Business Ethos Blog

Why Can’t the Senate Get Anything Done?

Dr. David Mielke, Retired Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University

By this time we are all aware of the delays and difficulties that the Senate Republicans have been having to get a health care reform bill.  But in addition, there has been concern that there has been no apparent work on tax reform, infrastructure and the budget for next year.  In addition, the government faces a possible partial, and I emphasize partial, shutdown, perhaps by early September because the debt ceiling has been reached.  President Trump has also faced criticism because a number of important appointments for key government jobs have not been filled.  Is the disarray of the Republican party that has surfaced for health care reform the same disarray delaying other important legislation and confirmations?  Is the ongoing threat of Democrats filibustering any legislation causing the Republicans to retreat and delay?  The House seems to be able to pass legislation, why not the Senate? Should the Republicans propose bills, forcing votes and if the Democrats filibuster, invoke another nuclear option to allow passage by a simple majority?  Is it time for the Democrats to cooperate with the Republicans to pass legislation rather than just say “No” and criticize?  Where are their ideas?  What is the “Right Thing to do?”  Let’s look at some issues:

  1. A new budget for fiscal year 2018, starting October 1, 2017 has not been officially proposed.  The legislation starts in the House and is then moved to the Senate.  The normal budget legislation contains 12 separate bills to fund various parts of the government.  The Senate has basically done nothing and is already talking about one omnibus bill instead for next year.  This, unfortunately, has been the pattern for several years under the Obama administration, because agreement on separate bills could not be reached.
  2. President Trump has proposed an outline for a budget, containing several cuts, touching just about every department.  His proposals drew immediate criticism from the Democrats, but also several Republicans, announcing that his suggestions are dead on arrival in Congress.
  3. The budget borrowing limit will be reached, probably in early September.  The Treasury has already taken steps to delay the deadline, but those tactics will run out.  There have been no discussions about raising the debt ceiling and by how much.  It is expected that those negotiations will be difficult, not just because of Democratic opposition, but also because of Republican conservatives opposed to raising the ceiling.  It is likely that the debt ceiling and the 2018 fiscal budget will be rolled together into one contentious package.
  4. Entitlement reforms for Medicare, Social Security and disability are highly unlikely, despite the increasing costs.  There is a chance for Medicaid reform if health care reform is passed.  It seems that once an entitlement is expanded, as Medicaid and disability were under President Obama, reforms seems impossible.
  5. The Republicans originally planned to pass tax reform using budget reconciliation, a process allowing them to pass legislation with only a majority vote, without a threat of a filibuster.  Some Republicans are opposed because under budget reconciliation, the law only lasts for 10 years and is not permanent.  There is far from any agreement on what to include in the legislation, so basically nothing has been done.
  6. The Trump administration is well into its seventh month, but the Trump administration still barely exists.  President Trump did get into an inexcusably slow start making nominations, but in the past few weeks, he has been catching up.
  7. According to the Partnership for Public Service, as of June 28, Mr. Trump has nominated 178 appointees, but the Senate had only confirmed 46.  President Obama had 183 nominees confirmed by that date in his first term and President George Bush had 130.  There are currently 30 nominees who have cleared committees waiting for final Senate votes.  Many of the nominees are non-controversial and have passed in committees by strong bipartisan votes.
  8. Senator Schumer put out a press release a week ago showing the Senate has received 242 nominations, but confirmed only 50 through June 30.  The Democrats have demanded a cloture filing for every nominee no matter how minor the position.  This means a 2 day waiting period and then another 30 hours of debate.  The 30 hour rule means Mr. Trump might not be able to fill all 400 open positions needing Senate confirmation in 11 years at the current pace.
  9. The cloture rule also allows the minority to halt other business during the 30 hour debate period, which helps slow the GOP policy and oversight agenda.
  10. Democrats have also refused to return a single blue slip to the Judiciary Committee, which has the effect of blocking consideration of judicial nominees from their home states.  With the exercise of a blue slip, they can kill a judicial nominee in their home state.  Once they relinquish the blue slip, the nomination can proceed.
  11. Senator Schumer is even invoking an obscure rule that prohibits committees from doing business for more than 2 hours after the Senate opens for the day.
  12. Senator McConnell has extended the current Senate session 2 weeks into the August recess to try to get more nominees approved and to continue to try to pass health care reform.

Why can’t the Senate get anything done?  Is it necessary as the Democrats require to schedule 30 hours of debate for every nominee, especially when many are non-controversial and have relatively low positions?  Is it necessary that Democrats invoke the cloture rule during that 30 hour period stopping any other Senate business?  Is it necessary that Democratic Senators continue to hold blue slips blocking the nominations of federal judges from advancing?  Is it any wonder that the Senate does not appear to be making progress on the budget, tax reform, infrastructure the debt ceiling and even entitlement reform, as well as nominees if the Democrats effectively limit any committee work for more than 2 hours?  Why do the Republicans allow all the delays based on arcane Senate rules–rules that can be changed with majority votes?  Should the Republicans stop the Democrats abuse of process to let the President form a government?  What is the “Right Thing to do?”  It’s time for the Senate Republicans to stand up and get things done.  The dream of Senate bipartisanship is that, just a dream that will not come true.  That means revoking the so-called blue slip courtesy and changing the rules that limit debate time for nominees and a 2 day wait, allowing other business to proceed during the debate time, allowing committees to have unlimited time to work on Senate business, not just 2 hours and putting the process of nominations on the fast track however possible.  The cloture rule must be killed.  And, to eliminate the Republican fear of filibusters, the Republicans should go nuclear, as they did for the Supreme court nomination, and allow bills to be passed, such as the budget, tax reform, the debt ceiling, infrastructure and especially health care reform, with simple majority votes.  Given the obstruction of Senator Schumer and his fellow Democrats, is it any wonder that the Senate is getting nothing done?