The traffic cop

Unlike the House, where the Speaker is expected to expedite the will of the majority, the person charged with running the Senate is not expected to exert his will. 

Instead, he or she is more like a glorified traffic cop, making certain that all of the highways of the upper chamber are cleared of obstructions and moving smoothly. 

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It’s a tough job because the Senate is necessarily full of obstructions and rarely moves smoothly.

The Senate majority leader, unlike the Speaker, is not named in the Constitution. Nor is the majority leader the top Senator in the line of succession to the White House. That title goes to the president pro tempore — usually the longest serving senator. 

In other words, the Senate majority leader doesn’t get much respect by just filling the seat. He or she has to earn that respect by doing a decent job of clearing obstruction and moving the Senate calendar forward. 

When Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could go down as the worst majority leader in history, he was warning of how history would judge Reid’s decision to fundamentally change the rules of the Senate with the so-called nuclear option. 

Instead of clearing obstruction and keeping the Senate moving smoothly, by changing the rules, the majority leader would not only fundamentally alter the way chamber would operate for years to come, he could also pretty much close down the Senate for the rest of the year. 

We have all seen good traffic cops and bad traffic cops in our lifetimes. 

Good traffic cops are hardly noticed. They keep the flow of cars moving by providing clear direction to drivers and by acting decisively and with authority. Bad traffic cops screw up traffic by giving conflicting signals, with weak leadership and by putting more obstructions in the path of the traffic.

Harry Reid, love him or hate, has done a decent enough job of moving legislative traffic through the chamber thus far this year: immigration reform, a water bill and the vast majority of the president’s nominations have been approved by the Senate. But Reid has been successful on these fronts because he has worked with the minority, not tried to cut them off. And together, the majority and minority have worked together to remove obstacles to allow these pieces of legislation and nominations to work forward. 

The majority leader has one full-time job: to constantly communicate with all parties to keep the trains moving on time. 

The best majority leader I saw in my 25 years in Washington was former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). He was an energizer bunny, constantly moving around with his notes, cutting deals large and small, walking over to the House to smooth over bruised feelings and generally getting stuff done. 

Lott didn’t make everybody happy because the nature of the job doesn’t lend itself to making everybody happy. And as often happens in Washington, eventually he alienated enough people to hasten his own downfall. 

It is therefore not surprising that it was Lott’s replacement, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who proposed an all-hands meeting to save the Senate from itself and from the unsteady leadership of its top traffic cop. 

Reid is moving forward on the so-called nuclear option primarily because he is not happy that Republicans are resisting the president’s appointments of labor union activists to the National Labor Relations Board. One of those appointees was named as a defendant in a federal racketeering lawsuit — not exactly the moral high ground from which to alter fundamentally the nature of the Senate. 

For the love of labor, Reid may create gridlock for the next year and a half with the minority party in the chamber, sacrifice the rest of the president’s legislative agenda and bring even further discredit on an already unpopular Congress. 

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, and that the Senate’s top traffic cop backs down on his threat close down the legislative highways for the rest of the session. Congress has a lot on its plate and shutting down the chamber down simply because Reid has grown frustrated that he can’t get a labor racketeer appointed to the NRLB won’t fly with the American people. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.