Senate Republicans and President Obama this week agreed on a $1.1 trillion spending plan, averting another government shutdown. Is the harmonious passage of the budget deal a sign of what we can expect from the Republican-led Senate that will take charge Jan. 3? The incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), thinks so. As early as January, he promised that if the Republicans took control after the 2014 elections, the Senate might again be worthy of the moniker “The Greatest Deliberative Body in the World.” McConnell promised, “My purpose is to suggest that the Senate can be better than it has been, and that it must be if we’re to remain great as a nation.”
Are McConnell’s words just the hot air that we have come to expect from senators? After all, the Senate that just adjourned was not only unworthy of being the “greatest” — even “deliberative” was a stretch. As one indication, more than one-third of the roll-call votes taken in the Senate during the past two years were to stop filibusters.
But I think McConnell may very well be correct, which is a bit surprising given my research. I found that the driving force behind the Senate’s decline from a body worthy of praise to one worthy of only contempt is a group of senators who first served in the House Republican Conference after it was radicalized by Newt Gingrich. These “Gingrich senators” brought his politics to the Senate, and because they came in such numbers and stuck around so long, they ended up transforming it rather than being transformed by it.
The Gingrich senators can account for almost the entire growth in party polarization in the Senate. They are primarily responsible for the massive increase in filibuster threats, and their warfare mind-set has compelled them to develop and implement the latest strategy of killing bills — an endless stream of amendments until the Democrats simply give up. Gingrich senators’ amendments were responsible for more than 30 percent of the roll-call votes in Obama’s first two years in office. Eventually Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) squashed the strategy by filling the amendment tree, which restricted other senators’ ability to offer amendments. While the parties have bickered for campaign talking points, the country has shut down, nearly slid off the economic cliff and suffered its first credit-rating downgrade.
Forty-two Gingrich senators have served in the Senate; 22 of them continue to serve today, including Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). Their alumni include Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho). In the Senate that will meet in January, there will be 26 Gingrich senators, which accounts for almost half of the Republican conference.
Despite their increasing numbers and power, McConnell is right; the Senate will function better. How can I possibly express such optimism? Although my research shows that the Gingrich senators are distinct from the other Republicans with whom they serve in their combative approach to governing, that distinction has completely disappeared when the Republicans are in the majority and they become more conciliatory. The responsibility of governing and accountability to the American voters should compel this recalcitrant group to buckle down and solve problems.
Furthermore, the Democrats, because of their ideology, generally do not engage in the paralyzing warfare tactics that the Gingrich senators have perfected. They are, after all, the party of government. Even while serving in the minority, they are unwilling to paralyze the Senate for short-term electoral gain because it would make the government more dysfunctional, which would hurt their overall intellectual political argument.
The one wildcard is the Tea Party senators, led by Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). However, the recent budget vote showed that his short-sighted, filibuster-causing shutdown last year cost him influence in his party. Only 18 Republicans joined with him in opposing the compromise. As one Gingrich senator, Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), put it: “I’ve seen this movie before, and I wouldn’t pay money to see it again.”
If Cruz’s influence in the Senate continues to diminish, we may finally get a Senate worthy of being called “great” or at the very least “deliberative.” And with it would come the possibility of the United States remaining a great country — or at least a country where its legislative branch is actively involved in problem solving.
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