All throughout 2019, Democrats sang from the same hymnal: We sent hundreds of bills with bipartisan support over to the Senate, where they went to die.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken pride in referring to himself as the “Grim Reaper” presiding over a legislative graveyard, arguing that he is serving as a bulwark against “radical, half-baked, socialist” legislation being churned out in the House.
“We need to move forward on all kinds of measures, but Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring House-passed legislation to the floor. It’s really pretty simple,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. The Connecticut Democrat pointed to a bill passed by the House last February that would institute universal background checks for would-be gun owners, but McConnell has said he won’t bring any gun bill to the floor unless he is assured President Donald Trump would sign it. Trump, predictably, has been all over the place on gun legislation.
In August 2019, following mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Blumenthal and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said they would be introducing bipartisan legislation in the Senate to create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt “red flag” laws. Red flag laws take guns away from people believed to be dangers to themselves or others. Graham said at the time that Trump “seems very supportive” of the measure. Said Blumenthal: “We have nearly complete agreement, Lindsey Graham and I, on the measure, that could be passed pretty quickly.” And yet no bill has been introduced and the matter has faded from memory. The duo introduced a similar bill in 2018, which also went nowhere.
Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said Democrats’ arguments on Senate inaction don’t hold water for him. He said House-passed bills have been “bottled up in the Senate because they know they have some poison pills in there.”
“Let’s not be disingenuous. The fact is they know that there’s some things that are very objectionable to the people on the Senate side. … Don’t sit there and claim righteousness in terms of, ‘Oh, we sent you the perfect bill, why don’t you just pass it?’”
There have been a host of House-passed bills that Republicans have complained contain distasteful provisions, including a bill to lower the cost of prescription drugs, the Violence Against Women Act and a bill addressing so-called forever chemicals.
Beyond poison pills in legislation, it’s undeniably true that Democrats in the House passed a lot of bills in 2019 with the knowledge that most of them would die in the Senate.
On their big agenda items, including a campaign finance overhaul and good-government package, a voting rights bill that would reestablish what is known as “preclearance” and a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender, there was little or no discussion with Republicans — either in the House or the Senate. Democrats faulted McConnell.
“He won’t even take a meeting with us,” New York Democratic Rep. Max Rose told CQ Roll Call last June when discussing his frustration over inaction on HR 1.
McConnell dismissed the complaints: “This sprawling, 622-page doorstop is never going to become law,” he said, adding, “There are always improvements and reforms to be made — but this isn’t it.”
For Democrats, the biggest points of debate were among moderate and liberal lawmakers of their own party. In the end, almost every major bill passed with unanimous Democratic support. In that way, the Democrats’ agenda was designed more as a messaging strategy for 2020. Indeed, many freshmen say they plan to campaign on House-passed items.
In 2019, House Democrats passed 347 pieces of legislation, according to GovTrack. Of those, Democrats say there were “over 275 bipartisan bills” sitting at McConnell’s desk awaiting action. But how “bipartisan” these bills are and their significance is another matter.
Democrats consider a bill bipartisan if it got at least one Republican vote on the floor or has at least one Republican co-sponsor and passed by voice vote. And according to an analysis by Factcheck.org in mid-December, of the 283 bills that Democrats consider bipartisan, 169 were passed by voice vote, and included bills renaming several post offices.
Of the remaining bills, there were floor votes on only 114, and 28 of those received no more than 17 Republican votes each. “The Democrats exaggerate,” Factcheck.org concluded, when they complain about the dozens of bills awaiting action.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that legislating has screeched to a halt in the Senate. There are plenty of reasons for this. McConnell’s priority has been to move nominations — especially federal judges — across the floor. According to the Heritage Foundation, 187 Trump-appointed judges were confirmed by the Senate as of Jan. 22. The only one of the previous five presidents to outpace Trump at this point in his presidency was Bill Clinton, who got 188 judges confirmed. Earlier in 2019, McConnell changed a post-cloture debate rule that allowed even speedier consideration on most nominations by cutting down debate time from 30 to just two hours.
And by not considering legislation, McConnell achieves two goals: saving valuable floor time and allowing Republicans to skip tough votes.
According to a CQ Roll Call analysis, 2019 was a record-breaker for Senate futility. Only 107 votes were held last year that dealt with legislation and not nominations, far below the 20-year historical average of 249 votes per year. (The analysis includes procedural votes like cloture and motions to proceed.)
The 2019 total bests the recent previous low reached in 2014, when Majority Leader Harry Reid attempted to shield vulnerable Democrats from tough votes. That year, there were only 113 votes on legislation.
The question remains whether McConnell’s plan will work when senators need to explain to voters what they’ve accomplished. “I think the interesting thing will be, what’s your strategy, in an election year where, arguably, a number of incumbents need to show that they’re getting things done,” said Neil Bradley, a former top aide to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and now an executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Is it good enough to point back to one spurt of activity at the end of the prior year?”
Consider, for instance, a low-profile but significant bill that, among other provisions, would create tax incentives for small employers to offer 401(k)-type plans to employees while expanding access to retirement benefits to part-time workers. The bill passed the House in May with only three voting against, all of them Republican. Yet it stalled out in the Senate for nearly seven months over various objections from Republicans. Texas’ Ted Cruz wanted to let families dip into so-called 529 plans typically used for college tuition to pay for home-schooling expenses for younger students. Utah’s Mike Lee was opposed to a provision that would help community newspapers with their pension plans. At one point, Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey proposed bringing the bill to the floor with a series of amendments, but that was rejected by Democrats.
McConnell could have brought the bill to the floor and allowed as many amendments as he wanted but chose not to. Eventually, the decision was made to kick the whole thing to the year’s end, and that’s where it landed. The bill was tucked into a spending package, complete with the newspaper language Lee had objected to but without the expansive home-schooling provision Cruz had sought.
Chris Marquette and Doug Sword contributed to this report.