Congress’s wounds largely self-inflicted

The decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (R-Ky.) to pull the trigger on the “nuclear option” that eliminated the filibuster on nominations to the Supreme Court was only the latest in a series of actions taken by Congress that amount to shooting themselves in the foot. Collectively, these actions — often taken in the name of reform — are amounting to a mortal wound. Now, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE’s call to eliminate the filibuster entirely, Congress has acquired a quack doctor to assist in the self-mutilation.

The Republicans who should be the staunchest defenders of institutions have been the most eager to use the saw and scalpel. It was the GOP that was responsible for the ban on earmarks that originated in the House but obviously ensnared the Senate because of the need for appropriations to be approved by both chambers.

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The principal losers with the earmark ban are leaders who can no longer entice members to support legislation by offering inducements that benefit their constituencies.

Appropriators, a separate caste in both chambers, remain aghast at the decision to toss out the pork barrel, a minuscule pot of money whose elimination did virtually nothing to cut the federal deficit. Former Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWATCH: There is no Trump-Russia collusion and the media should stop pushing this The demise of debate in Congress ‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake MORE (Nev.) wasted no occasion to deplore the end of one of the most effective tools for inducing members to be good followers. And while such levers may not be so effective on profoundly ideological members such as those in the House Freedom Caucus, it’s a cinch that Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (R-Wis.) would have gotten members of the Tuesday Group to fall into line on the ObamaCare replacement if he’d had some “bennies” to offer them.

Another suicidal move — again authored by the GOP — was term-limiting committee chairs. This six-year limit affects committee leadership in both houses and results in the periodic decapitation of experienced committee leaders who may just be hitting their stride. One glaring example of this is the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) was forced to relinquish his post to second-ranking GOP member Greg Walden (Ore.) just at the time when Upton’s expertise was most needed. Upton had established a remarkably harmonious relationship with ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), with whom he worked closely in the last Congress to pull off the so-called doc fix. Such relationships are not easily reconstructed with a new cast of characters.

Who benefits from Congress’s penchant for self-mutilation? Clearly, the main beneficiary is the president. As it stands now, all executive nominees sail through the conformation process unless some egregious ethical or moral lapse comes to light. Cheering on the sidelines for McConnell to invoke the nuclear option at the earliest stage of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court was Donald Trump, who was promptly advised by McConnell to butt out of Senate business. But the Trump intervention was proof that he perceived how he stood to gain from a filibuster-free process. He now urges an end to legislative filibusters and hints darkly that he will precipitate a government shutdown at the end of September unless the Senate unilaterally disarms.

Others have also profited from the disposition of Congress to inflict wounds on itself. Lobbyists, for example, have been the main beneficiaries of Congress’s headlong plunge into the “government in the sunshine” movement in the 1970s that opened committee markups to the public. This deprives committee members of the opportunity to huddle and fashion compromises that might not please interest group representatives who are usually the only members of the public who show up at markups.

With the legislative filibuster now in the crosshairs of the White House, senators need to push back on any movement to eliminate the 60-vote threshold on bills, not as an act of institutional patriotism, but because it is in their own self-interest. The ability of a single senator to withhold assent to a unanimous consent motion magnifies his or her influence. Absent that ability, a senator becomes a House member with a six-year term and a big staff. That prospect should be sufficiently horrifying for senators who are not wholly in the pocket of the president to resist the temptation to reform themselves into irrelevancy.

I am somewhat heartened by 61 senators who signed Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAfter Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Sunday shows preview: Russian charges, Florida shooting dominate coverage MORE’s (D-Del.) letter that pledges them to maintain the legislative filibuster. But the 39 who did not sign, what could they have possibly been thinking?

Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University. He is a former research associate at the Brookings Institution.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.