Bernstein: McConnell’s Senate is making judges, not laws

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Mitch McConnell’s Senate has almost completely given up on legislating.

On May 9, the Senate took one vote: to confirm a judge. On May 8, the chamber took seven votes: All were on cloture and final confirmation for another judge and for three executive branch nominees. Three votes on May 10? More of the same. And a single vote on May 9 was on cloture for a judge who was confirmed a day later. That’s 12 votes for the week, none of them on legislation. So far this week, it’s been more of the same.

In fact, since April 2, the Senate has taken 53 votes, and all but one of them — the failed veto override on the Yemen resolution — were on nominations or the nomination process. And before that, beginning with the final vote on Feb. 12 and going through April 1, there were only 10 legislative votes (out of 23 total votes). So that’s only 11 legislative votes over three months.

To be fair, a handful of measures have passed without a recorded vote over that period. S 693, the National POW/MIA Flag Act, went through by unanimous consent on May 2. HR 1222, the Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act, did the same on April 30. So if a bill is insignificant enough and no one objects, the Senate is still capable of acting on it.

But still, this is a truly disgraceful record. And no, it’s not because Republicans are conservatives and don’t think there are any laws that need to be passed. As far as I know, all of them think disaster relief, for example, is needed, but they aren’t reaching a deal on it because Donald Trump doesn’t want Puerto Rico to get any money and Republican senators don’t know how to get around Trump’s rhetoric. Plenty of Republicans have campaigned on other laws they wanted passed. None of it is happening now.

To compare, the House — which of course has no nomination responsibilities — has worked through plenty of bills. The lower chamber has also taken about 50 votes since the beginning of April, but (other than a few procedural items) they’re all legislative.

Perhaps a better comparison, however, would be the Senate in 2011. The partisan context is the same: A continuing Senate majority with its party in the Oval Office, while the out party had a new majority in the House. The Senate that year took only 19 votes from the beginning of April through the first week of May — but all but four were legislative. Senators even took recorded votes on eight amendments to two bills over that period. This year? It’s been almost two months since the last recorded vote on an amendment, and I count a total of eight votes on seven amendments all year so far.

In other words, McConnell has taken one of the world’s great legislative bodies and turned it into a chamber for processing nominations. I’ve talked about the post-policy Republican Party — a party that doesn’t even bother to pretend to have solutions for anything — but this is taking it to an extreme. And I single out McConnell because he’s the majority leader and therefore the senator most responsible for what is being considered on the Senate floor, but there’s no reason to believe that any of the other 52 Republicans has any problem at all with how he’s handling his job.

I should mention that part of the reason for the failure to consider legislation on the Senate floor is that Democrats have been blocking by filibuster attempts to bring up some bills. However, in doing so, Democrats are simply doing to McConnell what he did to them when they were in the majority. And part of the reason they are doing so is because McConnell would block them from offering their amendments if they allowed bills to be considered. At any rate, I’d count any attempts to bring up bills as legislative votes, but McConnell hasn’t bothered trying.

Of course, all of this comes after Republicans passed a major tax bill and very little else during two years of unified government, so it’s not as if they’ve exhausted a long agenda. For that matter, a few weeks ago when Trump suggested that the Senate might move forward on health care, Republicans reacted as if he had thrown a grenade into their conference room. What, us legislate? And the same is true of Trump requests for immigration legislation, and, well, everything else.

It’s a disgrace.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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