Can McConnell and Schumer actually end Senate gridlock?

The 2018 elections are over. The Democrats regained the House, while Republicans maintained their majority in the Senate. Both sides of Capitol Hill saw opposite results, ensuring that the new year begins with a split Congress. Naysayers will predict that divided government will produce partisan wrangling and gridlock, but it also presents an opportunity to tackle major national issues where bipartisan compromise is essential.

If the next two years are to produce major policy accomplishments for America, it will require the steady hands and strong leadership skills of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTwo years after Harvey's devastation, the wake-up call has not been heeded McGrath releases ad blasting McConnell with coal miners in Kentucky: 'Which side are you on?' Prediction: 2020 election is set to be hacked, if we don't act fast MORE and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? MORE. These two lions in Congress have the smarts, the experience, the courage, and the political skills to make things happen. Even if the House produces conflict, the Senate is uniquely situated to produce significant legislative success for a number of key reasons.

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Under the Constitution, the Senate was intended to be a moderating influence on the more raucous House. In the 115th Congress, McConnell and Schumer largely followed “regular order” by letting committees do the daily work and creating opportunities for bipartisan discussion and agreement. They let the Senate do what it does best, which is to debate and legislate. The new Senate next month is similarly positioned to successfully navigate the hostile political environment on Capitol Hill under the leadership of these two seasoned lawmakers.

Partisan control of the Senate will be the same as it has been since the 2014 elections, so neither leader should feel compelled to test a new majority or minority to its rational limits, despite the pressure from the right and left that they face every day. In the field of aerodynamics, this state is known as positive stability, which is to say that an aircraft will steadily return to its original attitude after being disturbed by turbulence. In legislative terms, the turbulence of the 2014 elections that propelled Senate Republicans back into the majority has long passed, members have relearned how to work with the other side, and the chamber has largely returned to a much more predictable pattern of behavior.

The Senate has not completely avoided the partisan divide in America. This was most evident during the last Supreme Court confirmation, but consider this fact. In the same week that it finally confirmed Justice Brett Kavanagh in one of the most highly charged political environments in memory, the Senate also overwhelmingly passed the Support for Patients and Communities Act. While the cries of the protestors were echoing on Capitol Hill, bipartisan cheers were rising from the Senate floor as its leaders were quietly capping off months of work and negotiation to produce the latest federal response to the national opioid crisis.

The Senate has worked under two leaders who know how to use their respective strengths to get things done. As former staffers to McConnell and Schumer, we know that they both dislike gridlock and want to lead a fully functional Senate. In the past few years, the Senate has enjoyed many noteworthy bipartisan moments, like the opioid bill, but they go unnoticed amid the fixation over more pitched political battles. These accomplishments include the return to largely regular appropriations and the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, the Water Resources Development Act, the Chronic Care Act, and the 21st Century Cures Act, all with large bipartisan majorities in the Senate.

Recent history makes clear that McConnell and Schumer can continue this pattern on issues where common ground can be found in the Senate, if they have willing partners in the House and the West Wing. Pundits are tremendously focused right now on the anticipated coming war between the new 116th Congress and the Trump administration. In the House, that would mean two years of oversight and investigations into virtually every aspect of this presidency. In the Senate, that would mean McConnell continues his focus on judicial and executive branch confirmations.

The recent elections produced a win for Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate. McConnell could choose to continue to focus on nominations. Schumer could shift his focus to the 2020 elections. But if they are given the political leeway by their members and have the cooperation of the House and the West Wing, they can focus on the big picture and prove that a divided Congress does not necessarily lead to gridlock. Bipartisan solutions on issues like immigration, infrastructure, and drug prices could all await, unless divisive politics rule the day.

James Flood is a partner and chairman of government affairs at Crowell & Moring in Washington. He served as counsel to Senator Charles Schumer. Scott Douglas is an attorney and senior policy director at Crowell & Moring in Washington. He served as finance director for Senator Mitch McConnell.