Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denounced Trump's recent remarks about restricting Muslim travel during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 8, 2015.
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

GOP senators flub the meaning of ‘committee of the whole’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke with reporters on Capitol Hill last week, offering a brief and vague update on the state of his party’s health care overhaul. The GOP leader said every member of the Senate Republican caucus had met that morning, and they were “operating kind of as a committee of the whole.”

The point of the comment, of course, was to push back against the fact that a Republican “working group” – made up of 13 conservative men, mostly from red states – is principally responsible for crafting their party’s secret health care plan. McConnell wants to give the impression that the process is more collaborative: Senate Republicans, the argument goes, may not be working with the health care industry, subject-matter experts, or Democrats, but they are working with one another.

There is, however, ample evidence to the contrary. A wide variety of GOP senators have complained publicly that they have no idea what the Republican proposal entails. There was a recent slide-show briefing for GOP members, but one senator said the slides were flashed across screens so quickly “that they can hardly be committed to memory.”

But let’s not brush past the significance of McConnell’s other talking point: Senate Republicans, he said, are “operating kind of as a committee of the whole.” It’s a phrase that keeps coming up, as evidenced by this report on Thursday:

Republican Conference Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said the process of writing a healthcare bill has included all GOP senators rather than only those belonging to healthcare-related committees and thus cannot be considered secretive. “Our members have all been involved,” Thune said. “This has really been a committee of the whole, unlike anything I have done since I have been here.”

And this report from the same day:

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of the Senate leadership team, defended the process…. Pressed on the lack of committee hearings or input by a reporter, he described the Senate GOP working group as “a committee of the whole.”

And this report from two days earlier:

“This has really been a committee of the whole. This really has provided very fulsome and genuine input from every Republican senator,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told reporters….

They keep using that phrase, but I don’t think it means what they think it means.

To hear GOP officials tell it, they’ve created a “committee of the whole” because they’ve solicited input from each of their fellow partisans. That’s not altogether true, but more importantly, that’s not what a committee of the whole is.

The Wikipedia definition of this term of art is as good as any: “A committee of the whole is a device in which a legislative body or other deliberative assembly sits as a single committee with all assembly members being committee members.” In the context of the United States Senate, if all 100 members worked collaboratively toward a specific legislative goal, that would be a committee of the whole. 

When Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues say they’ve created a committee of the whole by listening to 52% of the chamber, they’re arguing, in a rather literal sense, that they see Democrats as something less than fully legitimate members of the Senate.

Which may help explain how GOP senators justify their outrageous behavior to themselves.

Health Care, John Barrasso, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans

GOP senators flub the meaning of 'committee of the whole'