Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that he was seriously considering bringing the Green New Deal to a vote on the Senate floor. The move was widely interpreted by Democrats as nothing more than a political stunt.
In announcing his intention to put the Green New Deal up for a vote, Sen. McConnell said his motivation was his observation of “great interest [in] the Green New Deal” and his wish to “give everybody an opportunity to go on record.” Though the motivation for holding a vote that will divide Senate Democrats is undoubtedly political, Sen. McConnell may have stumbled into a valuable principle.
Votes in Congress are one of the key ways that legislators act. It helps us hold our representatives accountable for their promises and gives the public opportunities to clearly see where members stand on a given issue.
It is a common trope that politicians are, as President Trump succinctly put it in his 2016 presidential campaign, “all talk, no action.” The data backs up the thesis. One report on the recently concluded Congress found that the House of Representatives held the most closed rules — that is, bills being offered in the House without the ability to add amendments — in a single Congress. In other words, rank-and-file members were given no opportunity to advocate for issues of great importance to their constituents by voting on amendments to bills.
In the Senate, opportunities for voting are just as lacking.
Sen. McConnell famously spoke about the importance of an open process in 2014 when he was Senate Minority Leader opposite former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). In his criticism of Sen. Reid’s tight control of the Senate’s legislative process, Sen. McConnell declared, rightly, that “voting on amendments is good for the Senate, and it’s good for the country.” Pursuit founder and former Senator Tom Coburn was so frustrated with Congressional inaction during this period he left the Senate two years early.
Despite this promise, as detailed by R Street Institute Senior Fellow James Wallner, Majority Leader McConnell keeps a tight grip on the Senate floor and rarely allows for open process or amendment votes. Amendments as a percentage of votes taken by the Senate hit an all-time low last Congress. This discourages members from offering their ideas to change legislation. McConnell’s tenure as majority leader yielded an average of 827 offered amendments each Congress compared to the average of 1,143 amendments per Congress under Reid.
The dysfunctional process we now accept as a political fact of life would be news to the Framers.
Taking a look back at the record from the Constitutional Convention, lawmakers in our time could learn a lot about how important being active and actually voting on things is to our system. The Framers voted on everything from how the president should be chosen (voting on various proposals over 60 times) to how many houses the legislature should have and how those members should be chosen. The delegates hammered out their differences and were able to forge the Constitution for the oldest democracy in the world by the long and hard process of relentless debating and voting on issues they cared about.
Sen. McConnell’s instincts were correct in 2014. He similarly understands the importance of voting in his vow to hold a vote on the Green New Deal. But this should be the new standard rather than a political tactic.
The road to reversing Congress’s abdication of its power to the other branches will have to involve its members voting more and, to paraphrase Sen. McConnell, give lawmakers an opportunity to go on record in addressing big generational issues like immigration, healthcare, government spending, and the now-$22 trillion national debt.
Congress should be voting more, but what deserves emphasis is how those unaddressed political issues will have damaging consequences that only make forging solutions more difficult. If the only function of voting in our current political environment is to embarrass political rivals and foster more cynicism about the process, it should come as no surprise that power and showmanship take precedent over responsible legislating.