Several years ago, I kvetched to a friend about various ways I found myself unhappy with my life. My friend listened attentively, and when I had finished, responded calmly and succinctly: “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
Conservative members of Congress face a similar dilemma this week, as they return to Washington for the first time since Congress passed a massive omnibus spending bill just before Easter. Politico last week highlighted senators’ concerns about a closed process in the Senate. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) went so far as to say the floor process, and the lack of amendment votes, “sucks.”
But in both the Senate and the House, the floor process “sucks” only because members allow their elected leaders to make it so. Members of Congress have it within their collective power to change the ways their respective chambers act—if only they have the political will to act.
Consider the floor process in the House. The morning after Congress passed the omnibus, a staffer bragged to me about how his boss voted against the sprawling spending legislation. But my follow-up query spoke volumes: “Did your boss vote against the rule allowing for consideration of the bill?” The staffer hung his head and said that he hadn’t.
Therein lies the problem. Fully 210 Republican members of Congress voted to approve a rule that allows the House of Representatives to vote on a 2,232-page bill a mere 16 hours after its public release. In so doing, they blessed House leadership’s tactics of negotiating a budget-busting bill in secret, springing it on members without time to read it, and ramming it through Congress in a take-it-or-leave it fashion.
Or, to put it another way, those 210 Republican members of Congress signed their judgment over to the Republican leadership, which made all the decisions that mattered regarding the bill. Conservatives complained that, for the rule governing debate on the omnibus, House Republican leaders gaveled the vote to a close too quickly. Fully 25 Republicans did vote against the rule bringing the omnibus to the House floor, and if a few more that wanted to vote no had been given time to do so, the rule might have failed.
That argument misses the point. Whereas 90 House Republicans voted against final passage of the omnibus, on the truly important vote—the vote to allow the House to debate the omnibus legislation—only 25 House Republicans voted no. If even half of the members who voted no on the underlying bill also voted no on the rule, the rule would have failed overwhelmingly. Instead, dozens of conservative Republicans voted only against the bill itself—when everyone knew their no votes wouldn’t make a difference, because Democrats would support the omnibus en masse.
The conservatives who would not vote against the rule governing the omnibus also bear responsibility for the next omnibus. Had conservatives voted down the rule governing the omnibus, they could have demanded concessions to prevent future instances of congressional leaders ramming massive spending bills down Congress’ throat.
For instance, they could have demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) commit the upper chamber to passing a budget, and considering spending bills individually on the Senate floor this summer. But because not enough conservatives voted against the rule, they received exactly no procedural concessions, ensuring Congress will resort to another massive, catch-all omnibus spending bill late this year or early next.
A very similar dynamic exists in the Senate. Despite their complaints, Kennedy and his Senate colleagues have failed to use their considerable powers to demand changes to that process. In the Senate, a single member can make long speeches, object to passing legislation by unanimous consent, and object to routine procedural requests. One senator or a handful of senators using such tactics for any period of time would quickly attract the attention of Senate leaders—and could prompt a broader discussion about how to open up Senate floor debate.
Instead, senators just whine to Politico about the awful process, while exercising none of their considerable powers to change that process. It seems rank-and-file senators remain cowed by comments like that by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who in February attacked as “bad behavior” efforts by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to demand an amendment vote on—the horror!—reducing government spending.
In democracies, people generally get the type of government they deserve. That axiom applies as much to the internal functioning of Congress as it does to Congress’ role in the country as a whole. If members of Congress don’t like the process their leaders have developed for debating (or not debating) legislation, they need only look in the mirror.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.