Editor’s Note: Tina Smith, a Democrat, is a United States senator from Minnesota. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
I came to the United States Senate 18 months ago as an accidental senator; I never expected to gain the great honor of serving in Washington. I’ll never have the seniority of lions of the Senate who’ve been in office for decades. What I do have is a lifetime of experience as a parent and activist, small business owner, and lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
And all this experience, and basic common sense, tells me that Mitch McConnell’s leadership of the United States Senate has been a big fat waste.
Americans can see this, and they are rightly frustrated with the slow pace of progress in Washington. I’m frustrated, too. I came to Washington understanding what the Senate is capable of accomplishing and knowing that I’d have myriad opportunities as a senator to get things done. And let’s be clear that the problem isn’t that senators on both sides of the aisle can’t agree on anything. Truth is, there’s plenty of work we could be doing – if only Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would let us.
But McConnell has transformed the Senate into little more than the Trump administration’s personnel office, the place where good ideas go to die. As of July 3, the Senate has taken 127 votes since the rules change on April 3, which drastically reduced the amount of time some nominees could be debated on the Senate floor. Just 21 of those 127 votes were related to legislation – that’s 16.5% of floor time devoted to legislative debate – while the vast majority were devoted to pushing through the Trump administration’s nominations.
He’s proud of this, too. Asked what his priorities are, McConnell has said, “We are in the personnel business.” What that means is that day in and day out, the work of the Senate has been reduced to voting to pack the courts with Trump-appointed, lifetime federal judges, as fast as we can. And because McConnell and the Republicans have dramatically reduced the time for debate on most of these judges – from 30 hours to two – they can pack the courts faster than ever before.
Voting on these nominees is part of my job as a senator, and I take this responsibility seriously. I make time to research the background of each nominee, but the truth is, there’s never any real debate. McConnell puts a name on the floor, we look down at our binders, we cast our votes, and we move on to the next one. Sometimes I think about how automation is taking jobs away from American workers and wonder whether we’re going to be next.
Let’s take a look at a recent – and pretty typical – week in the Senate. McConnell put 11 nominations up for a vote, seven of them for lifetime appointments to the federal bench. One of them had never tried a case in court. One wrote a legal opinion that divorce laws apply only to heterosexual couples. Another argued that private companies should be able to offer healthcare coverage that doesn’t cover basic preventative care for women, including contraceptives. And then there are the candidates who cannot even bring themselves to say that Brown v. The Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case from 65 years ago ending school segregation, was rightly decided.
While I try to consider each nominee on his or her merits, it’s usually pretty clear why they’ve been selected by the Trump administration. Many are members of the right-wing Federalist Society, a shadowy organization funded by undisclosed donors and devoted to stocking the judiciary with conservative activists who will help overturn Roe v. Wade, legalize discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans, limit the power of workers and consumers, undermine the right to vote, and generally treat the courtroom as a platform for advancing the interests of the Republican Party.
It’s not just judges. McConnell is also using this new process to ram through executive appointments. I recently voted against a man who had been appointed to run the federal agency overseeing people’s pensions. Why? Because he has no experience with pensions whatsoever, apart from hoping to get one someday. Did I mention he’s Mitch McConnell’s brother-in-law? Didn’t matter. The guy got voted through, and we were on to the next one.
Every day, I talk to Democratic and Republican colleagues with lots of ideas about the work we should be doing. Passing the Violence Against Women Act, protecting our elections from cyberattacks from hostile nations, stabilizing our health care system, expanding rural broadband – these are all issues where most Democrats and Republicans share an interest in getting something done. But in this environment, the already-hard work of legislating has become nearly impossible, thanks to the majority leader’s steadfast commitment to packing the courts to the exclusion of almost everything else.
I had always heard that Mitch McConnell was a master legislator and a true loyalist to this institution. But in the 18 months I’ve been in the Senate, what I’ve seen is an astonishingly limited vision for what the Senate can and should accomplish.
What a waste.