Does anyone else have the impression that Donald Trump has less and less to do with the war between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell? After losing a series of votes on predictable party-line votes last night on amendments to McConnell’s rules package, the Senate Minority Leader complained this morning that McConnell didn’t postpone the votes until this morning. Schumer accused McConnell of doing Trump’s bidding and claimed that the losses on his amendments as well as the decision to conduct the votes last night put the Senate trial under “a cloud of unfairness”:
Sen. Chuck Schumer: "It seems the only reason Sen. McConnell refused to move votes back a day is because it would interfere with the timeline he promised the president."
— ABC News (@ABC) January 22, 2020
After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denied all 11 amendments, Schumer says the impeachment trial will begin today with a "cloud of unfairness." https://t.co/eijxvjdtk9 pic.twitter.com/tbcPmHaBP8
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 22, 2020
Note to CBS: Schumer got the floor votes on the amendments. He just lost the votes on them all, as everyone knew he would. McConnell and all Senate Republicans made that much clear over the last couple of weeks. They insisted that they would take up the questions of witnesses and evidentiary production after the case had been presented and questions asked of the managers. That, McConnell has noted repeatedly, is the very same process that got 100-0 approval for Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, including the enthusiastic support of one Charles Schumer of New York.
That didn’t put Clinton’s trial “under a cloud of unfairness,” or does Schumer have an explanation for why the same process was fair for Clinton but not for Trump? One that doesn’t rely on the fact that the House didn’t do a proper and credible job in investigating Trump before impeaching him, that is? All this process does is put off those questions until later in the process; it doesn’t eliminate the questions. Substantively, there’s no difference.
The other complaint is so silly that it beggars belief. What possible difference did it make whether the vote took place last night or today? The results would have been the same anyway. Schumer might have preferred to have them delayed so that Democrats could make hay out of them on television while people are watching, but that’s just as much a political calculation as keeping the session open to deal with the amendments immediately. There’s no substantive difference on this question, either.
This, unfortunately, encapsulates the partisan warfare that has overtaken the legislative branch over the last twenty-one years. Both sides are so intent on primacy rather than policy that they have made Congress a wasteland at the expense of actual governance, and the impeachment is the nadir of that war. As I warn in my column for The Week, this will either result in a backdoor parliamentary system or a truly imperial presidency. And maybe both at the same time:
We have spent the last 20-plus years coming to an inevitable war between Republicans and Democrats in the Beltway, one that will determine whether the institutions matter more than party affiliation. …
It is this partisan escalation, in Capitol Hill in general and the Senate in particular, which has led the nation to this impasse. Both sides are trying mightily to claim the moral high ground in the impeachment fight and rules debate, but both sides have also done their best to cook the process for their own ends. Georgetown Law professor Jonathan Turley, who spoke in opposition to impeachment on institutional grounds (although no fan of Trump in other respects), concluded on Tuesday afternoon that both parties have run this into the ground. “The tide of hypocrisy washing over the Hill today,” Turley quipped on CBS, “was enough to take the dome off its foundations.”
Given the partisan warfare around the impeachment, the trial outcome is all but certain. Of more concern, however, should be the damage done to the legislative branch over the last two decades. This poisonous atmosphere of majoritarian flexing has transformed Congress from a co-equal branch to either the wingman or the executioner of the president. With this partisan war as context, succeeding House majorities will feel freer to impeach any president of the opposing party on any pretext, especially by launching constant investigations that encroach on the executive’s co-equal status and automatically considering any objection to be obstructive. We will either have parliamentary systems with the executive under the thumb of the House, or presidencies entirely unencumbered by an independent legislature.
At some point, we need leadership on Capitol Hill that restores its own prerogatives while respecting the prerogatives of the executive. This would benefit both parties in the long run, and it would return the federal government to actual representative democracy. Unfortunately, after two decades in the trenches of the Democrat-Republican war, there doesn’t seem to be any leaders emerging of that quality — nor a lot of demand from anyone else to produce them.
Perhaps it truly is time to repeal the 17th Amendment and make the Senate responsive to state legislatures again, rather than party leadership and partisan organizers. That would at least open a potential path to resetting the constitutional balance between the branches, and might force the House to focus on its own prerogatives rather than attempting to bully the Senate out of theirs.