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McConnell's the wrong politician to whine about 'historic obstruction'

The Senate Majority Leader wants to talk about "obstructionism" that is "hurting the Senate." The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

If all goes according to plan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will execute the "nuclear option" today, forcing a shift in the chamber's rules in order to make it easier to quickly approve more of Donald Trump's judicial and executive-branch nominees.

But ahead of the showdown, the Republicans' Senate leader is eager to make the case that his tactics, which may seem radical, are fully justified. To that end, McConnell wrote a piece for Politico insisting that Democrats' "obstructionism" has left him with little choice.

Since January 2017, for the first time in memory, a minority has exploited procedure to systematically obstruct a president from staffing up his administration. This new, across-the-board obstruction is unfair to the president and, more importantly, to the American people. Left unchecked, it is guaranteed to create an unsustainable precedent that would see every future presidency of either party obstructed in the same mindless way. [...]Because of this obstruction, the Senate's progress in filling important executive branch positions has been insufficient. Crucial jobs are still being held empty out of political spite. More nominees whom I suspect would be confirmed without opposition are still being delayed indefinitely because our colleagues cannot finish grieving their loss in 2016.The all-encompassing, systematic nature of this obstruction is not part of the Senate's important tradition of minority rights. It is a new departure from that tradition. And this break with tradition is hurting the Senate, hamstringing our duly elected president, and denying citizens the government they elected.

There are a couple of ways of looking at an argument like this, but let's start with the particular details.

There's some truth to the assertion that the Senate Democratic minority has been vigorous in slowing down the confirmation process, borrowing a page from Republicans' playbook, and taking it just a little further by applying the tactics to relatively obscure, lower-level nominees.

There's also some truth to the Democratic pushback: many key federal offices are empty because Donald Trump hasn't nominated anyone to fill them, and when the White House does send nominees, they're often unvetted. That means the Senate has a responsibility to do its due diligence, which takes time.

But as important as these details are, it's hard not to get the sense that Mitch McConnell doesn't want to recognize just how awful a messenger he is for this message.

I’m reminded of a column the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote two years ago this week, describing McConnell as the politician who effectively “broke America.”

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. [...]McConnell is no idiot. He is a clever man who does what works for him in the moment, consequences be damned.

As we discussed in detail at the time, whether one finds McConnell’s work outrageous is a matter of perspective. If you’re a loyal Republican partisan, the GOP’s Senate leader has simply taken every possible opportunity to maximize his party’s interests, using the levers of power at his disposal. McConnell, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t committed any crimes in his partisan pursuits, so much as he’s pushed the limits in ways without precedent in the American tradition, ignoring any sense of norms or institutional limits.

And to that end, McConnell has been quite successful.

But if you’re not a loyal Republican partisan, and your principal concern is with the health of the American political system, McConnell’s work has earned him a role as one of this generation’s most consequential villains.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was McConnell who changed Senate norms to require 60-vote supermajorities on every piece of legislation of any significance. It was McConnell who was responsible for creating the modern judicial confirmation wars. 

It was McConnell who imposed the first-ever, year-long blockade on any Supreme Court nominee, regardless of merit.

If the GOP leader doesn’t want to be laughed at, perhaps he should steer clear of complaints about "obstructionism" and those who may do institutional harm to the Senate.