President Trump reached an agreement  this week with leaders in Congress to suspend the federal debt ceiling and increase spending above levels currently allowed in law. Attention has predictably focused on the deal’s impact on the nation’s fiscal trajectory. But it also signals that the unprecedented decline in amendment activity on the Senate floor is not going to abate anytime soon.
Opposition to the two-year budget accord among conservatives has centered on the fact that it will add to the national debt. They have argued that it does nothing to change the nation’s unsustainable fiscal trajectory. In the House, members of the Freedom Caucus have taken an official position  opposing the agreement. According to reports, Republicans Mike Braun of Indiana, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, will oppose it in the Senate.
The deal also includes a gentleman’s agreement between congressional leaders and the president to bar so-called poison pill riders in spending bills “unless agreed to on a bipartisan basis by the four leaders with the approval of the president.” The acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, cast this as a victory for conservatives. He contends that because of it, “There will be no new legislative riders to stop this president’s agenda on deregulatory initiatives or building the wall.” In other words, McConnell promised the president that he will prevent senators from offering controversial amendments to bills that would thwart the president’s agenda.
But this is not a victory for conservatives. McConnell’s record as majority leader over the past four years suggests that he was not likely to allow senators to offer amendments in the first place. Including the rider prohibition in the agreement appears instead to have made it easier for McConnell to block amendments, including those offered by conservatives, moving forward. With the deal, McConnell can now blame Schumer and Pelosi when he prevents Republicans from offering amendments to defund Planned Parenthood or otherwise limit the actions of the federal bureaucracy.
In that way, the budget agreement announced this week represents a continuation of both the fiscal and the parliamentary status quo. Indeed, amendment activity has declined steadily under both Democratic and Republican control. The budget agreement offers evidence that this trend will continue moving forward.
Paradoxically, Republican senators are expected to abide by the ban on controversial riders despite their past frustration with how Democrats managed the Senate. Back when he was the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell disagreed publicly with how Majority Leader Harry Reid managed the institution. McConnell even accused  Reid of doing “tremendous damage to the Senate” in a 2014 speech at the American Enterprise Institute. The ordinarily circumspect McConnell pledged, unambiguously, to restore the Senate whenever he became majority leader.
“I guarantee you these are things that can and will change because one person can change most of the problems in the Senate and that’s whoever the majority leader is, the person who gets to set the agenda has the right of prior recognition and has the opportunity to decide whether you’re going to apply a gag rule to everybody or whether you’re going to use tactics that create a greater level of comity and, of course, get more results.”
Republicans, in general, shared McConnell’s frustration. In 2012, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, acknowledged, “We’ve already had a lot of discussions as a conference” about life in the majority. The former senator acknowledged that she and her colleagues were frustrated with the lack of amendment opportunities and that McConnell had committed to changing things. “I’ve heard from Leader McConnell that if he is blessed to be the Majority Leader of the Senate, that he intends to let the Senate operate in the way it was intended to operate. He has been very clear with our conference about that.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, confirmed these sentiments. “Part of the price of being in the Senate is supposed to be that you take votes that you’d prefer not to take. … The problem is not the rules of the Senate. The problem is the Senate is not being allowed to be the Senate.”
Just five years ago, McConnell observed that Reid’s heavy-handed approach to managing the Senate floor “disrespects the members on both sides of the aisle. … I have heard from Democratic senators who wonder what they are supposed to do here, their committee work is not honored, they don’t get to offer amendments. What is the job of a senator?”
Whatever the job is, it appears to have gotten worse under McConnell based on his own standard. A side-by-side comparison of the Senate’s amendment activity when Reid was majority leader and when McConnell was majority leader demonstrates that Republicans have fared worse, on average, when McConnell was in charge than Democrats fared under Reid when he was the majority leader. Surprisingly, Republicans have also fared worse, on average, under McConnell than they did under Reid.
Of course, the rider ban, along with McConnell’s more restrictive approach to managing the Senate, will impact Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, Republicans have offered 26% fewer amendments, on average, under McConnell than under Reid. Democrats have offered 68% fewer amendments, on average, under McConnell than under Reid. And Republicans have received, on average, 62% fewer amendment votes under McConnell than Reid. Democrats have received, on average, 44% fewer amendment votes under McConnell than Reid.
Back in 2012, Ayotte predicted, “If we were in charge and we acted the same way, I would stand up to my own leadership to say that’s not the way the Senate should be conducted.”
The data demonstrate clearly that McConnell has followed in Reid’s footsteps, clamping down on amendment activity to an even greater degree. Yet there are no signs that Republicans, or Democrats for that matter, are prepared to change things.
- “agreement”: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/07/22/white-house-congress-budget-deal-1425192
- “official position”: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/07/23/freedom-caucus-budget-deal-1428421
- “accused”: http://www.uky.edu/CommInfoStudies/IRJCI/McConnellAEIMay2014.pdf