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Why can’t Mitch McConnell keep his promises?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

The Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, took the reins of the Senate this year vowing to restore “regular order” to the upper chamber.

McConnell promised to empower committees, to open up the the floor to amendments from both parties, and to avoid last-minute legislative brinkmanship. But as the New York Times observed last weekend, senators departed for their Memorial Day recess leaving behind “a wreck of the promises made by Mr. McConnell on how a renewed Senate would operate.”

The Senate did approve major trade and Iran review measures, but only after punting a highway bill down the road and leaving a controversial national security program in limbo when McConnell’s own brinkmanship went awry.  Most significant, senators from both parties criticized McConnell’s floor management: Democrats and Republicans alike decried McConnell’s resort to cloture to block votes on amendments from both sides.

Why can’t McConnell keep his promises?  McConnell is challenged both by unrealistic pledges and by dynamics on both sides of the partisan aisle.

[Kentucky conflict? Paul, McConnell start to clash]

First, bear in mind that “regular order” lacks a single, fixed meaning. Instead, as the venerable Walter Oleszek of the Congressional Research Service has observed, regular order is a “flexible construct” that changes over time as conditions evolve in and outside of the Senate. McConnell revels in blaming Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) for the dysfunction that prevailed when Reid led the Senate.

But Reid’s parliamentary practices reflected the partisan hand he was dealt: Strong ideological polarization and intense electoral competition encouraged Senate Republicans to gum up the works and led Senate Democrats to close ranks around their leader.  The result? Frequent resorts to cloture, a procedural move that limited both debate and amendments alike.

These same political conditions prevail today: On most major issues, Democrats and Republicans remain leagues apart from each other ideologically.  Moreover, both parties believe that control of the Senate and the White House are within their party’s reach.

No surprise then that McConnell doubled down on Democratic filibusters against a human trafficking measure and against GOP efforts to block the president’s immigration orders. Both episodes were resolved in Democrats’ favor, even after McConnell wasted weeks of scarce floor time contesting them.

No Senate leader can wish away these conditions by pledging to restore old ways of doing business.

Second, McConnell faces a test that Reid rarely encountered: challenges from within his own conference. Republican disagreements spilled into the open when the full Senate took up the Iran review measure and the NSA surveillance bill. In both instances, contentious amendments from McConnell’s conservative and libertarian rank and file (and presidential aspirants) led McConnell to shut down debate and amendments on each bill.

In a bygone era, colleagues might have secured simple majority votes on controversial amendments, or they might have exercised some restraint to work out an agreement.

No such luck for McConnell. He has promised full and open debate, but despite decades spent mastering the Senate, he does not yet seem to have a strategy for managing the chaos that can ensue in today’s Senate.

Arguably, the sharpest thorns in McConnell’s side come from Southern colleagues.  Senate Republican discipline has been markedly less stable in recent years than we see amongst Senate Democrats or House Republicans. The bottom pane in the chart below from Congressional Quarterly makes plain the recent weakening of Senate GOP cohesion.

At 84 percent in 2014, Senate GOP voting unity was a full 10 points below the Democrats’. To be sure, Senate Republicans are far more united today than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. But their party loyalty now resembles levels last seen 20 years ago in the Senate.

In short, ambitious politicians within McConnell’s own conference are foiling their leader’s pledge to get the Senate working again.

In fairness to McConnell, opportunities to amend legislation on the Senate floor this year are already on track to surpass average levels from the Reid era.  So far in 2015, senators have cast votes on 105 amendments compared to an average of roughly 115 in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Still, as Sen. Barbara Milkuski (D-Maryland) recently argued,”I think we do have more opportunities to offer amendments, but I’m not sure we’ll have more opportunities to solve problems.”

A key challenge for Senator McConnell remains: The previous “regular order” is no more. In Oleszek’s view, a “new procedural normal” has gradually taken root in the Senate in recent decades.  Unfortunately, it can’t be displaced just by pledging to do better.