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John McCain on the Decline & Fall of the United States Senate

It Wasn't Always Like This

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The Senate is in a bad way these days. Not that the Presidency and the House are functioning all that well, but under the leadership of Harry Reid since January 2007, the U.S. Senate has reached levels of dysfunction unparalleled in its history, and presided over eight years of economic stagnation and bitterly polarized and increasingly petty and juvenile politics. Reid has ruined the Senate’s onetime distinguishing feature, the ability of any Senator to submit amendments and have them debated when bills came to the floor, with procedural restrictions unheard of between 1789 and 2006. Meanwhile, scores of bills that have passed the House are never even brought to a vote in the Senate – and without the amendment process, they can’t even be raised indirectly.

At the same time, Reid used the unprecedented “nuclear option” against judicial nominee filibusters – a tactic that scandalized Reid when it was briefly suggested in 2005-06 – for the express purpose of packing the D.C. Circuit ahead of an expected en banc appeal in Halbig v Burwell. Reid’s shenanigans have abolished most of the things that made the Senate different from – and less partisan than – the House, and predictably have increased the partisan temper of Washington in general. That’s before we even get into his increasingly paranoid and possibly senile rantings about the Koch brothers at the drop of a hat (“Senator Reid, would you like milk or cream in your coffee?” “Let me tell you about those Koch brothers…”).

John McCain is not, to put it mildly, a popular man around these parts, and least of all on the issue of immigration. But today’s floor debate on a supplemental appropriations bill on the border crisis, in which Reid and the Democrats yet again closed off the amendment process, seems to have rubbed the last nerve of the already irascible McCain over the decline of the once-proud institution of the Senate, and the fecklessness of Congress in the face of the urgent crisis at the border, about which McCain, Jeff Flake and other border-state Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen are plainly getting an earful from the folks back home (if you know anyone who lives there, you’ve heard the horror stories). I recommend you watch the first 9:46 of this tirade, which is positively cinematic in McCain’s pleading with Reid and Dick Durbin to recall the way the Senate used to be, and how it doesn’t have to be this way, and what that has wrought for the institution. McCain does everything here but walk over, grab Reid and Durbin by the lapels, and shake them until they all sob.

Of course it’s a shame, if you remember the 2008 election, that we never saw quite this righteous indignation from McCain in confronting Barack Obama, but realistically it probably wouldn’t have mattered. And yes, it is – as much as anything – the harm to the Senate itself that has him playing the Lorax on this occasion. But he’s right. Why is Ted Cruz huddling with House Republicans today? Because there’s just not that much even Cruz can do to affect the course of events in the body to which he was elected.

And really, all of this has a cascading effect as well on the other branches. Why can’t John Boehner and House conservatives reach more compromises among themselves on a strategy? Partly due to genuine policy disagreements, sure, and partly due to bad leadership, but also partly because the impossibility of getting a hearing for Republican proposals in the Senate makes it pointless what the House does, and nobody wants to compromise their principles and get nothing back but a “thank you for your submission to the pile” from the Senate.

Consider a lesson on how legislating works. A House member says to her constituents, “I support X, I oppose Y.” She gets elected on that. Leadership says, “hey, vote on a bill that includes some X & some Y.” The Member doesn’t want to compromise and do that; the voters will be mad. But if leadership is asking this on a vote that will actually make law, the Member can go back to her constituents and say, “WE PASSED X! Yes I had to cut a deal to make it happen. But we delivered what you elected me to do.”

Maybe the voters buy that, and maybe not; they can judge what you gave up and what you got. But if the Member has to admit that she compromised on Y, but still didn’t get X, she’s made nobody happy at all, and has just telegraphed her price. So, the less faith the Member has that the bill on the table is actually going to become law, the less incentive there is to compromise.

And that’s how Harry Reid has moved on from ruining the Senate to corroding the House, too.

But at least he has what matters to him:

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