When the founders established the U.S. Senate, they intended for it to be a check on the volatile, populist House of Representatives. This was supposed to be the “upper body,” where rational debate led to wise policy decisions for the good of the nation. For more than 200 years, the Senate mostly lived up to the founders’ intention. But in recent years, things have changed. Traditional Senate comity and bipartisanship have shifted to a freeze on action and attempts at total domination by whichever party has the majority.
Until recently, both Democratic and Republican senators worked through many of their disagreements politely, aided by the Senate’s rich tradition of civility, fostering personal relationships across political parties. Throughout our nation’s history, we had great Senate leaders who worked both sides of the aisle to move the country forward. Majority Leaders like Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield, Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, George Mitchell, and Trent Lott worked across political lines for the nation first and the Senate second; their party was often an afterthought.
Today, things have changed for a number of reasons. New ethics laws bar many senators from traveling as they used to, which allowed them to create relationships with members of both parties. Similarly, the demands of constant fundraising and seemingly mandatory flights each weekend to home states limit social interactions in Washington. Who becomes a senator has also changed. Activist primaries produce candidates who excel at bashing the other party, but propose no solutions for fixing national problems.
Too many senators have signed pledges to protect benefits or reject taxes, regardless of circumstance. It used to be the only pledge a senator swore was to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
Today, the Senate is in shambles, as many senators put party allegiance ahead of their duty to their constituents.
Current Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rarely talks directly to Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Reid has used his position less to engage debate and more to rail against his opponents. He even used the Senate floor during the last presidential election to assert (falsely) that Republican candidate Mitt Romney paid no taxes for 10 years.
Reid has been a partisan more than a leader. Last year, he insisted on using the “nuclear option,” reversing centuries of precedent and Senate rules to deny the right of 40 senators to block action approving presidential appointees. And he decried American businessmen Charles and David Koch more than 130 times on the Senate floor.
His most pernicious action has been to deny Republicans any chance to support amendments on legislation. Since July, only nine Republican amendments have been offered in the Senate — a record low. Just two weeks ago, under Reid’s leadership, the Senate failed to act on crucial patent reform legislation, costing jobs, harming innovation, and draining the U.S. economy of more than $80 billion a year — and counting.
The Senate is where legislation goes to die. This session, the House has passed 252 bills awaiting Senate action. And it’s not just Republican proposals. One day after the State of the Union speech, in which President Obama proposed fast-track legislation authority, Reid said he won’t let it happen.
Earlier last month, Reid harmed the nation further by denying any Republican amendments to bipartisan energy efficiency legislation. His action killed the proposal, which would cut energy use by both business and environmental group accounts, and would be good for jobs. A couple of days later, Reid struck again. He killed tax extenders legislation, which had passed unanimously from the Senate Finance Committee, by denying Republicans the opportunity to make any floor amendments.
Senators on both sides of the aisle are frustrated. The situation is even more upsetting when you consider Democrats like Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who regularly work across the aisle. Why have the Democrats chosen to maintain their support for the first Senate leader to exclude the other party entirely from the process?
At this point, it seems the Senate has jumped the shark. Instead of taking the lead on issues facing our nation and governing across party lines, Reid is bent on enforcing his party’s interests at the expense of the nation. Unless Reid starts working across the aisle to address the challenges that face all Americans, Democrats will pay the price and future generations will suffer the consequences.