What in the hell is happening to the United States Senate?
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s shutting down of Senator Elizabeth Warren. During last night’s debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general, Warren attempted to read a letter on the floor written by Coretta Scott King three decades ago that cast doubts on Sessions’ ability to enforce the law fairly. McConnell ruled that line of inquiry out of order, arguing that Warren was breaking the rules of the Senate by impugning a fellow senator on the floor. The Republican-dominated Senate then voted to shut Warren up. For the rest of the night, the senator from Massachusetts wasn’t allowed to speak.
We can argue whether McConnell should have censured Warren or not. As Matt Purple wrote earlier today Warren is a showboat politician who craves the spotlight (she might be worse than Cory Booker, if that’s at all possible).
But even more distressing is how the Senate acted after that vote took place. Republicans and Democrats proceeded to complain about the rules for about an hour, quibbling over what constitutes an insult towards a fellow senator and pointing the finger at each other. In one of the more remarkable questions asked on the floor, there was this from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (taken from the congressional record):
If it came before the Senate that a Member of the Senate who was a nominee seeking the advice and consent of the Senate to the position was, for example, in fact, a horse thief, and we found the fact that he was a horse thief to be relevant to whether or not he should be confirmed, say, to the Department of Interior, which has authority over lands, does the ruling of the Chair mean that it would not be in order for the Senate or for Senators to consider what in my hypothetical is the established fact that the Senator was a horse thief as we debate his nomination here on the floor?
There really aren’t better words to express just how much of a joke the Senate has become. These men and women, who earn a healthy $174,000 ever year to theoretically represent their constituents back home, are instead using floor time to debate when a senator can criticize the integrity and character of their colleagues. Who knows? We might be a few days away from a senator introducing a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate about when a horse thief can be called a horse thief. And even that would probably be divided along party lines.
The U.S. Senate no longer deserves to be called the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” The American people outside the Acela Corridor (and many within it) see in that body everything they despise about Washington, D.C. and politics in general: a bunch of brats who have been in Washington for too long, can’t get anything done (we still aren’t finished with cabinet confirmations), reflexively criticize the other side, and use the Senate floor to get themselves into the national media spotlight. It’s as if passing substantive legislation is a distant fifth- or sixth-tier priority.
We are only three weeks into the new administration and four weeks into the 115th Congress. During the last month, we’ve had boycotts of committee meetings by Senate Democrats, a unilateral changing of committee rules by Senate Republicans, all-night talk-a-thons that in the end don’t achieve anything, the filing of legislation that is so partisan and political that none of it will even be marked up in committee, discussions of when a horse thief is a horse thief, and Democratic-orchestrated protests in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate has become effectively an extension of the campaign trail.
Like all Americans, senators certainly have a right to express their opinions. But the very least they can do is save the most divisive rhetoric for the news conferences — take it off the Senate floor so the body can function again.