Enough Obstruction: McConnell and the Senate Need to Work

By | 2018-05-06T09:39:45+00:00 May 6th, 2018|
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Draining the D.C. swamp takes two critical things: willpower and manpower. President Trump has plenty of the former. But his attempts to gain the latter are being blocked actively by recalcitrant Senate Democrats and lazy Senate Republicans. 

Senator Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) shameful smearing of Dr. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is just the latest example of a Democratic party that has become unhinged, allowing their entire platform to be subsumed by their unreserved hatred of all things Trump.

The results, in this case, speak for themselves. Tester’s allegations were later proven baseless (though not before the media furiously reported them like they were true), the reputation of a good man is in tatters and his nomination withdrawn. Other Trump nominees are likely taking note of what happened and considering the possibility that they may be treated similarly. Of course, that was the intention.

Qualified Nominees Blocked
Tester’s reckless attacks represent the new modus operandi of Senate Democrats. Nominees are no longer considered objectively for their qualifications or experience. Rather, Democrats are bent on obstructing as many of them as possible in a game where hurting Trump is accomplished by hitting those close to him.

Highly qualified nominees routinely are dismissed, solely for the sin of being nominated by Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, first in his class at West Point, a Harvard Law graduate, former CIA director, and a former congressman, received 42 Democrat “no” votes. Patrick Pizzella, who also sailed through previous Senate confirmation and served in four presidential administrations—including Barack Obama’s—saw his nomination as Deputy Secretary of Labor delayed for nearly a year.

Others, like Jackson, are subjected to baseless character attacks or outright religious bigotry. Russ Vought, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget was attacked openly by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for his Christian faith. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) lit into judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett, questioning her ability to render objective judicial decisions because she is Catholic.

An Insane Debate Rule
But the obstruction exists in more than the rhetoric. When nominations come to the floor, Democratic leaders routinely demand their full 30 hours of debate, but then fail actually to show up and speak, forcing the Senate into inactivity for days at a time. This posturing has become so blatantly absurd that Democrats who routinely demand the full 30 hours of debate time—ostensibly to air their grievances about the nominee—don’t show up to speak, and then end up voting for the nominee anyway.

Because of this, Trump has had fewer nominees confirmed than the previous four administrations had at the same time during their first terms. Forty percent of his nominees, the people he has chosen to manage the career bureaucrats and implement his agenda across the government, are still awaiting Senate approval.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made Democratic obstruction a campaign theme, frequently denouncing “unprecedented Democratic obstruction” that is reaching “historic levels.”

But McConnell’s statements about Democrats belie an unspoken truth about this whole affair: McConnell is letting Democrats get away with it.

Overcoming obstruction by Democrats should be easy enough for Republicans to manage if Republican members of the Senate bothered to show up to work for longer than half a week and enforced the Senate’s rules.

Make Them Talk
Those 30 hours that Democrats demand to “debate” controversial nominations, but don’t actually talk? The solution is simple: Republicans should be
making them talk. In fact, as I’ve written, if McConnell enforced the plain text of the Senate’s Rule XXII, Democrats would each be limited to one hour of speaking in the 30 hours they demand. To use all of the time they say they need, Democrats would be forced to present 30 different senators, each speaking for one hour.

If Democrats could only produce, say, five different senators, then, at the end of their remarks, McConnell could move to a vote on the nominee. In other words, by forcing Democrats actually to use their debate time, those 30 hours could quickly become eight, or 10, or two. Right now, McConnell is allowing Democrats to manipulate the Senate and obstruct for free.

But it’s not solely a matter of using arcane Senate rules. Sometimes it’s as simple as showing up for work, a function that the McConnell Senate rarely embraces. The Senate is in session an average of 2.5 days week, coming in on Monday evenings and adjourning for the week by Thursday afternoon.

Think about how many more nominees could be confirmed, and how much more could be accomplished legislatively if the Senate worked a normal five-day week.

Moreover, keeping the Senate in session provides a critical political advantage in the upcoming midterm elections in November. There are 26 Democrats running for reelection, but only six Republicans doing the same. Of those 26 Democrats, 10 are in red states won by President Trump. Only one of the six Republicans running is truly threatened. The rest remain in relatively safe seats. The delta between Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail is actually so large that no Senate majority has ever had this kind of electoral advantage. It’s the largest one in a midterm cycle in U.S. history.  

Knowing this, keeping the Senate in session for longer work weeks should be a no-brainer—if only to keep vulnerable Democrats off the campaign trail. It wouldn’t hurt the legislative agenda, either, to double the amount of time legislators stayed in town to actually legislate. And you never know what the threat of a weekend session would do to a party that has, until now, faced no consequences for outright obstruction of the Republican agenda.

Democrats are doing their best to block Trump’s agenda by blocking the people he needs to do the job and slowing Senate activity to a crawl. To combat this, Trump needs a willing and active partner in the Senate. Thus far, he’s received little help. The Republican Senate tanked the Obamacare repeal, failed to deliberate on immigration reform, and actively blocked funding for Trump’s border wall. And, when it comes to Trump’s nominees, Republican leadership is letting Democrats get away with the parliamentary equivalent of murder.

Trump was elected on a promise to drain the swamp. It will be a real shame if the biggest obstacle to fulfilling that promise isn’t Democrats, but rather legislative apathy and institutional laziness from his own party in the Senate.   

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

About the Author:

Rachel Bovard
Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.