"The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote." - Constitution of the United States, Amendment XVII
The United States Senate is often called "the world's greatest deliberative body." Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican leader, wants to make that description true again.
With that goal in mind McConnell made an important speech on the Senate floor last week. All students of American government, indeed all American citizens, should read or watch it.
McConnell is in the midst of a tough reelection campaign. He is taking fire from both a Republican primary rival and a Democratic general election opponent.
But as he has done many times before, and usually without getting attention, much less credit, for it, McConnell is putting the country's best interests ahead of political concerns. This time his mission is to save the Senate from itself.
The mainstream media often tries to make McConnell the villain in stories about the Senate's dysfunction. He acknowledges that he and his party have some responsibility, but he still seeks to recover and preserve the special role the Senate plays in producing "durable and stable legislative consensus."
McConnell argues that in America's toughest crises, the Senate has been "the tool that has enabled us to find our footing almost every time." He notes the bipartisan support that measures like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Americans With Disabilities Act enjoyed.
"None of this happened by throwing these bills together in a backroom and dropping them on the floor with a stopwatch running," McConnell contends. "It happened through a laborious process of legislating, persuasion, and coalition-building" that "took time and hard work," and "guaranteed that every one of these laws had stability."
By contrast, today's Senate is marked by a majority that simply imposes its will. Instead of meaningful debate the proceedings are often little more than a senator standing "in front of a giant poster board making some poll-tested point of the month," McConnell says.
The recent move by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid to "defy bipartisan opposition" and change the Senate rules by simple majority vote got a lot of attention. But this partial repeal of the Senate's venerable super-majority requirements is only one of several regrettable changes under Reid's regime.
McConnell calls for three major reforms. He wants to reinvigorate the committee process, restore the right of senators to offer and debate amendments to legislation, and extend the Senate's truncated workweek.
The once powerful committee process helps produce bipartisan consensus according to McConnell. "By the time a bill got through a committee, you could expect it to come out in a form that was broadly acceptable to both sides."
Now, however, "major legislation is routinely drafted not in committee but in the Majority Leader's conference room and then dropped on the floor with little or no opportunity for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight."
A free and open amendment process may make for more tough votes, McConnell says, but it would also make the Senate less contentious. When the Majority Leader blocks amendments, as Reid did last week on an unemployment bill, senators who have already been shut out of any meaningful committee input have an incentive to retaliate.
Finally, McConnell calls for a longer Senate workweek. He says that working more would also help force consensus as it did in days past.
None of this would do away with partisanship, of course. "But when the Senate is allowed to work the way it was designed to," McConnell says, "it arrives at a result that's acceptable to people all along the political spectrum."
McConnell concluded with the historical observation that historians regard Lyndon Johnson's "well-known heavy handedness" as a kind of mastery of the Senate. But LBJ's successor as Senate Majority Leader, the mild-mannered Democrat Mike Mansfield of Montana, spent "the next 16 years restoring the Senate to a place of greater cooperation and freedom."
If Republicans win a net gain of six seats and retake the Senate majority this year and McConnell remains the GOP leader, look for him to model his majority leadership after Mansfield's. One good MM deserves another.
As Kentuckians cast their ballots for senator later this year they should remember that McConnell is positioned to have a positive impact on truly big, bipartisan, constitutional, and institutional issues. Everyone already knows the Senate race in Kentucky is important, but McConnell's speech shows that it is even more significant than people realize.
The future of the Senate as a functional institution is at stake. McConnell promises changes that will restore that "most exclusive club" to its critical place in the American political system.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.
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