As a Democratic Senate aide for the past seven years, I had a front-row seat to an impressive show of obstruction. Republicans, under then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, decided they would oppose President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at every turn to limit their power. And it worked: They extorted concessions from Democrats with threats of
- fiscal cliffs and
- financial chaos.
I know firsthand that Democrats’ passion for responsible governance can be exploited by Republicans who are willing to blow past all norms and standards.
Now we have a president who exemplifies that willingness in the extreme. Partly, this explains why he faces more questions about his legitimacy than any president in recent history and why he drew three times as many protesters as inauguration attendees last weekend. But in something of a mismatch, Republicans’ unified control of government means that the most effective tool for popular resistance lies in the Senate — the elite, byzantine institution envisioned by the founders as the saucer that cools the teacup of popular opinion.
Senate Democrats have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it, for resisting a president who has no mandate and cannot claim to embody the popular will. That tool lies in the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.
The procedure for withholding consent is straightforward, but deploying it is tricky. For the Senate to move in a timely fashion on any order of business, it must obtain unanimous support from its members. But if a single senator objects to a consent agreement, McConnell, now majority leader, will be forced to resort to time-consuming procedural steps through the cloture process, which takes four days to confirm nominees and seven days to advance any piece of legislation — and that’s without amendment votes, each of which can be subjected to a several-day cloture process as well.
McConnell can ask for consent at any time, and if no objection is heard, the Senate assumes that consent is granted. So the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus must work together — along with any Republicans who aren’t afraid of being targeted by an angry tweet — to ensure that there is always a senator on the floor to withhold consent.
Because every Senate action requires the unanimous consent of members from all parties, everything it does is a leverage point for Democrats. For instance, each of the 1,000-plus nominees requiring Senate confirmation — including President Trump’s Cabinet choices — can be delayed for four days each.
While the tactic works well, as we’ve seen for the past eight years, there remains the question of strategy. Should Democrats be pragmatic and let Trump have his nominees on a reasonable timetable, so as not to appear obstructionist? So far, this has been their approach to some of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
But it’s also fair to say that, by nominating a poorly qualified and ethically challenged Cabinet, Trump forfeited his right to a speedy confirmation process, and Democrats should therefore slow it down to facilitate the adequate vetting that Trump and Senate Republicans are determined to avoid by rushing the process before all the questionnaires and filings are submitted. Four days of scrutiny on the Senate floor per nominee, even after the committee hearings, is a reasonable standard for fulfilling the Senate’s constitutional responsibility of advice and consent.
Democrats can also withhold their consent from every piece of objectionable legislation McConnell tries to advance. With 48 senators in their caucus, they have the votes to block most bills. But even when Democrats don’t have the votes, they can force McConnell to spend time jumping through procedural hoops. This is the insight McConnell deployed against Reid to manufacture the appearance of gridlock, forcing him to use the cloture process more than 600 times.
Finally, Democrats can withhold their consent from Trump until they feel confident that foreign governments are not interfering in our elections. Credible reports hold that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with the Russian government on Vladimir Putin’s personally directed meddling. Withholding consent from Trump’s agenda until an independent, bipartisan probe provides answers is not just reasonable; it’s responsible. If Democrats withhold consent from everything the Senate does until such a process is established, they can stall Trump’s agenda and confirmation of his nominees indefinitely. Sen. Richard Durbin has been a leader in demanding an independent investigation. But unless Democrats back their calls with the threat of action, McConnell will steamroll them and never look back.
Of course, it would be unwise to deploy this strategy blindly. The kind of universal obstruction pioneered by McConnell during Obama’s presidency is not in Democrats’ nature: They believe in the smooth functioning of government.
But Democrats’ concern with delivering results for their constituents is also part of who we are and something we should embrace. Even for innately cautious Democrats, some issues demand dramatic action. If Trump wants to put their concerns about his legitimacy to rest, he can reach out with consensus nominees and policies, and come clean about his ties to Russia and his tax returns (which may show whether he has compromising financial debts to Russian interests). Until then, Democrats can stand up for America by withholding their consent.
Mitch McConnell celebrated Juneteenth by making a public statement on reparations. Brooke Thomas, Jayar Jackson, Adrienne Lawrence and David West discuss on TYT’s Juneteenth special.
Or at least he won’t let Congress do anything to stop it.Why won’t Mitch McConnell protect our elections from outside interference?
