Opinion: No longer the ‘World’s Greatest Deliberative Body’

When I started covering Capitol Hill in the 1980s, the U.S. Senate provided great theater. It seemed like anything could happen on the floor at any time. There were big bills featuring extended debates from a series of larger-than-life Senators.

Four decades later, the Senate is a shadow of itself. Spending bills are rarely debated. Major legislation and amendments are tightly controlled by the majority. And there is very little in the way of memorable floor debate.

Instead of working on legislation, the Senate now spends most of its time in session approving nominations for federal judges and senior government officials, with the minority forcing procedural votes on just about every nominee imaginable.

For example, senators recently had to overcome a possible filibuster before approving — wait for it — the next Under Secretary for Benefits in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nothing against the nominee — Joshua Jacobs — but there is no reason that the full Senate should have spent any time on his nomination. Unfortunately, the Senate has changed — and Senators know it.

“I do think that the polarization and the political division that is driving these floor dynamics is one of the most corrosive forces in our society today,” U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff told me, arguing the never-ending tussle over minor nominees ‘makes Congress less effective.’

It’s not just judges or executive branch officials seeing Senate delays. Now it’s military brass as well.

Most people have no idea that senior military commanders have their promotions ratified by the Senate. That used to happen without a vote - but not anymore.

As of this week, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., the former college football coach, was blocking action on close to 200 promotions for everything from Navy admirals to Marine, Army, and Air Force generals.

Tuberville was using the delay to attack a new Pentagon policy that lets female service members get time off and travel expenses to go to a different state for abortion-related treatment.

With Tuberville refusing to yield — “I’m not going to budge” — the Senate simply shrugged and moved on to other nominations, staying away from any legislation dealing with the debt limit.

If the Senate really was the ‘World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,’ senators might spend day after day on the floor trying to figure out a way forward to avoid a June 1 government default.

Instead, the U.S. Senate is standing on the sidelines of the debt limit debate, content to be the ‘World’s Greatest Processor of Nominations.’

That can’t be what the Founders had in mind.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com