Amid today’s bitter political divides, there is one thing on which Democrats and Republicans agree: The United States Senate is a miserable place to work. By any measure, the Senate’s recent legislative activity is pathetic. Senators appear to be frustrated with the status quo. They claim to want it to change.
While senators disagree on precisely how to fix the Senate, they agree Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the power to do so. Take, for example, Bernie Sanders’ recent assertion that McConnell was preventing senators from debating and voting on legislation. According to Sanders, “there’s very little that’s going in the Senate, it is a do-nothing body, and that is because of McConnell.” Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, has claimed, “McConnell abdicates the role of the legislature” by refusing to consider gun safety legislation until President Trump signs off on it.
More forgiving, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, observed, “The majority leader has to make a decision on what is the best use of floor time.” Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, suggested that she would love to legislate if only she were allowed to do so. “I’m very eager to turn from nominations to legislation. … There are important issues that are pending, and I think we could produce some terrific bills that would be signed into law.”
Of course, much of the Senate’s present dysfunction can be attributed to how its recent leaders, especially McConnell, have managed the institution. But the Senate’s dismal condition is not McConnell’s fault alone. All 100 senators are equally responsible for perpetuating it.
Each senator has the power to force their colleagues to act on whatever issue he or she wants.
As majority leader, McConnell does not have the ability under the Senate’s rules to prevent them from doing so. To the extent that the majority leader has stopped the Senate from legislating, it is because he has been empowered to do so by the deference of senators such as Sanders, Merkley, Cornyn, and Collins. The implication is that fixing the Senate will require senators willing to act, as well as leaders who will help them to do so.
Senators’ alternate reality can be more fully appreciated by juxtaposing the Senate’s present predicament with another period in its history when its members were unhappy with how the institution operated. On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, just minutes before President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana stood on the Senate floor and asked unanimous consent that he be recognized to address his colleagues on the following Monday. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, Mansfield decided not to deliver his speech as planned, observing that “in light of what has happened, I have no heart to read this report to the Senate.” The majority leader instead asked unanimous consent that his speech instead be printed in the Congressional Record.
Mansfield’s speech, as printed in the Congressional Record, illuminates the underlying reason for today’s dysfunction. In it, Mansfield responded to criticism of the Senate’s legislative record and how he managed the institution as its majority leader. Mansfield stressed the importance of action and hard work to resolving disagreements between senators. He believed that hard work was needed because the Senate comprises “100 independent men and women.” More importantly, Mansfield recognized that as majority leader, he did not possess more power than his colleagues. That meant that he was unable to compel them to act (or not act).
Mansfield closed by acknowledging that all senators are equal. He observed that “every Member ought to be equal in fact, no less than in theory, that they have a primary responsibility to the people whom they represent to face the legislative issues of the Nation.” To the extent that the Senate was broken, Mansfield argued that “the remedy lies not, in the seeking of shortcuts, not in the cracking of nonexistent whips, not in wheeling and dealing, but in an honest facing of the situation and a resolution of it by the Senate itself.”
As Mansfield made clear in his speech, the Senate will not work if senators are unwilling to make it work. In doing so, he reminds us that “it is not the record of the majority leader or the minority leader. It is the Senate’s record.” In other words, senators are not victims. They each are the masters of their own destinies because they all have the same power under the rules. When the Senate does not deliberate, it is because senators are unwilling to engage in deliberation.
Mansfield’s speech highlights the Senate as a venue where senators gather to act on behalf of the people they represent. Yet where Mansfield saw an egalitarian institution comprising 100 senators, all equal, the remarks of Sanders, Merkley, Cornyn, and Collins suggest that they see a factory consisting of workers and management. According to their view, the factory does not work because its management, whether rightly or wrongly, won’t let it.
In contrast, Mansfield understood his job as majority leader to be facilitating the participation of his colleagues in the legislative process. He did not see himself as a factory foreman. He pointed out that “it will be of no avail to install a timeclock at the entrance to the Chamber for Senators to punch when they enter or leave the floor.”
For that straightforward reason, Mansfield’s leadership of the Senate helped to guide the institution through a rocky environment and dangerous times. In the process, senators amassed a record of legislative accomplishments that has remained unsurpassed ever since.
The Senate today is incapable of even the smallest legislative accomplishments because its members refuse to try. The Senate is a miserable place to work because senators have no interest in working.
By suggesting that McConnell alone has the power to fix the Senate, senators make the majority leader more powerful than he is and, in the process, minimize their own liability for the institution’s inaction. While today’s Senate would undoubtedly be more productive if McConnell managed it like Mansfield, it will take more than a change in leadership to fix the institution. There must also be a change in senators’ willingness to act.
Mansfield’s observation is just as accurate today as they were in 1963. “The constitutional authority and responsibility does not lie with the leadership. It lies with all of us individually, collectively, and equally. And in the last analysis, deviations from that principle must in the end act to the detriment of the institution.”
Image credit: Christopher Halloran