A couple of months ago, this publication likened the Senate appropriations process to a bad Nickelback song. If that analogy was spot on for the appropriations process, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) recent pronouncement that “the Senate is not broken” is going to need a comparison of its own. Taking into account the ramshackle confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the leadership-controlled legislative process, and the reckless disregard both parties have shown for the rules that govern the institution, the Senate can be best characterized as an out-of-tune orchestra.
Worse still, the question of whether or not the Senate is broken is nothing new.
In November 2012, 60 Minutes aired a segment candidly titled “Is the U.S. Senate broken?” in which then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared side-by-side to answer the question. Sen. McConnell, responding to a charge that both parties resort to political gamesmanship instead of constructive deliberation, replied that “the American people are not as interested in the procedural nuances of the Senate as they are the results for the country.”
In the same segment, Pursuit founder Dr. Tom Coburn offered the counterpoint that the “best thing that could happen is all of us [in Congress] lose and send some people up here who care more about the country than they do their political party or their position in politics.”
The juxtaposition between the McConnell view and Coburn view is put into stark relief by keeping in mind that getting to the current state of dysfunction was a bipartisan effort. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last reminds that just as Republicans felt vindicated by invoking the “nuclear option” for Supreme Court nominees, “Democrats felt the same way about Harry Reid’s decision to destroy the Senate’s norms back during the Obama years. And now that the shoe is on the other foot, Democrats are miserable.” It’s a point that ought to, at a minimum, suggest that policymakers and political observers alike need to make room for the long-term effects of their decisions.
Its example also offers a partial explanation for why demanding the complete and total submission of one’s political rivals seems to be winning the day.
Rules and norms — in spite of the trouble they appear to cause when they stand in the way of a desired end — are worth it because they ensure a level playing field. In any other case, this strikes us as completely rational, especially because the alternative is chaos. Think about it: if you play a board game with someone, you expect them to operate from the same rules to which you are held (and holding yourself). If you start to invent workarounds that bend the rules to your benefit, neither you nor your opponent have much of an incentive to abide by the original rules. It should not come as a surprise that at the end of the game, the perception looms that the results are illegitimate. Therein lies the danger of both parties’ approach to politics as an “I win, you lose” proposition.
Take Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein’s observation that, in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh conflict, “Democrats could change the rules in response, they could pack the Court and create new states and much more, but then it’ll be the right that believes American government is illegitimate.” Leaving aside Klein’s larger point about whether or not the Senate is a democratic institution (it is), he is spot on in his summarization of the current position of American politics.
If both parties only recognize the legitimacy of actions taken when such actions benefit their side, the incentive structure that remains is what one Brookings Institution column outlines as “messaging activities that help them win elections over messaging that helps them legislate.” If politicians view their work through the narrow lens of winning elections, why would they want to build comprehensive solutions to public policy issues when they are too busy trying to ram through their agenda with the bare-minimum of buy-in needed?
The answer has a lot to do with Dr. Coburn’s call for more elected officials “who care more about the country than they do their political party or their position in politics.” Until policymakers in both parties realize the damage that constant goalpost-shifting does to the legitimacy of outcomes produced by one side or another, do not expect the self-serving gamesmanship that characterizes current-day Washington to get any better.
Though it may sound unthinkable, the way back from Washington’s legitimacy crisis will involve tough decisions that require both parties to reach compromises and do away with a politics of total submission. When that time does come, a good place to start reforming is by rediscovering the value of rules and norms that hold both sides accountable.