The Export-Import Bank is in liquidation. A majority of Republican Senators want to keep it that way — the chairman of the Banking Committee included. Every serious and semi-serious GOP presidential candidate agrees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agrees.
So why did McConnell use a heavy parliamentary hand to give President Obama his demand — that a bill restarting the export-subsidy agency be inserted into an unrelated highway bill?
For conservative hill staffers and activists, McConnell's actions are just one more sell-out — one more time the majority leader has stuck it to conservatives and cut a deal with the enemy. McConnell's maneuvers triggered a fire-spitting speech last Friday from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in which he blamed the leader for running a Senate that only listens to "the Washington cartel — the lobbyists on K Street, the big money and big corporations."
Cruz's speech triggered a barrage of spite towards McConnell, and revived complaints that McConnell's main goal is to stick it to conservatives. While this demonology of McConnell satisfies and motivates the Tea Party, it misses a simpler — and thus likely better — way to understand McConnell.
The key word, if you're trying to understand McConnell's conduct as majority leader is "governing."
McConnell wants to prove that the Republican Party can govern. He believes, and wants to demonstrate, that Congressional dysfunction hasn't been the fault of Congress as a whole, but the fault of Democrats — specifically, his predecessor as majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Next fall, when Hillary Clinton and her proxies in the media point to government shutdowns to argue that Republicans aren't mature enough be left in charge, McConnell wants to point to two legislative years full of accomplishments. Already, he boasts of passing a budget (something Harry Reid basically never did), an update of No Child Left Behind, Trade Promotion Authority and a permanent "doc fix."
This week, McConnell is trying to add a long-term highway bill to that list of accomplishments. The White House, Senate Democrats, and some Boeing-state Republicans have told McConnell they'll sink the highway bill if Ex-Im isn't tacked on. McConnell wants a highway bill to pass more than he wants Ex-Im to stay dead, so he cleared a path for Ex-Im — even though it required Reid-like tactics of blocking other amendments.
Governing, in McConnell's mind, also includes consensus building and fair play. So while filling the amendment tree on highways to protect Ex-Im isn't quite fair play, the alternative would be blocking a vote on Ex-Im, although nearly two thirds of Senators want to revive the subsidy agency.
Finally, parties that can govern actually meet deadlines instead of repeatedly passing short-term patches. That's why he prioritized a permanent doc fix, and that's why he has been loath to pass the House's short-term highway bill.
From a simply political perspective, there are reasons to question McConnell's strategy. The electorate complains about dysfunctional Congress, but are they really going to reward a Congress that passes small-fry bills that most regular people will never hear about?
Then there's the policy strategy: Can you possibly set the stage for an agenda of shrinking government by passing a bunch of bills that mostly increase government — restarting an expired subsidy agency, increasing Medicare spending and increasing federal spending and revenue through a highway bill?
Compromise is part of governing, McConnell will say when assailed by Tea Party critics, and conservatives need to be ready to give some in order to get some. But not everyone seems to be giving and getting equally in McConnell's Senate.
Trade, Ex-Im, highway spending — these all happen to be the priorities of U.S. Chamber of Commerce and K Street lobbyists. When The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by two former Senate majority leaders praising McConnell for getting the Senate "functioning properly" it was noteworthy that the authors, Trent Lott and Bob Dole, are both K Street lobbyists.
One shouldn't tag McConnell as an agent of K Street. It's just that if a Republican sets out to be compromise-minded, to pass bills with bipartisan appeal, and to avoid ruffling feathers when possible, he's apt to end up advancing the sort of big-business-big-government policies that corporate lobbyists want.
Cruz is right when he says Washington is a cartel enriching the insiders, but he goes overboard when he attacks McConnell's motives as cronyist. It's not a matter of a corrupt leader. It's a matter of a corrupt system. K Street simply provides the path of least resistance for a leader trying to "get things done."
And because McConnell is an old-breed Republican, he may not see the alternative that sits before him: dismantling the structure of special favors that Reid, Obama and Republicans of old have built for the insiders.
Put another way: You can build bipartisanship with Dan Coats and Mark Warner, or you can build bipartisanship with Ron Wyden and Pat Toomey. There's bipartisan support for handouts, but there's also bipartisan support for ending handouts.
If McConnell wants to run the Senate so as to earn the voting public's trust, he needs to show that he doesn't let K Street call the shots.
Step one would be standing with his party's majority and its presidential field, and keeping the Export-Import Bank good and dead.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.