So… The Emperor Has No Clothes

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Most political analysts assume Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a master strategist who knows how to use (or bend) the Senate’s rules to achieve his ends. That is the prevailing interpretation based on McConnell’s career in the Senate and his sometimes dubious accomplishments, such as pilfering a seat on the Supreme Court by denying Merrick Garland a vote and ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination in the waning weeks of the Trump administration.

But, what if the emperor has no clothes? Is it possible that the unnecessary and silly dispute over raising the debt ceiling reveals not McConnell’s wiliness and strength but, rather, his impotence?

McConnell admitted as much in recent days when he conceded that even if he wanted to allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on a straight party vote, with Republicans voting “no” but not filibustering the measure, he could not corral every Republican to allow the increase to pass. McConnell did convince 10 Republicans to approve a procedural move to allow the Democrats to move forward a stopgap bill raising the debt ceiling through early December. That bill passed Thursday night on a straight party vote. But, the concession is a temporary, not a long-term, fix, and its passage left some  Senate Republicans angry with McConnell because they think he caved into the Democrats. 

Most analysts agree the majority of the Republican caucus would stand aside and allow the Democrats to pass a debt ceiling increase rather than force the United States to default on its debts. But, there are a few diehard conservatives among Republicans — perhaps five or so senators — who would filibuster any proposal that would allow a majority vote on the issue. If one senator objects, then it would take 10 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats to end a filibuster. That would reveal dissension among Republicans, something that McConnell would not want made public. 

The debt ceiling standoff — temporarily ended, though it may be — is yet another argument for abolishing the filibuster. The filibuster has become a tool of Republican obstructionism, allowing a willful, petulant minority to prevent the majority from doing the people’s business. Something is wrong with a system that allows one senator to filibuster a measure and the rest of his or her colleagues refusing to vote to stop that obstructionism. Republican senators represent 40 million fewer voters than Democratic senators, yet the Senate is evenly split. It is likely to get worse. According to estimates, by 2040, 70 percent of Americans will be living in the 15 most populous states. They will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of Americans will have 70 senators voting on their behalf. 

The filibuster gives a small minority of a minority the power to prevent popular legislation from passing. It is absurd that a handful of senators, from small states, can prevent passage of popular measures to protect the environment, raise the minimum wage, or reform immigration policy. Both parties, of course, have wielded the filibuster in recent years to frustrate the other, but McConnell and his Republican colleagues have utilized the filibuster to bolster minority power in ways never intended by either the Framers of the Constitution or by senators through most of American history.

Fear that Democrats might take steps to abolish or limit the filibuster probably convinced Republicans to yield temporarily on the debt ceiling increase. While the filibuster is hard to justify ever, its use on matters that are not issues of policy — such as the United States honoring its debts — is beyond the pale. Everyone on both sides of the aisle insists that the United States must not default on its obligations, yet Republicans were willing to prevent a vote that would allow the country to honor its debt. Invoking the filibuster on the debt ceiling was not policy, but political maneuvering by Republicans aimed at making Democrats as uncomfortable as possible and, ultimately, allowing Republicans to portray Democrats as profligate spenders. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham conceded the political motives of Republicans when he said, “I mean, I’m not going to be a complete asshole about it [raising the debt ceiling]. But, I’m going to make them take some tough votes.” Good to know that Graham sees himself as only a partial “asshole.”

Democrats have been inching toward doing something about the filibuster by either eliminating it entirely or carving out categories of legislation that would not be subject to minority obstruction. Republican intransigence on voting rights, for example, has forced increased demands for reforming the filibuster. The current fight over the debt ceiling has led some who have been hesitant to end the filibuster to change their minds. President Joe Biden — who served decades in the Senate and has been viewed by many as an “institutionalist” — said this week that it is “a real possibility” the Senate would change its rules to bypass Republican filibustering on the debt ceiling. Later, Biden added that filibustering debt legislation is “not right, and it’s dangerous.”

“Republicans are making the case more powerfully than I could a million times on the floor,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a longtime filibuster opponent. “What they are doing is obstruction and utterly exposes the filibuster. And it is not just inconvenience. It is desperately dangerous.” McConnell and other Republicans may have gotten the message that Democrats saw the fight over the debt ceiling as a way to alter the filibuster.

But, that recognition does not change the fact that McConnell cannot control his caucus. The willingness of a handful of Republican senators on the far right to endanger the credit of the United States forced McConnell to deny Democrats any Republican cooperation in allowing a straight party vote on preventing a default. So, perhaps it is McConnell being led by far right conservatives in the Republican Party rather than McConnell leading the Republican caucus.

After all, the emperor has no clothes!

Posted October 8, 2021

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