I’ve never been one to really study the inner workings of the United States Senate any more than I have on how things work at the local Masonic lodge. It’s all rather secret and they have their traditions, rituals, and quirks that to an outsider are arcane, confusing, and have very little connection with the actual business of the real world. The difference, however, between the Senate and the Masons is that one has an everyday impact on every aspect of your life. The Masons are harmless. The Senate is not.
That is why how the Senate operates is important. In the ideal democracy, the folks with the majority of votes would be able to get their way based on the idea that most of the people who elected them want what they want. That’s how it works in most legislatures, be they state and local, and also in the U.S. House of Representatives. But the Senate is another matter. Because of rules they whipped up back in the 19th century to keep progress at bay as well as the freed slaves from full citizenship, they came up with rules of their own to give even those with minority status enormous sway over the process in the Senate. And since the conservative wing of American politics has always been more interested in ruling and holding power as opposed to actually doing anything, they were bound and determined to keep their talons on their power when they were in the minority, and wield it like a cudgel when they were in the majority. Hence the filibuster: one senator could stop anything in its tracks as long as he — and it was always a he — could hold the floor and his water.
It has evolved over the years since Strom Thurmond held up civil rights by reading his mother’s cornbread recipe and Jimmy Stewart outlasted Claude Rains, but it is still in place. Now that the Democrats have landed on the 50-50 split, the only way they can get anything done is either by using the reconciliation rule, which applies only to budgetary matters, or by convincing ten Republicans to go along with them since that’s the number of votes you need to shut down a filibuster. And since the majority of Republicans don’t even believe Joe Biden is the legitimate president, they have a problem. Mitch McConnell, who ruled the Senate like Yertle the Turtle when he was the Majority Leader, is threatening “scorched earth” if the Democrats mess with the filibuster.
The obvious question, though, is how could anyone tell his “scorched earth” from what we have now?
If Democrats torch the filibuster on legislation, or at least torch the 60-vote threshold part of it, McConnell said he’d use Senate rules to slow down and force votes on every single small piece of Senate operations. Much of Senate business runs on unanimous consent, a quick way to dispense with unobjectionable and housekeeping tasks.
“I want our colleagues to imagine a world where every single task, every one of them, requires a physical quorum, which, by the way, the Vice President does not count in determining a quorum,” he said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) shrugged off the threat.
“He has already done that,” he told reporters of McConnell’s threat to grind the chamber to a halt. “He’s proven he can do it and they’ll do it again, I assume.”
This isn’t the first time McConnell has threatened Democrats with all-out gridlock should they take away his best tool to obstruct legislation from the minority. In January too, he threatened a “nightmare” scenario where he uses unanimous consent to slow down all Senate business. He made the comments towards the end of his maneuver to hold the Senate’s organizing resolution hostage — preventing Democrats from taking over committee chairmanships — where, again, he threatened to stop Senate business in its tracks if Democrats didn’t promise to sustain the filibuster.
On Tuesday, McConnell added another threat to his spiel.
He painted a hellscape for Democrats in which, as soon as Republicans take back the majority in the Senate, they ram through policy deeply opposed by Democrats like defunding Planned Parenthood, loosening gun restrictions and expanding anti-abortion legislation.
For once, I would like to see the Democrats call his bluff. After all, if your idea of threats is by warning us about Republicans passing bad and unpopular laws out of spite when they get the majority, that’s telling the electorate a lot more about your values and bigotry than all the MAGA hats made in China.