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Judd Gregg: McConnell aims to restore the Senate

By Judd Gregg –

Of all the atrocities that have been committed on the body politic over the last six years — and there have been many, arising from both sides of the aisle — the dismantling of the purpose and the role of the United States Senate is the most significant for the long-term health of our constitutional system.

When our founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the things they most wanted to correct was the tyranny of the King and of the English parliament. They wanted to be confident that, in this new government they were creating from scratch, the majority would not abuse the minority and that individual rights would be protected from gratuitous government infringement.

This concern was played out most intensely within the lynchpin agreement that lead to a general consensus as to the form of the new government: the Connecticut Compromise.

The purpose of this compromise was to assure the small states that the large states could not overwhelm them. It represented a commitment by the majority to govern under a structure where the minority could not be ignored and trampled upon.

This approach exemplified the essence of the new form of government: The minority had rights and those rights would be protected.

The Senate thus came into being as a place where the small states had equal representation with the large states. It is fitting therefore that the role of the Senate has evolved over time. It became the place where the minority was guaranteed a voice.

The Senate rules and traditions allowed the members of the minority to debate their points, offer amendments and even slow up the working of the legislative process in a manner that ensured they were heard and given their votes — whether or not they prevailed on the actual issues.

This role of the Senate is a critical safety valve in the operation of the democratic government.  Without the check that the Senate supplies, the chances of an abuse of power by the majority rise sharply.

Unfortunately, the role of the Senate has been intentionally undermined over the last six years.

The Democratic leadership denied the rights of senators to debate issues both in committees and on the floor. It filled the amendment tree so that there could be no free-flowing amendment process. It undermined the rights of the senators to force the majority to act with some level of minority support through muting the filibuster.

It essentially destroyed the core role of the Senate as the place where the minority gets its say.

Why was this done?

It was not because there was some grand desire to reorder the purposes of our constitutional government. Rather, it was because the Democratic leaders of the Senate did not want their rank-and-file members to have to make difficult votes. So they pretty much stopped all amendments, all serious discussions of the issues and all votes from occurring on the floor of the Senate.

The world’s greatest deliberative body took on phantom status.

It is difficult to overstate the harm this has done to our form of constitutional government and the purposes of our founders.

The irony, of course, is that this harm is not obvious to most. But it is there. It is insidious and, if it is not corrected, it will at some point do real damage to the confidence that people place in the government. If there is no place for the minority to make its points, then it is no longer representative government.

The new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declared that he will try and reverse this course. He is committed to taking the Senate back to its core role as a place of debate where the floor is open for amendments and the majority must win votes in order to effectively govern.

He is undertaking a considerable challenge.

Putting the genie back in the bottle is never easy, especially when it is so much more convenient for the majority to govern in the manner of the last six years: No votes, no amendments, no committee hearings of substance, no opportunities for the minority to make things messy or difficult.

But McConnell is a person of purpose.

Let’s hope he can succeed. It will be difficult to keep on this course. His caucus will pay a price as they will have to take tough vote after tough vote. But as McConnell has said, that is what senators are there for.

Of all McConnell’s notable acts over the years, restoring the Senate —  bringing back its status as the place where people get their say in our democratic system — would be his greatest legacy.  It would be a profile in courage.

As an act of leadership, it would equal or exceed those of another great senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay, and maybe even that fellow from New England, Daniel Webster.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.

Source: The Hill

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