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What Are Senators For?
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What Are Senators For?

At NatCon4, three men of the Senate lament their lack of agency.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida wait for Donald Trump to give remarks to the press at the National Republican Senatorial Committee building in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

What do GOP Sens. Rick Scott, Mike Lee, and Ron Johnson have in common? All three of them wish that they knew somebody in Washington with some real power.

There is nothing quite as magnificent, quite as magisterial, as watching former Sen. Jim DeMint interview a panel of senators and listening to those august worthies complain that somebody in Washington—you know: somebody!—should … do something!

Not them, of course. It was the weirdest thing: They were speaking Tuesday before an audience of would-be rightist insurgents at this year’s gathering of so-called national conservatives known as NatCon4, and they got an honest-to-goodness standing ovation for spending the better part of an hour declaring that they don’t do jack all day and can’t do jack and nobody should expect them to. “They tell us when to work, what we’re voting for, everything,” Scott said. It is as though he has never heard of the word “no.” The senator should think about expanding his vocabulary. 

The problem, of course, is mean old Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who is, in the words of Scott, a “dictator.” But he’s a funny kind of dictator—the elected kind, for one thing, which isn’t unheard of, but McConnell is the outgoing head of the minority caucus in one house of one branch of our government—not exactly Julius Caesar, or even Charles de Gaulle. In 2023, Republicans were given a choice between Mitch McConnell and Rick Scott as their leader and, although the result was closer than McConnell’s previously unanimous victories, it was … not close! (Even if it wasn’t a Saddam Hussein-style “landslide.”) And so Republicans remain in the iron grip of Cocaine Mitch, who ruthlessly enforces discipline by … threatening to rearrange the Republican org chart and maybe take away a little of that status and prestige that these supposed mavericks say they don’t care about. 

These senators want to do big things but they can’t go against McConnell, Scott explained, because he will take away their committee assignments. These guys are talking about fighting a second American Revolution, but Mike Lee is reduced to putty-like inaction because of the terrifying prospect that this nation might one day wake up and find that the esteemed gentleman from Utah is no longer the No. 3 minority member on the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks? That Rick Scott is no longer the ranking sub-dude on the Subcommittee on Personnel?

The vapidity and banality of the senators’ conversation would be nearly impossible to overstate. Johnson says that the Republican conference needs a “strategy.” You know how that goes: business-guy talk. “In business, we deal with problems. First, you have to admit that you have a problem. Second, you define the problem. Third, you find a solution.” So, that’s his big advice: Figure out what your problems are and then find solutions for them—which surely represents a level of intellectual originality not seen since Plato. And, of course, Republicans also need a strategy, he says, and a mission statement with that strategy written down. What would it say? “To fight and defeat the ideology and policies of progressive Democrats that are destroying this country.” Make sure to write that down.

So the big Republican idea this year is going to be: Beat Democrats. Insert your own galaxy-brain meme here. 

Lee says he wants to “democratize the U.S. Senate,” by which he means replacing the current leadership structure—which again, Republicans voted for—with a different one that would devolve more power and decision-making to individual senators. Scott for his part argues for a recommitment to the committee system, “a robust amendment process on the floor,” and a general reorientation toward—though he does not use the term—“regular order.” The tragedy here is that these are basically the right ideas: A lot of the legislative agenda is too centralized in leadership in the Senate and maybe even more so in the House (thank Nancy Pelosi for that). The old way of doing things, the committee system in which the name of the Appropriations Committee chairman was one with which to conjure, certainly had its deficiencies, but it worked better than what we have now.

But reclaiming that would require the minor miracle of senators abandoning their self-importance and rediscovering their self-respect as members of an important institution. (A national one!) Lee almost gets that, at times, describing the Senate as a “bulwark” against political abuses. But these senators are not really men of the Senate—right now, their big idea is doing yet one more thing to aggrandize the power of the president, in this case by keeping the next government funding agreement strictly short-term (they’re thinking of providing funding no further than through March) so that Donald Trump will have more influence on the budget process should he be elected in November. Spending and taxing are not the president’s business—those are congressional powers in that Constitution they’re always going on about—but these senators are ready to bend their institution over backward in order to create political opportunities for Trump, who, having already served a term as president, still doesn’t know what is in the federal budget or how it works. 

But Lee is undeterred. His plan? “Punt the spending decision forward through a [continuing resolution] that would take us to March, and then say that’s it, no more spending bills this year, we’re going home. Then, no more mischief can occur—that’s how we win! And that way we provide as much flexibility for President Trump when he comes on board as possible.”

Some men were born to be subordinates. But those men probably should not be leaders in the Senate.

Listening to all that happy horse pucky, DeMint declared these guys “three of the best minds in the conservative movement.” Well, then, God help the conservative movement.

But the audience stood and cheered lustily for that pabulum. De gustibus, etc.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.