York: Can Mitch McConnell make the Senate better?

Byron York

To outsiders, some of the changes new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring to the Senate might seem like inside baseball. But they could bring about a huge improvement in the way the Senate works. And that could in turn lead to a huge improvement in the way Washington works.

McConnell’s restoration of what is called “regular order” will give both Republican and Democratic lawmakers something they have not had in eight years under Harry Reid: the chance to have actual input into the making of laws.

Reid famously used Senate rules and procedures to block most of his fellow senators from offering amendments to bills under consideration. Of course that frustrated minority Republicans, but it also frustrated a lot of majority Democrats, who didn’t get to propose changes even though their party controlled the Senate.

Now, McConnell promises to open up bills to proposed amendments, both in committee and on the Senate floor. The first example of that will be the Keystone pipeline. Already, Democrats are lining up to offer amendments, something they rarely got to do under their own leader.

“We are going to introduce amendments to make it more of a jobs bill,” Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer said recently. Schumer said Democrats will offer amendments to require American-made steel for the pipeline, to require that oil transported through the pipeline be used in America, and to add clean energy jobs.

Can anyone imagine Reid giving Republicans comparable freedom on any bill at all, much less a controversial measure like Keystone? “There are people who have worked in the Senate for seven or eight years who have never seen this happen,” says one GOP aide.

How often will it happen in the new regime? The majority leader has the power to allow regular order, or not, on any given piece of legislation. McConnell has not pledged to allow it 100 percent of the time. But he told Roll Call that not allowing amendments should be “an exception rather than the rule.”

McConnell has also said that after last November’s elections, he received a lot of calls from Democrats wondering whether he would really go through with his promise to restore their rights. The answer is yes.

But some Republicans see the restoration as even more significant for the majority party than for the minority. “The reason why that is so important is not because of Republican versus Democrat, but because of the tension between rank-and-file and leadership,” says another GOP aide. “Outside the Senate, there might be some conservatives who say, ‘Why do you want to offer Democrats amendments when for years Democrats didn’t offer them to Republicans?’ But what if there’s a big immigration bill? Do you want the Republican rank-and-file not to be able to offer amendments?”

In that sense, by opening up the Senate, McConnell could be buying himself some headaches from his own party. Indeed, it could be argued that the move will empower some of the Republican senators — Ted Cruz and Mike Lee come to mind — who have sometimes antagonized the leadership. Some might see that as a green light for them to make trouble.

“Nonsense,” says an aide to Lee. “I wouldn’t characterize a senator exercising his or her institutional rights as ‘making trouble.’ What it will do is allow each senator the right to fully represent the interests of their constituents and finally get back to a substantive debate on policy reforms.”

That’s all good. And Republican leaders hope the change will have other salutary effects. Committees will become more active, with members taking a greater part in shaping legislation. The work week will lengthen. (Under Reid, senators often came in on Tuesday afternoon and left late Thursday; now, they can expect an honest-to-God five-day week.)

With all that, the hope is, senators of both parties will actually work with each other more. “If people feel like they have the opportunity to make their points, the place becomes a more collegial body,” says one of the aides. The hope is that “we’ll be able to turn this into a legislating body instead of a campaign studio, which is the way it has been for eight years.”

Of course, it might not work. But there’s no doubt Senate leaders need to institute reforms after Reid’s ugly and divisive tenure. And if things go as planned, McConnell’s restoration could become a ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead moment that revitalizes the Senate.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner.