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Bill Straub: McConnell has abdicated his leadership of the U.S. Senate to President Donald Trump


Well, the good news is Addison Mitchell McConnell has at long last abdicated his position as Republican leader of the U.S. Senate.

The bad news is he has turned the reins of the erstwhile world’s greatest deliberative body over to President Trump (yecch!), further enhancing the perception that ol’ Root-‘n-Branch is the worst majority leader since the position was created 94 years ago.

McConnell, of Louisville, is not an ignorant man, possessing an undergraduate degree from the University of Louisville and a law degree from my old alma mater, the University of Kentucky. But he apparently slept through the academic lecture about the Constitution and the separation of powers. As a result, he has made the Senate nothing more than an annex of the Trump White House.

Consider that McConnell, after having worked out a deal with Democrats to keep the federal government operating last December, withdrew the proposal when Trump voiced his opposition, resulting in a shutdown that lasted a record-breaking 34 days. Throughout the closure he refused to so much as consider any proposal that did not meet Trumpian approval.

It finally was finagled to reopen the doors temporarily so a bipartisan committee could develop a path out of the mess. When an agreement was finally reached, Trump once again went into his Hamlet routine, exhibiting angst over congressional refusal to include $5.7 billion to build a useless and obviously expensive wall along the nation’s southern border to keep brown people – who the president has variously characterized as rapists and drug gang members – from crossing over.

Trump ultimately conceded but only after declaring he was going to proceed by declaring a bogus emergency and shifting funds from some government programs to wall construction.

Now harkening back to about the fourth grade you may recall that the Constitution invests the power of the purse, as the saying goes, with Congress. The old couplet “the president proposes, Congress disposes’’ establishes that the national legislature has final say in how the nation’s dough is spent.

McConnell initially opposed any presidential emergency declaration and urged Trump privately to drop the idea, not because it’s obviously stupid but fearing it would divide his caucus, an outcome he has sought to avoid at all costs.

But ol’ Root-‘n-Branch lost his spine somewhere along the way and acquiesced, declaring on the Senate floor that he had seen the light and that, in a stunning U-turn and without any real explanation, he was prepared to vote for the presidential pronouncement.

If that sounds like the legislative branch ceding its authority to the executive branch despite the clear wording of the Constitution, you win a cigar.

McConnell has been running this mother-may-I routine with Trump since the inauguration and it’s gotten beyond the point of embarrassing. It raises images of Trump scratching ol’ Root-‘n-Branch’s ear, calling him a good boy and offering him a treat.

His groveling manner says a lot about McConnell and none of it is pretty. It establishes that all the pundit memes are wrong, that he is not a Senate institutionalist with some sort of magical legislative touch. What we find under the boring façade is a man only interested in accumulating and keeping power, who is more interested in furthering the authority of the Republican Party than serving the nation as a whole and that he is willing to bend almost every established principle in the chamber he leads in order to protect his status.

It is difficult, looking back through history, finding any Senate majority leader so willing to sublimate himself and his chamber to the simple whims of a president, especially one who has established himself as a blackguard. Even in instances where the majority leader was a member of the same party as the president – say when Howard Baker, of Tennessee, served during the Reagan administration – can you find a lawmaker willing to soil the Constitution to protect his party.

That’s because Republican leaders like Baker, Bob Dole, of Kansas, and Democrats like LBJ of Texas and Mike Mansfield, of Montana, saw the accumulation of power as a means to an end. McConnell views possessing power as an end itself.

It’s been pretty clear for a while that history isn’t going to be kind to Mitch McConnell and it’s a well-deserved fate. Before ascending to majority leader in January 2015, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch used his position as minority leader to thwart anything and everything then-President Barack Obama sought to accomplish just because he could, slowing the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and using the filibuster to an unprecedented extent. The result was gridlock which lowered the public’s esteem for institutions like the Senate but provided McConnell with the power he so craved.

Regarding McConnell as a wise guardian of the Senate as an institution is inane. It was McConnell, as majority leader, who forced through a $1.5 trillion tax bill last year without so much as a hearing. That measure has grown the federal deficit and done little to enhance the economic well-being of the middle class. Taxpayers are already beginning to see a reduction in their federal tax refunds.

But McConnell’s failed tenure is, frankly, old news. Polls have long established that he is the least popular member of an unpopular chamber. But this one really takes the cake. An estimated 10 Senate Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, and Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, have hinted that they may break with their party if a vote is taken to override Trump’s emergency declaration.

“We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL. “Today’s national emergency is border security. But a future president may use this exact same tactic to impose the Green New Deal.”

McConnell’s supporters, and there are a few, would have you believe that this is all a great, tactical ploy by a brilliant legislative strategist, that ol’ Root-‘n-Branch simply acquiesced to keep the government open, satisfy the unpredictable Trump and count on the courts to give the president the back of their collective hand.

Oh, that Mitch sure is wily.

Of course, the leader of the Senate is now on record supporting the diminution congressional authority granted by the Constitution for purely political reasons. And what if the courts fail to rise to the occasion? It’s happened before. This situation could result in the further increase in authoritarianism, something the founders sought to avoid.

Nope. McConnell has sold out, pure and simple, in another power play. The only hope is, if Trump goes down, which remains a possibility, he takes his valet with him.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.


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