “a laborious process of legislating, persuasion, and coalition building” that “took time and patience and hard work.” The Senate, he says, has “lost our sense for the value of that.”
That brings him to his three main recommendations: restoring the committee process, allowing senators to speak through an open amendment process, and putting in “a decent week’s work” right up to the end to get things done — “using the clock to force consensus.” He vows to return to all three practices if Republicans regain majority control next year.
A robust committee system has been lost, he says, even though it provides the best means of developing national policy, acting as a counterweight to the executive and serving as a school for bipartisanship. Likewise, an open floor amendment process that guarantees all senators and their constituents “a greater voice” is often denied today.
Partisanship is not the problem, says McConnell. “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 for that, he says, but “ultimately both parties have to assume some of the blame.” It will take both parties, working together, to restore the institution. He reminds his colleagues that “it is during periods of its greatest polarization that the value of the Senate is most clearly seen.”
McConnell concludes his remarks by admitting that getting back to normal won’t happen overnight. “This is a behavioral problem,” he says, and “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.”
McConnell’s outrage is still evident over the majority leader’s use of the "nuclear option" last November to impose a new filibuster precedent. It is worth noting, however, that so far Republicans have not “blown up the place” in retaliation, as some Democrats vowed they would do nine years ago if the GOP majority had pulled the nuclear trigger. The Republicans' response so far has been muted and measured while holding out an olive branch for greater floor amendment fairness.
McConnell’s Jan. 8 remarks are worth all senators’ reading because they offer a way to de-escalate the hyperpartisan warfare currently wracking Congress. If both parties step back from the jagged red line dividing them, they will be better positioned to shake hands instead of butt heads.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.