Earlier this week, the Senate opened a session with a foul blast of partisanship.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed the day’s schedule and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded. Next came a short break when no senator may speak. Sen. Susan Collins asked for agreement of all senators present, called “unanimous consent,” so that she could make a speech.
Schumer objected. Collins exclaimed, “This is unbelievable.” Another GOP senator furiously blurted out that what Schumer did was “b— s–t.”
Schumer said he had thought the arrangement between the leaders was to proceed first with two routine voice votes, before any speeches. McConnell proceeded, and the votes were taken. Collins then spoke, blasting the Democratic position on the coronavirus recovery bill.
The rest of the day, one GOP senator after another shed sham tears about Schumer’s alleged mistreatment of Collins, proclaimed to be the mild and moderate senator from Maine. Their comments reflected the extravagant partisanship that continued for days.
To top it off, one Maine news report later implied that Collins’ statement was a comment on the process having bogged down in partisan bickering on the Covid-19 rescue bill, when it was about her having to wait five minutes to speak.
Given the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, voters might expect that Republicans and Democrats would try to work together rapidly on a compromise. This was the time for expressions of bipartisan resolve.
Instead, senators staged their remarks for later partisan use. The Senate battles were really skirmishes in the presidential election. Each side was trying either to get its policies adopted or to create a platform for themselves and their presidential candidate to use later this year.
At the same time, senators were fearful of ignoring the pressing public panic and the need to protect the incomes of working people and struggling companies. While the White House, Treasury and Senate Democrats negotiated, others postured.
To end debate on a bill, 60 votes are required. That super-majority would mean that, on this legislation at least, bipartisan support would have to be achieved.
But from the outside, the negotiations on the legislation looked almost purely partisan. Based on a meaningless House bill, with the House out of session, the Republicans charged Senate Democrats with seeking wild add-ons in return for their votes. The Democrats charged the GOP with seeking to give a blank check to big business.
Any weapon to belittle the other side would do. Hence, the florid GOP defense of Collins over what was truly a minor matter.
The real reason why the Senate wasted valuable time in coming up with the needed help for the economy is that it is broken.
The Republicans hold the White House and are the Senate majority. The Democrats are the House majority and have enough votes to block Senate action on major bills. There is no center in national politics. Moderate politics seems to be dead.
The Covid-19 crisis has huge implications for public health and the economy. It requires joint action of the parties and clear, strong national leadership. Only the scope of the crisis has brought some limited cooperation. Given the political posturing, it’s not likely to last.
Too much power is given to both parties’ Majority Leader. Fortunately excluded from the negotiations, McConnell stirred panic, trying to get the Democrats to drop their demands for spending safeguards. An urgent response was more important to him than good public policy, even when spending $2 trillion was at stake.
The dictatorship of the Majority Leader could end any time a majority of senators decided they should share in control. Maine’s bipartisan Legislative Council, which controls the state’s House business, is a good alternative model.
Senators need to see themselves as equal members of a deliberative body and not simply as partisan soldiers whose main goal is re-election. Any 51 senators could seize power and set the Senate rules. Right now, it is erroneously believed that this option is available only to the Majority Leader.
The CARES Act on Covid-19 is not the last word. Congress must accommodate and manage basic changes to health care and the economy caused by the pandemic.
Despite the forced Covid-19 bipartisanship, divided government is proving to be unworkable. If the senators cannot play their role as the wiser heads in government, the solution may be left to the voters.
If the federal government continues to falter, the elections would need to provide a clear result. That’s what happened in the most recent British elections when the Conservatives won a stunning victory, enabling them to act decisively.
With compromise almost impossible, whichever party wins in November needs to win big.