In a recent Gallup poll 84 percent of Americans regard Congress unfavorably, and one wonders if the rest misunderstood the question. The great majority despises Congress’ dysfunction and partisanship.
In 2012 a book by two respected political scientists of opposite politics, liberal Thomas E. Mann and conservative Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, described Congress’ extreme polarization. They began their book with an incident in the Senate in which Sen. Mitch McConnell filibustered a bill he had co-sponsored.
In plain English, the senator prevented a vote on a bill he had supported. Fred Hiatt, opinion editor of the Washington Post, commented, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that’s wrong with Washington today…. But this one comes close.”
McConnell’s motive: President Barack Obama had supported the bill. McConnell had announced early in Obama’s first term that his primary legislative goal was to deny him a second term, so McConnell acted to preclude Obama getting any credit, and negated his own proposal being considered by the Senate.
Many Americans do not understand that the filibuster is not in the Constitution and is merely a Senate rule, but one that has become a procedural monster in the need for a 60 vote majority to get anything done. Just one senator, who does not even need to be present, let alone speechify like Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, can stymie the entire Senate.
As the use of filibusters by Democrats and Republicans has exploded since the 1990s, McConnell has joined in the mayhem, voting for 442 of 891 by 2013 — 50.7 percent of the time. In 2010, to obstruct Obama and the Democrats, he voted for 84 percent of filibusters.
A full-scale study of the filibuster’s use in recent years concluded that its “trivialization” for “partisan and parochial uses” has harmed democracy and social well-being. The nationalists who in 1787 wrote the U.S. Constitution had witnessed firsthand the paralysis of minority obstruction. The Articles of Confederation (1781-1787) required unanimous consent of all the states to do business.
Alexander Hamilton, a conservative but a nationalist, in Federalist #22 labeled a minority’s “negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision)” not a “remedy” but a “poison.”
“If a pertinacious minority,” Hamilton wrote, “can control the opinion of the majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority…. Hence, tedious delays, continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good…. [Government] is often, by the impracticality of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border on anarchy.” Sound familiar?
Over the past four decades filibusters (or just threats of one) have increased inequality by preventing action on raising the minimum wage, and other measures favored by large majorities of Americans. They include: in 2009 taking single payer health care off the table; blocking the expansion of Medicare; and, after a series of “contemptible” compromises, weakening the Affordable Care Act. Not a problem for one-percenter McConnell, whose net worth is $17 million or more.
Since becoming Senate majority leader McConnell’s ability to obstruct has been strengthened, notoriously now by announcing, within hours of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, that the Republican Senate majority would not hold hearings or a vote on any judge, any judge, nominated by the president. He offers the unconstitutional argument that the American people should decide on the next president who would then nominate a replacement.
On Fox News recently Chris Wallace played for McConnell his own words in 2005 regarding the process: “In a democracy, an up or down vote should be given to a president’s nominee…. It’s simple. It’s fair.” Pressed by Wallace on his position now, he said the situation is different.
McConnell has not only obstructed the president, but he and other Republican congressional leaders have never unequivocally repudiated the false beliefs among a substantial minority of the Republican electorate regarding Obama’s birth and religion. He now confronts the possibility of the leading “birther,” Donald Trump, wrecking his party.
Recent polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the Senate should hold hearings on the president’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, a qualified moderate respected by both Democrats and Republicans. A March 31 poll by Public Policy Polling found McConnell to have a 16/64 percent favorable/unfavorable rating, making him, said PPP, “the most unpopular major political figure in the country.” The career politician who prefaces every partisan opinion with “the American people,” doesn’t speak for them at all.
Ron Formisano is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History emeritus University of Kentucky, an author of “Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor” (Hopkins, 2015).