Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not the institutionalist some might like to paint him, but rather “the man who surrendered the Senate to the president,” wrote Adam Jentleson in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Retired Senator Harry Reid’s former deputy chief of staff outlined move after move by the Republican leader that buck his characterization as one who “fervently believes in upholding [congressional] traditions and customs, even at the risk of alienating younger colleagues and outsiders clamoring for drastic change.”
Instead, McConnell has shown he will acquiesce from a place of self-interest, Jentleson said, going so far now as to facilitate a blatant power grab by an “out-of-control executive.”
The last few days have provided ample evidence that McConnell is no longer — indeed, if he ever was — an institutionalist.
First, he helped prolong the longest government shutdown in American history by insisting that the Senate would act only with explicit approval from the president. Now Mr. McConnell has fully acquiesced in President Trump’s power grab by supporting an emergency declaration, which he opposed just weeks before, aimed at addressing a crisis that Senate Republicans know does not exist.
This display of obedience from the leader of a supposedly coequal branch of government is shocking only if you ever believed Mr. McConnell was an institutionalist. But his defining characteristic has always been his willingness to do anything and sacrifice any principle to amass power for himself. What separates him from the garden-variety politicians — what makes him a radical — are the lengths he is willing to go. Seeing this with clarity should help us grasp the danger to which he is subjecting the Senate — and, more important, our democracy.
Were there red flags to indicate McConnell was not who he purported to be? Jetleson argues the affirmative:
The signs of Mr. McConnell’s malign influence were always there. Before he became a Senate leader, he dedicated himself to opening the floodgates for corporate money to flow into our political system. Mr. McConnell chased the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law all the way to the Supreme Court; the 2003 challenge to the law bears his name. Mr. McConnell lost that one, but his cause prevailed six years later when the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on corporate contributions in Citizens United.
In 2010, as minority leader, Mr. McConnell stated that his main goal was not to help our country recover from the Great Recession but to make President Obama a “one-term president.” A self-declared “proud guardian of gridlock,” he presided over an enormous escalation in the use of the filibuster. His innovation was to transform it from a procedural tool used to block bills into a weapon of nullification, deploying it against even routine Senate business to gridlock the legislative process.
It is this set of forces — “obstruction and increasing the power of corporate money in our democracy” — that has come to define McConnell’s political career and clear the path to “diminish the Senate and paralyze American politics,” Jetleson said.
Under President Trump, Mr. McConnell continued to run roughshod over Senate traditions, jamming the $1.5 trillion tax bill through without so much as a proper hearing. The one place the Senate has functioned efficiently is in judicial confirmations, but even here Mr. McConnell has cast aside bipartisan norms and reduced the Senate to a rubber stamp for some unqualified, extremist judges, including those rated “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.
Jetleson dates McConnell’s subservience to the Republican base to 2010, when his handpicked candidate, Trey Grayson, was bested by now-Senator Rand Paul in Kentucky.
Since that scare, Mr. McConnell has rigidly adhered to whatever the base wants, institutions be damned. When the base wanted Judge Merrick Garland blocked, he obeyed. When the base wanted Mr. Trump embraced, he obeyed. While Paul Ryan was playing Hamlet in the summer of 2016, Mr. McConnell quickly endorsed Mr. Trump, providing institutional cover and repeatedly assuring Republicans that Trump would “be fine.” Mr. McConnell didn’t think Trump was going to win — he has said so himself — but he probably figured that the damage could be contained.
But it is the most recent development, with Trump’s national emergency declaration, that McConnell placed the final nail into the institutionalist coffin.
Last week, Mr. McConnell had a choice. He didn’t have to acquiesce to the emergency declaration — he could have asserted the Senate’s independence at a critical time by passing the spending bill without validating Mr. Trump’s emergency declaration. If that prompted a veto, Mr. McConnell could have overridden it. That would be real leadership, and a clear assertion of the Senate’s independence. Instead, he meekly acquiesced in another presidential power grab.
In the months ahead, our institutions are likely to be tested as rarely before. Under a strong leader, the Senate could provide a critical counterweight to an out-of-control executive. Instead, we have a man who will put his self-interest first, every single time.
It is time to put away the notion that McConnell is any sort of institutionalist, Jetleson wrote, and see the Republican leader for what he has shown himself to be: “He is the man who surrendered the Senate to Donald Trump.”