Ignoring irony, McConnell warns Dems may 'vandalize' the Senate

If he's looking for those willing to "vandalize" the institution's traditions, McConnell probably ought to look in the mirror.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2020.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2020.Mary F. Calvert / Reuters File
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By Steve Benen

It's far too soon to say with any confidence which party will hold a majority in the Senate next year, but Democrats believe they have a chance at controlling the chamber for the first time since 2014. The question then becomes what would happen if the Senate switched party hands.

Dems would no doubt be eager to get to work legislating, but their ambitions would be dramatically curtailed by the chamber's filibuster rules. It's precisely why a growing number of Senate Democrats are exploring the possibility of restoring the institution's tradition of majority rule -- even if that means scrapping legislative filibusters once and for all.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) realizes his days running the chamber may not last much longer, and he's aware of the discussion in Democratic circles about reforming how the institution works. It's why the GOP leader is warning Dems to leave things exactly as they are.

Indeed, he sounded quite agitated on the subject this morning.

McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, noted that some progressives want to expand or reform the Supreme Court and that Democrats, more broadly, are calling for Washington, D.C. to be the 51st state. "And to accomplish all this, destroying the Senate's distinguishing feature that makes radical change hard by design. We have an entire political movement that is telling us literally out loud that they've lost patience with playing by the rules and may well declare war on the rulebook," McConnell said. He added that Democrats were under pressure to "vandalize the rules to pass legislation with a simple majority."

I have a hunch McConnell knows how foolish this is, but I also have a hunch he assumes the public won't know better, so let's explore this in a little more detail.

Broadly speaking, there are two angles to this. The first is McConnell's suggestion that filibusters are the Senate's "distinguishing feature." That's not even close to being true.

For the better part of American history, the Senate operated as a majority-rule institution: if a proposal or a nomination enjoyed the support of most senators, the majority carried the day. The idea that the minority had the authority to demand supermajorities for every vote of any significance was absurd.

At least, that is, until recent decades. Consider a chart based on data maintained by the Senate.

Those talking about reforming how the institution conducts business aren't recommending "radical change"; they're exploring ways to restore what's been lost.

As the image suggests, the numbers started really spiking in 2007 -- when a Kentucky lawmaker by the name of Mitch McConnell took over as the Republican Party's Senate leader.

All of which leads us to the second angle: there is no one in politics less credible on this subject than the current GOP leader.

McConnell doesn't believe in "playing by the rules"; he's spent years twisting and manipulating those rules to the point that the Senate barely even tries to legislate anymore. If he's looking for those willing to "vandalize" the institution's traditions, McConnell probably ought to look in the mirror.

I'm reminded of a column the Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote a few years ago, describing McConnell as the politician who effectively "broke America." The columnist added, "No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power."

As we discussed in detail at the time, whether one finds McConnell's work outrageous is a matter of perspective. The GOP's Senate leader has taken every possible opportunity to maximize his party's interests, using the levers of power at his disposal, and ignoring any sense of norms or institutional limits. If you're a loyal Republican partisan, that's to be applauded. If you're not, McConnell's tactics have been disastrous.

But through it all, abusing filibuster rules, creating a 60-vote "norm" that didn't exist, has been McConnell's weapon of choice. It's why he's afraid to see it disappear. It's also why he's pretending those who want to see the Senate function the way it used to, and not McConnell and his cohorts, are the real "vandals."