Precedent

One of my pet sayings about politics is that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is the most powerful person in Washington, more powerful than Trump or Obama before him.

One of the curious things abouut this arrangement, however, is that McConnell’s power does not come from the Constitution, or even the formal Senate rules. McConnell’s ability to determine what bills and nominations are allowed to go for a vote in the Senate is real power, but no legally bnding document grants him that power.

Rather, the Republican caucus allows him that power through something called ‘precedent’ – not legal precedent, mind you, but just an loose array of traditions where the caucus defers to him to be recognized first on the floor and thus control the room. This maximizes their collective power as the majority by having a centralized leader. On paper, all 100 senators are equal, but realistically, Mitch has around 50 votes most sessions, not 1. This subverts the original intent of the chamber where the states would be equals, of course.

A few GOP senators, with a little planning and a lot of guts, could slip past this arrangement if they wanted. A rebellious Senate President (usually a junior senator picked for the day) could choose to refuse to recognize McConnell first and instead choose another more freethinking ally who could, then, move to consider what bill/nomination they wanted. And then the GOP rank and file would have to close ranks quickly to prevent, say, a half-dozen GOP senators joining with the Democrats to pass, oh, I don’t know, a reopening of the government, or something else that would make too much sense.

It would take great timing and luck, certainly. Mitch would exact revenge of course, stripping the rebels of their committee assignments and possibly dooming their seats, but the illusion of his power being ironclad would be shaken. And the Senate might even start down the road to being less of an exercise in vote-counting.

Nah, never happen.

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