The Senate Oath
Mitch McConnell's leadership quandary
Ann Skeet is the leadership ethics director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, I feel compelled to ask “Where have you gone, Mitch McConnell?” Or for that matter, where are signs of leadership from most members of Congress?
Our country has been served well by non-partisanship in times of uncertainty and crisis, such as immediately following 9-11. We have seen political leaders with strong party interests set those aside, as Barry Goldwater did when he commented, "The Watergate. The Watergate. It's beginning to be like Teapot Dome. I mean, there's a smell to it. Let's get rid of the smell." Goldwater directly called the question of whether the American people could trust President Nixon. He was not the Senate majority or minority leader during his time in Congress, but he was considered leader of his party and it was the same party of the sitting President.
The Senate majority leader fulfills two roles. He directs the legislative agenda of his party. This should be a relatively straightforward task when the House, the Senate, and the Executive Office are all held by the same party. Yet, McConnell has gotten no traction on a road salted with distractions and conflicts of interests.
And what should the floor leader of a political party be doing during these early days of an unsettled administration? This kind of conundrum is not unique to leaders—one person holding two roles with goals that are in conflict with one another—but when leaders are struggling with them they tend to get more attention.
The opportunity to take advantage of a majority is a hard thing to set aside, yet in Senator McConnell’s case, an oath he takes to his office gives clear direction about his obligations. In order to “play his position” by serving the interests that should hold highest priority, he need look no further than the words he says when being sworn in to office. In general, if holding a position involves an oath, it’s a strong cue; a reasonable framework for ethical decision-making.
The Senate’s Oath of Office
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Senator McConnell and his colleagues have a clear set of duties and hierarchy of obligations. It would be understandable if McConnell decide these duties were less important to him personally than the party leadership duties. If that’s true, then he could resign as a senator and contribute his efforts to moving his party’s agenda forward in other ways.
Fortunately, others with strong ties to the same party, like Deputy Assistant General Rod Rosenstein, can work through the competing obligations of being a political appointee and a Justice Department official. Wisely and appropriately he has brought an independent counsel into the picture, a Republican also, who can hopefully model for the country again what it is we pledge allegiance to as citizens of the United States. McConnell should make his choice too.