Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters on July 26, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell has since 2007 been maintaining a rogue branch of government.
Though the Republican leader in the Senate lacks any constitutional grounding, though he has no popular mandate and though he leads only a minority of senators, McConnell has defined the range of debate and steered the direction of the federal government by engaging in the most aggressive abuse of the rules in the history of the chamber.
That abuse involves a redefinition of the traditional filibuster power as a veto that the minority can use to undermine not just legislation and presidential appointments but the very functioning of the federal government.
The founders of the American experiment imagined no such veto. In fact, the US Constitution imagines a system under which the legislative branch provides advice and consent to the executive branch.
But McConnell has so exaggerated the filibuster power that it has effectively allowed him to thwart not just Senate votes but the operations of federal agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board. He and his allies have gone so far as to block the confirmation of nominees for cabinet posts, such as Department of Labor nominee Tom Perez.
McConnell’s crew has done this with a consistency that extends far beyond specific issues or individuals. They have created systematic obstruction, which allows the minority leader to “govern,” even though he lacks any authority to do so.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Senate majority leader in the contentious 1950s—an era of Cold War, segregation, recession and debates over everything from space travel to statehood for Alaska—he only had to file one cloture motion to end a filibuster.
Since Harry Reid became Senate minority leader in 2007, he has had to file 420 cloture motions to end filibusters. And while he usually has majority support for acting on a bill or an appointment, he rarely has the sixty-vote super-majority required by McConnell.
“The Senate is not the House and the minority party must be treated with respect and given the opportunity to offer amendments and make their case in opposition,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “A minority must not, however, be allowed to permanently obstruct the wishes of the majority. That is not democracy. That is a perversion of democracy.”