On Monday, Senator Jim DeMint (R–SC, net worth $40,000?) announced that he would personally place holds on all Senate legislation not submitted to his office by Tuesday night. Typically, the Senate passes several bills by unanimous consent in the days leading up to the October recess, which will begin at the close of business Friday. Citing concern for our federal deficit, DeMint’s office circulated a memo reading, “If there are any bills you would like cleared before we go out, please get them to the Steering Committee staff … by close-of-business on Tuesday.” The Steering Committee, of which DeMint is the chair, is a group of conservative Republicans that meets to discuss legislation but has no official authority over what comes to the floor. At least it didn’t, until DeMint realized that one man could use procedural rules to obstruct the Senate indefinitely. If that sounds unfair to you, you’re not alone. “Who’s running the Senate, Minority Leader McConnell or King DeMint?” said a spokesman for Harry Reid’s office.
Read that sentence again. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has sarcastically demanded to know who runs the Senate—the leader of the the minority opposition party, or some other member of the minority opposition party. The threat of Republican opposition has frightened the Democrats into punting on the Bush tax cuts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and, most recently, the DISCLOSE Act until after the November elections. DeMint’s move is the final noogie in a legislative session that has been a monument to Republican bullying and Democratic pusillanimity. Why shouldn’t DeMint send a threat letter to all of his colleagues? It’s no fun being a bully if you can’t rub it in.
One reason why not is that it might shut down the federal government. The Senate typically passes a series of bills by unanimous consent—a practice called “hotlining,” which is perhaps the most boring application of that term ever—in the days before adjournment. Most of them are noncontroversial measures declaring National Toothbrush Awareness Week or whatever, but some of them include spending provisions designed to keep the lights on in Washington while Congress is adjourned. It those spending bills don’t come to the floor, we could see a 1990s-style government shutdown.
“Some of it is easy, and some of it has big price tags. If it’s not paid for and if it doesn’t have a [Congressional Budget Office] score, then it shouldn’t pass without a Senate vote,” DeMint told Politco. In the same interview, he said his office was in the process of reviewing 40 to 50 bills. Take that, Women’s Museum.
Let us assume, for the sake of not going to South Carolina with a shovel and just laying about ourselves until we run out of blood, that no important bills will be blocked by DeMint’s power play. What, then, does it mean?
For one, it marks the final Republican victory in the most poorly managed Democratic majority maybe in history. With 40 seats, the Republican Party has by fiat adjourned the Senate two days early. I can think of no more fitting end to a session in which Democrats consistently buckled to a filibuster their own cowardice rendered unnecessary, and regularly put off important legislation on the assumption that implementing their policy agenda would hurt them in the election. Who knows if the American people like Democratic governance? The Democratic Congress has refused to govern for fear of finding out.
Second, and less abysmally depressing, DeMint has asserted his craziness in a GOP poised for an influx of crazy. We have yet to see a Tea Party candidate win a general election, despite the consensus media report of a Republican sweep in November, but it seems plausible that the near future of the GOP involves a lot of bold gestures. DeMint’s assertion that “Americans are sick of Washington ramming through bills that no one reads” echoes one of the more absurd complaints of the Tea Party, that Congress is for some reason passing random legislation against the will of the American people.
DeMint’s insistence on personally stopping the entire Senate is the kind of solution that sounds best when shouted through a megaphone. It’s a clear bid to establish himself as that great paradoxical Tea Party dream, the anti-Washington Senator. It appears that he believes his next term in the Senate will be a race to the bottom—a contest to see who can more audaciously thwart the President and/or what remains of the Democratic majority. That’s just the kind of race Jim DeMint can win—assuming he makes it through his own tough election, of course.