When Senate Democrats learned on Sept. 19 their chamber’s rules prevented them from attaching a controversial immigration measure to a $3.5 trillion spending bill, it was the second time in seven months an obscure congressional staffer dashed their legislative hopes.
Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that altering the path for immigrants to get legal status does not qualify as “budget reconciliation” and thus needs more than a simple, filibuster-proof majority vote to pass the Senate. MacDonough made a similar ruling in February when Democrats tried to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour through the same process.
Following the recent ruling, New York Times columnist Ezra Klein tweeted, “This is just my occasional reminder that you can eliminate the filibuster with 51 votes. The parliamentarian is not the obstacle. The obstacle is Senate Democrats who support the filibuster.”
Klein’s partially right: The parliamentarian isn’t the obstacle to big legislative changes. But his prescription—ending the filibuster—would be another step in the debasement of one of history’s greatest deliberative bodies. As Congress grows weaker (and consistently bottoms out in public opinion polls), the power of the executive and judicial branches soars. Now every executive order or Supreme Court decision seems it could upend an already polarized republic.
Congressional leaders have abandoned legislative persuasion and anointed raw political power for more than a decade, and big milestones mark the way. In 2013, then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., muscled through a measure eliminating the 60-vote threshold needed to confirm presidential nominees other than Supreme Court justices. In 2017, then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took it further and did the same for Supreme Court nominees.
Since 2013, Congress has shut down the federal government three times while fighting over spending bills. Both parties have pulled that lever. Fears of another shutdown loomed in mid-late September.
But smaller surrenders have diluted Congress’ power along the way too. A 2018 ProPublica and Washington Post report showed partisan fighting growing more intense during the Obama administration. Congressional Democrats began focusing only on the bare minimums to pass their legislative wish lists (with the Affordable Care Act being the worst power play). Republicans continued the trend into the Trump years.
Congressional committees—in which much of the legislative horse trading necessary to craft workable bills takes place—have a much smaller role to play now than they did 15 years ago. Per the ProPublica report: In 2005 and 2006, House committees met 449 times to deliberate legislation. By 2015 and 2016, that number fell to 254 times. The Senate’s fall was worse: 252 committee meetings to 69.
Floor votes on amendments in both chambers have seen similar drops.
The net effect of all this plays out each night on the cable news: Instead of hammering out compromises and deliberating toward solutions both sides can live with, congressional politics turns into a hunt for raw power.
Scholars such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin are focusing on how to reform Congress and encourage its members to incentivize the right things. Levin thinks Congress would benefit from an organization akin to the Federalist Society, which helped reform the judiciary. He advocates changing parliamentary rules and decentralizing power from party leaders in Congress. That’s one piece of the puzzle.
But stunts are stunting our politics. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got attention with her hypocritical “Tax the Rich” designer dress at the Met Gala in September. So did Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene by blowing up a Toyota Prius with a .50-caliber rifle. Are we reasoning together, or are we rationing common sense?
A good start for reform would be for the electorate to start rewarding political candidates who are more serious about statesmanship and less addicted to treating a term in Congress as an audition for a game show.
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