Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined from left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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Big news! The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.

It’s amazing when 100 senators can agree on something as important as that.

Not exactly. It turns out that the “unanimous” vote was slipped by the Senate by just two senators. One was presiding and the other proposed the decision. The senator who was supposed to be there to object had no excuse.

The decision was made by using “unanimous consent,” which allows the Senate to act unless just one senator objects. Silence or absence equals agreement.

This bizarre vote, reversible only if the House disagrees, illustrates a major flaw in this country’s system of democratic government. The U.S. can often be controlled by a single person and that’s not the president. It can be any single U.S. senator.

Under the Constitution, the Senate sets its own rules. It has set up a system that defies the very democracy that created it. The  rules are so complicated that few senators understand all of them. If they know enough to play by the rules, they can control single handedly.

Much attention is justifiably focused on Rule 22, which allows the filibuster. A single senator has the power to prevent a vote by holding the floor. The Senate has institutionalized that personal power to the point that merely accepting the possibility of a real filibuster has made doing it unnecessary.  

The power of any single senator goes far beyond the ability to stage a filibuster. Today, even a Wyoming senator, representing  less than one-fifth of one percent of the American population, can control the federal government.

One senator used his personal power to seriously undermine the ability of President Joe Biden to run foreign policy.

A senator may place a “hold” on a vote to study its details before a final decision. That “hold” delays a vote for an unspecified time. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz put a “hold” on the nomination of most of Biden’s top diplomatic appointments for about a year. That had a direct effect on U.S. foreign policy.

He demanded that Biden take action to block the Russian natural gas pipeline to Western Europe. Even if his objective turned out to be correct, his attempt to run foreign policy by taking political hostages was not correct. But other senators let him get away with his phony “hold,” because they wanted to keep it in reserve for their own use.

Another way in which senators run the place for their own interests came up recently.  Previously, Congress used “earmarks” to allow each member some federal funds for what were truly local projects. That way, each incumbent could tell their voters they had brought back home some federal cash. In 2011, Congress banned earmarks, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

This year, earmarks came back. They are again available to reward a senator for voting the party line on a key issue. They were touted as a rare sign of bipartisan cooperation, a rebuttal of attacks on the usual divisiveness.

This kind of personal power should not be confused with the role of the maverick or independent-minded senator. Coalitions once formed across the aisle based on issues, but party loyalty now dominates. Bipartisanship consists of the rare times when senators like West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin or Maine Republican Susan Collins cast a swing vote.

Above all, the extraordinary power of a single senator is evident in the role of the two Senate party leaders. Their parties have given them absolute authority over what the Senate may consider and when. All senators may be equal, but some senators are more equal than others, as the saying goes.

For almost 30 years, the Republicans have followed congressional party discipline that is more characteristic of European parliaments than Congress. That gives Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader, the ability to keep his troops in line and forces the normally unruly Democrats to try to do the same. In today’s Senate, divided 50-50, that’s a recipe for deadlock.

The only advantage for the Democrats is that one other single person, Vice President Kamala Harris, can break a tie. Close Senate races this year place on a knife-edge the possibilities for Biden to accomplish much during the second half of his term. If he returns as majority leader, McConnell could turn out to have more political power than Biden.

The Senate has called itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But it’s hard to recall any time when one senator convinced another through floor debate. Speeches are usually political messages used by senators for their own or their party’s purposes. Full of self-appointed stars, the Senate has become more theater than legislature.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.