McConnell’s impeachment rules advantage McConnell
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the Senate impeachment rules last night. He previously stated the impeachment rules for Trump will follow the Clinton rules. And in a strict sense, they do, as many elements remain the same. Majorities will decide questions on the rules, witnesses, and documents. As under the Senate’s standing impeachment rules, the majority decides the contours of the trial.
But make no mistake, these rules are very different from those governing Clinton’s impeachment trial. They restrict debate, deliberation, and the limit opportunities to make motions for witnesses. These rules give McConnell a tactical advantage similar to sign-stealing in baseball. By carefully structuring House managers’ and defense team’s presentations, senators’ questioning, and a motion to subpoena witnesses and documents, McConnell can anticipate the pivotal moments in the trial. And that puts him in the best position to hit the pitch.
These impeachment rules offer the majority leader two major advantages. First, they reduce uncertainty. Just as a batter is in a better position to succeed if he knows which pitch is coming, McConnell’s ability to influence the trial process is contingent on his ability to anticipate it. Unstructured debate – like under the Clinton rules or Senate impeachment rules – is a contemporary congressional leaders’ worst nightmare. A lack of procedural control could expose vulnerable majority members to difficult votes, create rifts in the majority coalition, and potentially risk control over the contours trial itself. It is therefore no wonder McConnell shied away from the Clinton rules. They pose a serious risk for a leader trying to shepherd his conference toward specific outcomes. A structured debate reduces uncertainty, which allows him to tailor his strategies.
Second, McConnell’s rules ensure he remains an informational focal point. Congressional leaders’ influence proceedings by controlling and influencing information. By carefully crafting debate parameters, leaders anticipate pivotal moments and strategize accordingly. For example, if the process dictates a witness vote will occur on Tuesday, McConnell is in a privileged strategic position. He can expose potential defections ahead of the vote and negotiate compromises among his members out of the public eye. In an unstructured setting, this leverage is essentially impossible. Any member could force a public vote, giving McConnell little time to react, and exposing potential rifts through a series of motions in the public record. But because McConnell knows with some certainty the timing of the vote, he will have days to gather and distribute information to his colleagues, and serve as the conduit among them as he negotiates the best possible outcome. All of this said, McConnell does not control the Senate. These rules do not guarantee victory. But they do put him in the best possible position to reduce uncertainty and negotiate from a position of strength. In other words, he gets a big advantage in knowing when the curveball is going to come.