His Republican colleagues in the Senate want to do something. That’s why some of the most conservative members of his caucus are working with Democrats to improve the nation’s election security.
One proposal, according to The New York Times, would “require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads.” Another, devised by Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, would “impose mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks an American election.” Yet another, the brainchild of Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, would “codify cyber information-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials.”
House Democrats have already introduced legislation to bolster election security and would most likely work with the Senate to put together a compromise proposal should a bill pass that chamber. But McConnell refuses to consider any legislation on election security during this congressional term. For the Senate majority leader, the problem has already been solved, and this rare show of bipartisan cooperation doesn’t matter. “I think the majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion,” Roy Blunt of Missouri, a McConnell ally, said.
The easiest explanation for McConnell’s opposition to the various election security proposals is captured in one word: Trump. Only recently has the president acknowledged foreign interference in the 2016 election. “Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected,” Trump said last month on Twitter, blasting Robert Mueller’s investigation. “It was a crime that didn’t exist.” Later, however, he returned to his usual position of denying any assistance or interference at all. “Russia did not get me elected,” he said.
The president’s endless denial makes sense: To acknowledge any election interference on his behalf is to undermine the legitimacy of his victory, even if the hacking and disinformation were not decisive.
McConnell works closely with the White House to put conservative judicial nominees on the federal bench. It’s his key priority. “I love the tax bill and a lot of the other things we did,” McConnell said in an interview last year. “But I think lifetime appointments — not only to the Supreme Court but to the circuit courts — are the way you have the longest-lasting impact on the country.” He needs a good relationship with the president. Why, then, would he give this legislation a chance to pass? Why antagonize an ally?
But McConnell’s relationship with Trump isn’t the only way to explain his opposition to these proposals. For the past two decades of his Senate career, McConnell has been a tireless opponent of openness, accessibility and transparency in elections. He stood against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and, more recently, blasted Democrats for their push to expand access to the ballot. He’s driven by a simple calculation: that secure, open elections are elections that McConnell — and the Republican Party he leads in the Senate — are less likely to win.
McConnell’s career makes clear that he has few, if any, political and ideological convictions. As Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, observes in “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” McConnell was reliably pro-choice until it became inconvenient and pro-union when it would get him votes. But his most revealing turnaround was on campaign finance.
As chairman of his county Republican Party in the 1970s, he backed aggressive campaign finance reform. He wanted “drastically” lower contribution limits, full donor disclosure, a ceiling on overall spending and public financing of elections. “Many qualified and ethical persons are either totally priced out of the election marketplace or will not submit themselves to questionable, or downright illicit, practices that may accompany the current electoral process,” he wrote in a 1973 op-ed for The Courier-Journal in Kentucky.
In 1990, as the junior senator from Kentucky, he introduced legislation to abolish political action committees. In 1993, he backed a ban on funds collected outside the contribution limits for individual candidates — what had come to be known as “soft money.” “Soft money should be banned,” McConnell wrote at the time. “All campaign spending should be on the top of the table where voters can see it.” By the end of the decade, however, McConnell would be a reliable foe of virtually every limit on the ability to raise and spend money in politics.
The reasons for his reversal were straightforward. At heart, McConnell is a partisan. When he thought campaign finance reform would harm Democrats or help him win higher office, he backed campaign finance reform. When he thought Democrats relied on soft money, he tried to ban soft money. But when those funds began to fill his campaign war chest, he changed his tune. By 1997, he had nothing but good things to say about soft money. “Soft money is just a euphemism for free speech,” he said. For McConnell, winning was the only thing that mattered, and anything it took to win was fair game.
Mitch, on the other hand, has a longstanding alliance with the National Rifle Association, which has shown its affection to the tune of about $1.3 million in support. Anything the N.R.A. dislikes never gets the chance to come up for a Senate vote. Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is moldering away in a corner because the N.R.A. doesn’t want authorities taking guns away from domestic abusers.
It’s been another terrible year of mass shooting violence. One simple, very popular response would be to improve the background checks for gun purchases. It would at least show our elected officials care about the crisis.
Such a bill passed the House of Representatives and went to the Senate where it’s, um, lying around somewhere. “There’s a whole bunch of Republican support, but he won’t let it move to the floor,” said minority leader Chuck Schumer.
This goes on a lot. McConnell, who has near total control over what comes up for a vote, sits on things he doesn’t like until they smother. Farewell, immigration reform, Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions, lowering prescription drug prices, protecting election security, restoring net neutrality.