If Republicans recapture the Senate majority, Mitch McConnell has a plan for what he’ll do. He will restore the Senate to its glorious, dignified place in American political life. McConnell has delivered a series of speeches expounding on his plans to restore the Senate to its halcyon place before Harry Reid degraded the institution. In a speech early this year that McConnell is now apparently highlighting, he delivered a paean to Senatorial grandeur:
“An executive order can’t [create consensus]. The fiat of a nine-person court can’t do it. A raucous and precarious partisan majority in the House can’t do it. The only institution that can make stable and enduring laws is the one we have in which all 50 states are represented equally, and where every single senator has a say in the laws that we pass.”
“I think you’re likely to see Republicans change the rules back to the way they were before the nuclear option,” explains Republican senator Bob Corker. A rapturous George Will proclaims McConnell’s plan “a constitutional moment that will determine whether the separation of powers will be reasserted by a Congress revitalized by restoration of the Senate’s dignity.”
The source of McConnell’s apparent indignation is changes made to Senate rules by Reid. The Democratic leader has made it hard for Republicans to amend legislation, forcing them into up-or-down votes on bills of Reid’s choosing. And more provocative, he eliminated the filibuster on federal court nominations and executive branch appointments. McConnell claims he will undo this, restoring the Senate to its grandeur.
It is possible McConnell actually believes this. There is almost no chance he will follow through on it. The historical record of congressional majorities voluntarily surrendering power to the opposing party is a short one. The reason the majority party likes to control what bills and amendments can come to the floor is that it prefers to highlight issues where it holds a political advantage and obscure issues where their opponents do. Nobody wants to force their own party to take embarrassing votes. Democrats have discomfited Republicans in the Senate by forcing them to debate the minimum wage, an issue where the public overwhelmingly agrees with Democrats. Is Majority Leader McConnell going to let them continue doing this? Earlier this summer, he told a group of Republican donors, in what he intended to be private remarks obtained by Lauren Windsor:
“And we’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage [inaudible] — cost the country 500,000 new jobs; extending unemployment — that’s a great message for retirees; uh, the student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse, uh. These people believe in all the wrong things.”
The minority party in Congress is always filled with righteous indignation on behalf of minority rights, and this feeling invariably goes away after they recapture the majority. In 2010, John Boehner, angered that Democrats had prevented his party from bringing their own bills to the floor, promised “a fair debate and a fair vote,” with several days’ advance notice for every new bill and open debate. He gave up that promise quickly.
As the Senate majority leader in 2005, McConnell himself threatened to eliminate the judicial filibuster when Democrats started blocking George W. Bush’s federal court picks. After Democrats regained the majority, McConnell announced that he was wrong. Indeed, he adopted his new, pro-filibuster beliefs with the fervor of a convert. At the time Democrats changed the rule, McConnell vowed that if he ever gained the majority back, he would seek revenge:
“Some of us have been around here long enough to know that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said before the vote, telling Democrats “you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”
Now he is promising the opposite of revenge.
Old memories fade fast. It takes an exceptionally principled politician to elevate procedural fairness over his own political goals. That doesn’t sound like a description of Mitch McConnell.