Steve Daines, the freshman U.S. senator from Montana who sits on the back-benchers’ back bench, got a rare taste of notoriety last week. He posted a video of his 15 seconds of fame on his Facebook page, so he must have been proud of it, but the episode showed Daines’ political weakness, not his strength.
Daines was presiding over the Senate when, in concert with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he blocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren from finishing a speech against Sen. Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general. He and McConnell convicted Warren of violating Rule 19, which says that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Their decision to block Warren’s speech was upheld by a party-line vote of the Senate. A University of Miami political scientist could find evidence of only two similar votes in Senate history, the last in 1952.
What’s worse, Warren’s remarks weren’t aimed at Sessions in his capacity as a senator. They instead invoked accusations of racism that were used to deny Sessions a federal judge’s job back in 1986.
To have failed to reconsider those accusations at his new confirmation hearing would have been dereliction of the Senate’s duty. No matter how nice Warren might have tried to be about it, there is just no way to avoid imputing unworthy conduct to someone who lost a federal job because of racism.
Daines’ action drew more than 2,000 comments on his Facebook page. If you have the patience to read them all, perhaps you can find one praising his decision. I did not and could not.
Small protests against him went on in Montana, including one at his Missoula office, where members of the activist group Missoula Rises read aloud the letter from Coretta Scott King that Warren was quoting when she was ordered to sit down. Protesters tried to confront him at the Bozeman airport, but he walked away.
This is titillating but inconsequential stuff. Warren’s speech wasn’t going to change any votes. And the Senate rule is not a bad thing in itself. The elaborate courtesies senators extend to one another, insincere though they may be, serve a useful purpose.
We don’t want brawls breaking out in the Capitol, such as happened in South Africa’s parliament just last week. The daily virtual brawls in social media are bad enough; the U.S. Senate should set a better example.
But here’s the thing. For Daines to take a public stand against one of the most liberal Democratic senators falls far short of the political courage he needs—and consistently fails—to display.
Since he has been elected to the Senate, according to C-SPAN records, Daines has cast 562 votes. Only one vote, on a budget resolution, went against the majority vote of his own party.
During the same period, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., voted 13 times against his own party. He ranked 10th among senators in opposing his own party’s majority.
According to Govtrack, Daines has never gotten a bill passed into law. C-SPAN gives him credit for enacting two Senate resolutions, one recognizing Digital Learning Day and another recognizing Department of Defense Laboratory Day.
In the 114th Congress, 78 senators introduced bills that drew more cosponsors than Daines’ bills did. Only eight senators introduced bills that attracted fewer cosponsors who were the chairman or ranking member of the committee the bill was referred to. Only nine had fewer bills that drew a cosponsor from each party.
Govtrack ranked Daines 61st out of 100 senators in terms of bipartisanship, which is measured by counting the percentage of bills he cosponsored that were introduced by a member of the other party. Of the 39 senators who ranked lower than him, 37 were Republicans. The exceptions? Jack Reed of Rhode Island and that old Rule 19 violator herself: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Tester ranked near the middle of the Senate, or better, on most of these measures.
During the election campaign, Daines mildly criticized Donald Trump for attacking the parents of a war hero and for bragging on video about sexual assault. But Daines has been a model of modest discretion since the election and has fallen seamlessly into line on every Trump executive order and cabinet nominee. Tester, on the other hand, was rated as the sixth most conservative Senate Democrat.
OK, so Daines does not work and play well with the other party. In a session when Republicans control the presidency and both houses of Congress, perhaps that doesn’t matter. He could shut his office down, mail in his proxy to the Republican National Committee and save taxpayers $174,000 a year just in his salary alone.
But everybody, including voters who didn’t have to hold their noses to cast a ballot in November, knows that at some point members of Congress are going to have to stand up to Trump. It might be over the Emoluments Clause, or secret deals with Russia, or corrupt business scams, or flagrant lies and misrepresentations, or an unqualified nominee, or public insults, or even just muddle-headed tweets. But the day will come.
Will Daines, so brave in cutting off Warren, stand up to the bully-in-chief? Sadly, it appears that Daines will follow the model of Sessions, who grew up in the South during an overtly racist era.
Sessions did what so many from his time and place did: quietly went along with the racists in power until he got called out when going for a promotion. Then he denied some of the allegations against him, downplayed others and exaggerated what feeble claim he has to being a civil rights advocate.
None of that is entirely disqualifying, nor is any of it inspiring. Where we might have had a true champion as attorney general fighting for liberty and justice for all, we got a goes-along, gets-along cipher, predictably and unabashedly second-rate.
At this point in the 21st century, perhaps that is what America deserves. And perhaps Daines is what Montana deserves.