Defending the Senate is not exactly the popular take these days. It’s easy to beat up on the upper chamber of Congress.
Many of those are fair indictments of the institution that George Washington once dubbed, “the cooling saucer of democracy.” But let’s give the ultimate institution of all the Beltway institutions it’s due. This week, notwithstanding the public spectacle of a hearing featuring Supreme Court hopeful Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the Senate worked.
Republicans wanted to shove Brett Kavanaugh through a rushed committee process with scant vetting of the credible allegations against Kavanaugh and force-feed him onto the Supreme Court. Another notch in the belt for President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE and Senate Republicans going into the midterm elections.
And, to be clear, they still may do that. But the world’s greatest deliberative body did what it was supposed to do. What it was designed to do. It’s slowed the process down. And the process wasn’t slowed down by a powerful committee chairman or a 2020 hopeful or any member of leadership. It was slowed down by Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCruz to get Nord Stream 2 vote as part of deal on Biden nominees Democrats threaten to play hardball over Cruz's blockade Rubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees MORE (R-Ariz.). A retiring, unpopular and often unremarkable Senator who will leave Congress in January without much of a discernible legacy.
But the Senate makes that possible. Arcane rules and customs that are hard for even the most experienced Senate alumni to explain allow someone like Jeff Flake to gum up the works. The idea that Flake can pull together a small gang of moderates to flip the emergency brake at the last minute is exactly what the body is set up to do. In the Senate, change is supposed to be slow and deliberate and difficult. That’s the whole point. If you don’t get that, you don’t get the Senate.
Also, the fact that it was Flake is notable. His relationship with someone like Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law US maintains pressure on Russia amid concerns of potential Ukraine invasion Sunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates MORE (D-Del.), another member from the other party who lives in relative anonymity, was also critical here. Not every member of the Senate should be running for or posturing for a higher office. The sequence of events amplify why the Jeff Flakes and Chris Coonses are essential to the effectiveness of the Senate. Two Senators who can get in a room and make an imperfect, but nevertheless important deal.
Some people may think it just delays the inevitable for a week. That’s certainly possible. Most of the betting odds would probably still suggest that Senate Republicans are determined to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
But as somebody who was raised by the Senate and worked for former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (D-Nev.) from 2009-2011 during the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), I can speak with firsthand experience about the unpredictability of time inside those chambers. When pursuing a legislative priority, time can be your biggest enemy.
The biggest complication with the passage of the ACA was the extra time that was forced upon Senate Democratic leadership in 2009 and 2010. That extra time allowed public opinion to work its way against the bill, allowed the bill itself to be weakened and watered down and created unforeseen circumstances like the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the unlikely special election of Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to fill his seat which significantly weakened the leverage of the Democratic majority. All resulting in a slow rollout of the bill and ultimately igniting Republicans' ability to recapture control of Congress.
Let’s be clear. The “Profiles in Courage” being written up for Flake are a bit overdone. Especially because despite his outspokenness against President Trump, the now-senior senator from Arizona votes with the president more than 83 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight.com. And he still likely intends to support the Kavanaugh nomination after the one-week delay he negotiated for an FBI investigation into the Kavanaugh accusations to be completed.
But regardless, a reliable conservative stepped in the way to at least slow down a conservative coronation of a second Trump Supreme Court nominee. And yes, we should all give a shout-out to the brave protesters, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, who inspired the Flake Flip. They exemplify why no American should underestimate their role or take a backseat in our democracy.
But I think we would also be mistaken to withhold another shout-out for the United States Senate. In an era where our institutions are being challenged and questioned daily, the Senate proved durable and helped to validate its unique role in our democracy.
Joel Payne is a former deputy press secretary for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and former director of African-American advertising for the Hillary for America 2016 campaign. He is currently a vice president with MWWPR.