Mitch McConnell and the Art of Dysfunction
Stanley Kutler is the editor of "The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War" (Scribner's, 1995) and the "The Wars of Watergate" (Alfred A. Knopf). He is the E. Gordon Fox Emeritus Professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin, and also professor of law. Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Speaker John Boehner, President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell meet to discuss the debt limit, July 2011. Credit: White House.
In most "democratic" countries, whether they have parliamentary or a form of presidential government, opposition leaders traditionally step aside following a defeat. Gordon Brown, the ousted British Labor Party leader, made news only because he visited Malala Yousufzai, the young Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating the right of girls to be educated. So much for typical functions of defeated leaders.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader and the de facto opposition leader in the United States, knows no such sense of loss. Two years ago, McConnell announced that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." He meant every word of that promise, and he scored a new standard for opposition, invoking a filibuster more than 300 times, and effectively blocking presidential initiatives, whether job creation, tax increases, or merely threatening to block an Elizabeth Warren nomination, the president's believed choice, to head the newly-created Consumer Affairs agency -- be careful of what you wish for.
Following the president's reelection, McConnell remained intransigent and coldly reacted: "The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president's first term," harmonizing petulance and disappointment, McConnell said it was time for a solution to the president's failure to lead. President Obama should "propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House," he said, "and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office."
McConnell wanted the president not to propose his own agenda and policies, but to offer "solutions" that would satisfy Republicans -- and undoubtedly on their own terms. McConnell's boldness knows no boundaries. He urged the president to do a "Clintonian backflip," and then "if he's willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it's not inappropriate for us to do business with him." How generous if not comical, for all of Clinton's accommodation and courting only brought him a Republican impeachment and a McConnell vote to convict and remove him from office.
Given that the president's electoral defeat was McConnell's objective, he failed spectacularly, and now it is irrelevant. The Republicans' leader will not resign, to be sure. McConnell's tactics notwithstanding, the Democratic majority in the Senate has increased, and with the addition of more progressives. The nation can have only an indirect effect on the senator's future; only his party and fellow senators have the power to replace him. In all probability, they lack the courage, let alone the wisdom to do so, meaning they, too, are comfortable in their obstructionist roles.
Incidentally, one day following after the election -- besides issuing threats -- it was business as usual for McConnell. He attended a fundraiser in his behalf, with entry fees of $25,000 for PACs and $1,000 for individuals. The contributors, we can be sure, are not looking for much change in the senator.
McConnell is only symptomatic of a larger problem. The filibuster, once rarely used, is now commonplace. It has no place in the constitutional system for it developed over time as an anomalous weapon for the ostensible preservation of "minority rights," but actually to the point of obliterating majority rule.
Filibusters now are weapons of convenience. At one time, southern senators filibustered in desperate efforts to preserve their racially-segregated systems of social control. Like Mafia warriors they brought mattresses and cots to their Senate offices as members engaged in round-the-clock blather that only served to block legislative procedure. At times, the Senate was brought to a standstill for several weeks. Alas! filibusters now are refined to a point where they are easily invoked when a senator announces his opposition, and a cloture vote is taken almost immediately. Some filibuster; and everyone is off to a fundraiser. It borders on a very bad joke.
There may be a way out of this legislative gridlock. The new Senate will have a larger Democratic majority and, most significantly, its progressive wing has been strengthened -- particularly with such newly-elected members as Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. They and the rest of the majority Democrats were elected to govern, not to paralyze themselves. Senators new and old have no obligation to maintain antiquated, often destructive rules. If there is to be governance, the Democrats must prevail upon majority leader Sen. Harry Reid to propose a new Senate rule requiring only a majority vote to invoke cloture.
Republicans undoubtedly will contend that a two-thirds vote is necessary to change the rules, but they will do so at the cost of conveniently forgetting their own recent history. A few years ago, when Democrats threatened to filibuster Republican judicial nominees, the Republicans responded with their own threat of a "nuclear option," which would have changed the rules requiring only a majority vote to end filibusters on such matters. Democrats readily capitulated.
Both Obama and Reid must realize that a new rule is essential to governance. If the Senate will not reform itself the Democrats themselves will inherit a unique blame of their own. Perhaps there will be an initial effort and even accomplishment of some bipartisan legislation. But it will not last. McConnell reportedly might face a tea party candidate in 2014, and he undoubtedly will tack right. If so, he will be remembered as the John C. Calhoun of the 21st century. In the 1830s, Calhoun devised the notion of a "concurrent majority" to rationalize the South's minority power and control to serve the class of slave masters.
Calhoun's idea was never fully implemented as legislative or constitutional doctrine, but for all practical purposes, it effectively operated to give the South a virtual veto power, truly paralyzing legislative action, whether governance in the territories, with or without slavery, a national transportation system, currency reform, tariff schedules, and other aspects of economic development. In the years leading up to the Civil War, it produced nothing less than dysfunction and a failure to confront the nation's most pressing problems. "And the war came," as Abraham Lincoln famously said.
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