Autumn is shaping up to be a very trying time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Highway funding and Federal Aviation Administration laws are set to expire. The federal government will hit its debt ceiling sometime in November, and the country will begin defaulting on payments owed if the limit is not raised. The divisive Trans-Pacific Partnership awaits final action. Oh, and the recently averted government shutdown will resurface in mid-December, unless the Kentucky senator can cut a deal with the House.
For sure, the new House leadership will have its hands full as well. But McConnell’s plight is especially unenviable. Unless he can stop the Senate from backsliding into gridlock, the leader may find himself and the Republican Party again relegated to the minority.
The year did not begin badly for McConnell. The Senate and House passed a budget resolution for the first time since 2003. The upper chamber showed uncharacteristic dispatch by passing a disapproval resolution (under the Congressional Review Act) in little over a month. The Bipartisan Policy Centerreported the McConnell Senate has worked more days than former Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Senate did. Senate committees also have readied more bills for votes.
Things look much less sunny now. Congress has an immense amount of work to complete on complex and divisive issues. The Senate’s fall calendar is tight, with many days lost to holidays and state work days (i.e., days senators spend back home pleasing constituents and raising money for reelection).
And there is this big problem: It’s becoming harder and harder for any majority leader to get bills passed in the Senate. As our new research study found, individual senators are tripping up legislation as a regular course of business.
They do this by offering amendments to legislation – lots of them. Twenty years ago, senators offered about 2,650 amendments in a two-year period. Last Congress, more than 4,100 amendments were offered. And as the chart below shows, each major (or “landmark”) bill is drawing more and more amendments.
For example, when McConnell tried to move the Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act earlier this year, more than 300 amendments were offered. Allowing debate and votes on the all of them would have taken months. The majority leader was forced to spend considerable effort horse-trading and using various parliamentary tactics to make the amendments go away.
Why do senators do this? Because they can. Unlike the House, the Senate permits unlimited debate. The chamber also does not require amendments to be germane in most cases. A senator can offer a contentious amendment on abortion to, for example, a foreign policy bill. Time-sucking debate on the amendment continues unless or until the majority leader can muster sufficient votes to either stop the gabbing (invoking cloture) or kill the bill (tabling it).
Worse, individual senators frequently force votes on politically toxic amendments designed to make the other party look horrible to voters. Democrats queue up campaign finance reform amendments, and Republicans offer amendments to override Obama’s immigration order. These votes then are used in next season’s campaign ads.
The flood of divisive amendments, particularly from legislators in the minority, has made it unbelievably difficult for a majority leader to call up, amend and vote on a bill. If McConnell blocks amendments through parliamentary maneuvers, fellow senators take revenge by withholding their approval of bills. If he permits their amendments, the chamber grinds to a stop. Last Congress, then-Majority Leader Reid tried to deal with this mess by calling for votes on very few bills. He was trashed for running a do-nothing Senate and lost the chamber to Republicans.
This autumn, the partisan electoral calculations will grow even more intense. Democrats have every incentive to gum up the works, because 24 of the Republican Party’s 56 Senate seats are in play in 2016. If the Senate becomes a basket case, voters will likely punish Republicans at the ballot box next year. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer or Dick Durbin? It could happen.
Unfortunately, the problem of too many toxic amendments can only be solved by the Senate itself. The chamber could change its rules to require germaneness or adopt reforms that make it easier to choke off debate. But the Senate rarely changes its basic operating rules. So there is every reason to be glum about the prospects for good governance this fall.