The country is torn by partisan conflict. Many blame President Trump, but he is exploiting a split that existed before he took office.
One person deserves even more responsibility for the failure of the parties work together – Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican Senate Majority Leader. Winning partisan battles is his sole purpose.
As the new Congress convenes, the most important single vote Sen. Susan Collins casts will be to re-elect McConnell as the head of her party in the Senate. One of the few GOP moderates, she has been loyal to McConnell who promised her campaign funds after her vote in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court.
However moderate Collins may be, she helps enable a man who has done much to block bipartisan legislation, to destroy the presidential nomination process, and to promote maximum partisanship.
Most Maine voters probably care little about McConnell’s influence and Collins’ support. She may worry that she will get the worst Senate committee assignments if she does not back him.
“I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor,” McConnell says. In practice, that means he can prevent the Senate from considering any bill he dislikes. The remaining members of the GOP majority have simply ceded total control to him.
While the role of the Majority Leader is to ensure the orderly operation of the Senate, his (there’s never been a woman) powers can lend themselves to partisan or personal abuse. McConnell is the textbook case.
The Constitution states that presidential appointments to the Supreme Court depend on the Senate’s “advice and consent.” It can approve or disapprove the nominee. But McConnell has positioned it to do neither, in effect evading its constitutional responsibility.
When a vacancy occurred more than a year before the end of President Obama’s term, he appointed Merrick Garland, a distinguished federal appeals judge, to fill the vacancy. Garland is a moderate, and McConnell found him insufficiently conservative.
He gambled that the next president would be a Republican who would name a conservative. To make that possible and to avoid any negative reaction to his denying the position to an obviously qualified nominee, McConnell simply blocked senators’ contacts with Garland and prevented a hearing on the nomination.
McConnell departed from obvious constitutional intent and removed the power of appointment from the president. Though Democrats remain resentful, McConnell got away with his power grab.
In 2013, he did his best to torpedo a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform. Unless almost all Republican senators would vote for it, he would oppose it. He would support bipartisan bills only if the Democrats could not take credit for their passage.
Much the same is taking place now. Bipartisan agreement has been reached on criminal justice reform, which he personally opposes. He claims too little time remains this year to deal with it, despite its broad support, including from President Trump. Once again, he sets himself up against the president, even one of his own party.
Before the Garland case, he insisted that every judicial nominee should first obtain 60 votes as the gateway to the final simple majority vote. By invoking this rule, he blocked almost all Obama judicial appointments. Then, the Democrats controlled the Senate and changed the rule to require a simple majority to end debate.
Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid left the supermajority in place for the Supreme Court. When McConnell took over, he applied the simple majority to Trump’s two appointees, who made it to the Court. Ignoring his own past obstruction, McConnell blamed his change on what Reid had done.
When asked to allow a bill protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller from any White House move to end his investigation into the 2016 elections, McConnell said there was no need for it. He claims Trump would not end the inquiry, despite the president’s constant criticism.
People elect senators in the belief that each, with the same vote, carries equal weight. Yet the senators automatically turn over some of their most critical powers to a single person. That might have promoted efficiency, but excessive efficiency is the enemy of intentionally disorderly democracy.
McConnell’s control relies on party loyalty, as did Reid’s. He acts like a military officer, keeping his troops in line. The will of voters or even of the senators themselves is lost.
Public office is no longer a public trust. In the Senate, it’s all about trusting McConnell.
Senators are unwilling to stand up to McConnell’s arbitrary rule. Mainers may wish that Collins would take that risk.