A return to institutional normalcy

A RETURN TO INSTITUTIONAL NORMALCY…. This might look like Senate Democrats snubbing Joe Biden, but it’s really just a sensible return to what used to be a healthy respect for separation of powers.

In a move to reassert Congressional independence at the start of the new presidential administration, the vice president will be barred from joining weekly internal Senate deliberations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun.

Reid’s decision to exclude Vice President-elect Joe Biden from the Senate arena where he spent most of his adult life is intended to restore constitutional checks and balances that tilted heavily toward the executive branch during the Bush presidency. […]

“[Biden] can come by once and a while, but he’s not going to sit in on our lunches,” Reid said. “He’s not a senator. He’s the vice president.”

As it turns out, Reid and the Democratic caucus are not at all at odds with Biden over the decision. A spokesperson for the vice president-elect said, “Vice President-elect Biden had no intention of continuing the practice started by Vice President Cheney of regularly attending internal legislative branch meetings — he firmly believes in restoring the Office of the Vice President to its historical role. He and Senator Reid see eye to eye on this.”

Were it not for the last eight years, this wouldn’t be newsworthy at all. Indeed, it’d be entirely normal. For generations, administrations have tried to exert influence over the Senate by inserting the Vice President into his caucus’ affairs, ostensibly as a de facto member of the chamber. And for generations, senators have pushed back, citing the separation of powers and the need for checks and balances.

Over the last eight years, the model has been turned on its head. Whereas every V.P. has tried to exert undue influence over the Senate, the Republicans of the Bush era are the first to actually accede to an administration’s demands. Cheney attended the weekly Senate Republican strategy luncheons, and effectively issued marching orders to members. Lacking institutional independence, a sense of pride, and respect for our constitutional traditions, the GOP caucus, with no obvious debate, effectively let Cheney become part of the Senate Republican leadership.

Rutgers University Professor Ross Baker, an expert on Congress, said, “Cheney would come in there and try to force discipline on the Republican senators…. He was the Bigfoot that came into those meetings. If someone got out of line, he would put a thumb in their eyes. It’s something I think people will puzzle over for a long time — how passive the Republicans were, and how easily led they were by the Republican White House.”

It’s unlikely to happen again.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation