The United States Senate has a hallowed reputation as the place where big national debates would be carefully considered through its unique structure of preserving minority rights when compared to the more majoritarian House of Representatives. Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts once lauded it as the place where “the sober second thought of the people might find expression” and “resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people.” The chamber was given the epithet “the world’s greatest deliberative body” with good reason.
Today, however, the day-to-day conduct of the Senate makes these quotations seem more like fairy tales than reality.
The Senate continues to dither on major national issues from health care to immigration to the federal budget. For weeks, headlines have been lambasting the Senate for resembling what Democratic Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) so aptly characterized as “a very expensive lunch club” that “occasionally [walks into the Senate] chamber and take a vote or two or three on judges.” There is sadly a lot to be said of the assertion that “the world’s greatest deliberative body” is now the world’s greatest lunch club.
Though the Senate was designed to take a slower, more considered approach to legislation as a check on the rapid proceedings of the House, the current iteration of the Senate has grinded legislative action to a complete halt. Over the last four months, the Senate has taken up and passed two bills – one for disaster aid and the other addressing robocalls. It’s not for a lack of bills to take up – as the House has passed over 100 bills that current await Senate action.
Senators from both parties have also been fuming over their chamber’s inaction. Even leaving aside the fact that Senate Democrats have now taken to calling the upper chamber a “legislative graveyard,” Republican Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) offered a blunt appraisal of the Senate’s legislative record: “Zero. Zilch. Nada.” The theme again seems to be that the Senate is eager to confirm judicial nominees — particularly after blowing up the chamber’s rules several nuclear options later — but does not seem too interested in voting on much else.
What makes these complaints of Senate lethargy so unsettling is how they seem to be welcomed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). In response to mounting criticism of the Senate’s inaction, Sen. McConnell brushed away concerns by blaming progressive policies as the reason for the body’s unwillingness to legislate. “If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass.” Sen. McConnell’s 2020 reelection campaign also seems to think his “Grim Reaper” persona is an asset, boasting of his role in the chamber’s paralysis.
It should track that someone claiming to be so influential and powerful in his role would be comfortable demonstrating those skills with a willingness to engage such flawed policies and easily vote them down. Better yet, a leader could articulate and formulate alternative plans to fix the myriad of challenges that face our country. Instead, Sen. McConnell has opted to avoid any consideration of topics ranging from immigration to climate change to health care — all issues where both Republicans and Democrats profess they want to take action.
While it is important to highlight Sen. McConnell’s unfortunate invitation of the Senate’s lackluster performance, it is just as necessary to keep in mind that he is not all-powerful either. The senators complaining of inaction and running for president as a means of seeing their reforms put into place can move to take up a given issue at any time.
According to a New York Times report on the Senate’s legislative standstill, Republican senators generally agree with Sen. McConnell’s position that “filling vacancies in both the courts and the administration is both appealing to conservative voters and a necessary precursor to initiating a legislative agenda.” Put another way, Republican senators are willing to follow Sen. McConnell’s lead on agenda-setting despite their complaints of inaction because it a.) is assumed to play well with voters and b.) lets the courts and the executive branch address issues to take pressure off of Congress.
Welcome to the Seinfeld Senate, a legislative body about nothing.
Senators in both parties can choose to show how serious they are about their worries that the Senate is turning into a glorified lunch club that has no interest in legislating, and they need to be judged on the actions they take to right those wrongs. Until Democrats and Republicans both start making efforts on the floor to debate and secure votes on issues they care about, weekly party lunches will remain the only place where those issues are ever discussed.