The McConnell Era

In light of the Gorsuch confirmation today, this series of tweets by James Fallows about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are worth highlighting.

He ends by saying “historians of our era can do worse than telling story of collapse of national governance via Addison Mitchell McConnell.”

In many ways, the failures we’re experiencing in governance and politics today are bound up in the way Mitch McConnell has chosen political gamesmanship over policy. Mike Lofgren summed the approach up well back in 2011.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

But for a more thorough background on Mitch McConnell, I recommend reading a piece by Zachary Roth and Cliff Schecter from the October 2006 issue of the Washington Monthly. It is titled “Meet the New Boss,” as McConnell was about to emerge as the Republican leader in the Senate. Here are some excerpts to give you a taste of the man James Fallows credits with the decline in national governance:

McConnell is a staunch conservative and a master of procedure, but no piece of landmark legislation bears his name. Almost the only issue on which he has a national profile is campaign-finance reform, and on that, he’s known as the man who fought it at every turn…

The Senate’s shift toward increased party discipline has been accompanied by a growing willingness to use the legislative process to benefit the Republican Party’s financial backers. The more tightly the majority leadership controls the Senate’s agenda, the more likely it is that special interests will conclude that getting anything accomplished requires working with that leadership. Demands that lobbying firms hire only Republicans will carry more weight because lobbyists recognize that Republicans alone control the legislative process…

[McConnell is] a master of Senate rules and procedures, and he harbors no presidential aspirations that might distract him from his job. But unlike earlier leaders, he doesn’t keep score by legislative accomplishments. For the first time in recent memory, the Senate will be run by a leader with both the ability and the desire to use the institution entirely for partisan advantage

If Republicans do hold onto the Senate—and they might not—McConnell will likely have a smaller majority than Frist has enjoyed. A leader hoping to get legislation passed would probably respond by being more conciliatory toward the minority—but Republicans didn’t pick McConnell because of his talent for conciliation. “I think he’ll be more likely to pick a fight,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Darling…if the past is any guide, Majority Leader McConnell will focus only on measures that support Republican power or drive a wedge between Democrats, and will do everything possible to keep campaign dollars flowing to the GOP.

Fairly prescient, wouldn’t you say? In essence, what Newt Gingrich and the Tea Partiers did to the House, Mitch McConnell has done to the Senate.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.