The Senate Is Where Policy Goes to Die

(Bloomberg View) -- The Senate died a little more on Tuesday. This time it was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said of the Robert Mueller protection legislation, "I'm the one who decides what we take to the floor, that's my responsibility as the majority leader, we will not be having this on the floor of the Senate."

It's true that the majority leader has the ability to call up bills. But while I hate to sound like an old fogy, once upon a time -- fairly recently, really -- any senator could get a vote on almost anything he or she really cared about. They might do that by filibustering other bills or nominations until the majority agreed to bring up an item. Or a senator could just offer his or her pet bill as an amendment to something else. 

One of the big differences between the House and the Senate used to be that individual senators had far more ability to force things onto the agenda than individual members of the House. Even raw partisan measures pushed by the minority could get some sort of vote (usually to table them). 

Who is responsible for the change? Harry Reid played a major part in it; he took to using procedural trickery to prevent anyone from offering amendments in order to keep his caucus from having to cast tough votes. Republicans who ramped up the use of the routine filibuster in the first years of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presidencies were also responsible. McConnell has taken Reid's practice and made it even more routine.

Don't forget to put a good share of the blame on Democratic senators while Reid was majority leader and Republican senators now. Reid and McConnell couldn't have made it hard to offer amendments if their caucuses had told simply refused to go along. I'm not sure whether those senators are genuinely afraid of casting tough votes, or if they aren't policy-oriented enough to have a backlog of amendments they desperately want to offer, or some combination of both. 

The brutal truth is the Senate is dying as an aggressive policy shop because very few senators seem to care very much about it. As much as I'd like to blame McConnell and Reid, at the end of the day, they're probably doing exactly what senators want them to do. 

It sure seems to me that the less the Senate really works its will and respects the rights of individual senators, the less the massive malapportionment of the Senate is even remotely justified. I used to say, and still believe, that something important would be lost if the Senate grew to a size that could accommodate representing the population difference of California and Wyoming. But if they're eventually just going to wind up taking party-line votes on an agenda determined exclusively by the majority leader, they might as well have a few thousand senators. 

At any rate, we're not there yet. If a majority of the Senate really wants to force a vote on something, they can still do so no matter what the majority leader says.  

1. Julia Azari at Mischiefs of Faction on President Donald Trump and legitimacy

2. Jonathan Lewallen, Bryan Jones and Sean Theriault on congressional capacity.

3. Heather Hurlburt at the Monkey Cage on how academics can help policy makers deal with threats to the liberal international order.

4. Ariel Edwards-Levy on reading polls and the new AP guidelines.

5. My Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson with an excellent item about where the Democrats are these days

6. Catherine Rampell on how Republicans are stuck in the 1980s.

7. And Alex Seitz-Wald on the push to lower the voting age in Washington.

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.