During my time in the Senate, it didn’t take me long to realize that there are two types of people in Washington. There are the “talkers,” who want to deliver the most attention-grabbing quotes and the “doers,” who want to deliver results.
Talkers are focused on Google alerts, retweets, and of course, approval ratings. A talker, for example, may see more value in a 3-5 minute cable TV interview than he or she does in a 3-5 minute conversation with a colleague.
Now don’t get me wrong. Doers see the value in discussing their work, but they also tend to believe that if you do high quality work, that work will speak for itself. They don’t compromise progress for the sake of self-promotion.
Every member of Congress can tell you what work they are most proud of or how they made a difference for their constituents. And in turn, their constituents can judge their claims by the progress they see in their own communities.
Unfortunately, judging effective leadership in Congress isn’t quite as straightforward. Most Americans are thousands of miles from Washington, D.C. and are all too often left trying to sort out our leaders’ efforts and intentions through the back and forth in the media.
For example, just the other day I read a news story in which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that he and his party had run an “incredibly productive session” this last year and half. He goes on to try and convince the public that a Republican-controlled Senate is more productive than a Democrat-controlled Senate. His claims, however, lack some critical context.
Republicans currently hold 54 seats in the Senate while Democrats hold 44 seats with two Independents caucusing alongside the Democrats. That means that neither party has the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold currently required to move any legislation forward. Therefore, there is no scenario in which McConnell can claim legislative progress is solely the result of Republican efforts.
For example, McConnell cited passage of the Keystone XL Pipeline Act as an example of progress. What he didn’t mention, however, is that the Keystone bill passed the Senate by a margin of 62-36, meaning it couldn’t have passed without the support of eight Democrats who were willing to work across the aisle.
Let’s consider some of the other legislation that has passed this session.
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, aimed at combating the growing epidemic of opioid use across America, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support: 94-1. While several senators missed the vote, the only “no” vote came from a Republican.
The Senate also passed a $56 billion transportation-housing appropriations bill, but again Republicans didn’t do it alone. Strong support from Democrats allowed the bill to pass 89-8.
It doesn’t take much to scratch beneath the surface of McConnell’s disingenuous claims. The bottom line is that with the current makeup of the Senate, you simply cannot pass legislation without support from the Democrats—even though they are in the minority.
So what is different since McConnell became the Republican Majority Leader? The Senate has a minority—the Democrats—actually willing to work across the aisle.
Democrats understand they can’t get everything they want, but by putting aside partisan differences and working across the aisle they can still get things done.
Democrats are doing what McConnell simply refused to do when he was in the minority: work with the other side. Rather than try to find common ground and put forward solutions, McConnell used his role as leader of the minority to proudly declare that his number one goal would be to guarantee that President Obama became a one-term president.
While he wasn’t successful in his goal, the intention behind his message isn’t lost.
The Senate is intended to be the deliberative body of Congress. Its members are supposed to stand up on behalf of their constituents and debate the merits of policy and explain how it will impact their communities directly. And at the end of the day, they compromise. There may be an impasse at times, but that is different than intentional obstruction.
If Democrats take control of the Senate in 2017, they will not have the necessary 60 votes to move legislation without Republicans. We will get a chance to see just how cooperative Republicans want to be when they are in minority. Meanwhile, Democrats could have the opportunity to remind the public what real leadership looks like and how we move our country forward.
Everyone wants to be in the majority, but the truth is there is great responsibility in being in the minority – no matter what party you are in. You can choose to be the problem, or you can choose to be a part of the solution.
Former Sen. Mark Begich represented Alaska in the Senate from 2009-2015. He is now the President and CEO of Northern Compass Group located in Anchorage, Alaska. He also serves as a Strategic Advisor to Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.