McConnell’s medieval moves to continue the shutdown
On Dec. 18, 2018, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the White House is now “flexible” on border wall funding and he’s gotten President Donald Trump to back off his shutdown threat | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Among the other political chess maneuvers of this recent shutdown, one stands out as alarming. The leader of the U.S. Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell has resolutely refused to consider any bill that Trump does not approve of. McConnell stated this before the new Congress was sworn into session, and he stated it again when newly elected House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, pushed through a bill to fund border security and re-open the government. He has further resisted any attempt by the Democrats in the Senate, who make up almost half of the seats.

This maneuver has some worrisome overtones that may be lost in the blustering of Trump’s sometimes neurotic behavior and the escalating stress being put on nearly 1 million federal workers who are either furloughed and have potentially lost half of their month’s pay or are deemed “essential,” and are working not knowing when their pay will come. There are also countless others who depend on one government service or another, and they have been trapped in Trump’s circuses and being denied these services.

McConnell’s blocking would seem to change the constitutional dynamic of our branches of government and open the doors to far worse things when this shutdown has been resolved.

A British Example

Ahead of the U.S. Gulf War against Iraq in the late 1990’s, its ally, the UK debated whether to join in. The British Parliamentary system is very different than the U.S. When the British monarch gives the ceremonial “Speech from the Throne” at the State Opening of each session of Parliament, it’s not all flashy ritual and outworn medieval ermine garb but an act that goes to the heart of Britain’s unwritten constitution. This constitution, which is made up of laws and customs, says the monarch dictates what the Parliament will discuss in the coming session. The Speech from the Throne literally lists the measures the legislators of both Houses may discuss and submit to the monarch for approval. True enough, as a safeguard, at the end of each speech the monarch indicates there may be “other measures put to them.”

In 1999, anti-war Labour Party politician, Tam Dalyell, sponsored a private bill, the Military Action in Iraq [Parliamentary Approval] Bill. This would have given the Parliament a statutory voice in whether Britain would commit its troops. On the grounds that this would infringe on the royal prerogative, which includes the monarch’s sole right to declare war or make peace, Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened, told the queen to have the bill pulled from consideration, and it could no longer be debated in Parliament. Dalyell’s bill disappeared and remains a rarely cited footnote to the extent of powers exercised by the monarch (and a prime minister). The late socialist politician, Tony Benn, spent his political life to have this “royal prerogative” overturned in favor of more democratic norms.

McConnell the Courtier

I bring this obscure scenario up because what McConnell is doing by blocking any measure that the president does not previously approve is a major shift in the U.S. form of constitutional government with its separation of independent powers. There are shifting sentiments within the Senate over the resolution of this shutdown, among other critical issues. How many Dalyell’s might be counted among the Republicans who would side with the other side of the Senate to pass any bill? With McConnell’s posture, which is not that of an independent branch, we may never know. It cannot be a precedent worth stomaching that the chief executive of the U.S. acts as a monarch and tells the legislature which bills it may discuss, nor that the legislature only passes laws prescribed by the chief executive.

The British convention is why there are practically no vetoes from the monarch, the last case being by Queen Anne and the last known threat of a veto by George V who did not want to extend independence to Ireland.

A Fight Against Fascism

Among everything else giving me anxiety right now with this shutdown and how my co-workers’ anxiety over our material livelihoods being threatened, a shift towards this kind of governance without checks and balances and the independence of the branches can only lead to worse things and is another threat to our collective political livelihoods. It seems to be the fertile ground, if not the aerated soil, for fascism.

Tony Benn, in fact, continued to point out in reference to his own country’s antique political conventions that the powers exercised by the prime minister, on behalf of the monarch, are that of a dictator that would not be tolerated in any democracy in the modern age, let alone in Europe. Expelled Labour Party politician, George Galloway, went further. After the U.S./UK invasion, Galloway pushed for Blair to be brought up on war crimes to the International Criminal Court.

This sort of political blocking by McConnell should not tolerated here either. So while we list the impeachable offenses of this current president, we might just as well consider what repercussions the leader of the Senate also deserves in the courts.


Lowell B. Denny, III
Lowell B. Denny, III

Lowell B. Denny III lives in Hawaii.