The Outside-Inside Game
On Capitol Hill, Ukraine is the topic du jour. A whistleblower complaint that President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has jumpstarted impeachment efforts in the House of Representatives. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced this week that her Chamber was launching a formal inquiry into whether the president should be impeached. And the House and Senate both passed resolutions calling on the administration to release the whistleblower’s complaint.
The effort to do so in the Senate highlights how senators can leverage events happening outside of the Senate to achieve their goals inside the institution.
How to Change the Status Quo
The existence of the whistleblower complaint, along with the Trump-Ukraine controversy to which it is related, was a focusing event. Such events are important because they create the possibility for changing the status quo by focusing the public’s and, by extension, senators’ attention on a specific problem. It is hard to change the status quo without them. To be effective, lawmakers opposed to the status quo must therefore be constantly alert to what is happening in the world around them.
Yet it takes more than just a focusing event to change the status quo. In this particular case, the existence of the whistleblower complaint played an important role. But it was not decisive. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., began the week by rejecting Democratic attempts to open an investigation into the matter and subpoena the complaint. McConnell did so because "the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has long worked on a bipartisan basis in secure settings out of the public spotlight, to conduct critically important oversight of classified and sensitive matters." McConnell criticized his counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for choosing “to politicize the committee's ongoing efforts with respect to a recent whistleblower allegation, the specific subject of which is still unknown."
However, despite McConnell’s initial refusal to act, the Senate passed by unanimous consent on the following day a non-binding resolution (S. Res. 325) expressing the sense of the Senate that the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community should immediately transmit a related whistleblower complaint to the House and Senate intelligence committees. The resolution passed with unanimous support because Schumer leveraged the attention created by the whistleblower complaint using the Senate’s rules and practices to achieve his goals inside the institution.
Schumer first defined the narrative in a morning speech on the Senate floor.
Schumer then informed his colleagues (and the American people who were watching) what he was going to do next.
In summing up, Schumer placed his Republicans colleagues on the side of the status quo.
Later that day, Schumer returned to the floor to propound a consent request related to the resolution. He gave his colleagues another warning of what was about to happen and spelled out clearly what was in the resolution. In doing so, Schumer proactively defended himself against allegations that he was trying to sneak something through the Senate when no one was paying attention. To the contrary, Schumer’s success depended on everyone paying attention.
Schumer then defined opposition to the resolution as anti-democratic.
Schumer closed by reframing his argument in terms that conservative Republicans would understand. Coupled with his characterization of opposition to the resolution as anti-democratic, Schumer’s final appeal, translated into the language of conservatism, made it harder for Republicans to object.
Immediately before the resolution passing, McConnell attempted to change the narrative. His comments underscore the combined pressure on Republicans generated by the whistleblower complaint and Schumer’s actions. McConnell tried to distinguish Republicans’ initial opposition to the Democrats’ efforts from their subsequent support of the resolution.
McConnell then signaled that Schumer’s efforts, along with the fast-changing environment, had pressured the president to provide new information related to the controversy.
Schumer had the last word. He used it to reiterate the narrative that forced McConnell to back down.
While Schumer wanted the whistleblower complaint, the call transcript would further focus the public’s and, by extension, lawmakers’ attention on the controversy. Consequently, the administration relented and transmitted the whistleblower complaint to Congress. That they did so can be attributed, in part, to the fact that senators leveraged events happening outside of the Senate by using the institution’s rules and practices to achieve their goals.