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’s Playbook

 Schumer first defined the narrative in a morning speech on the Senate floor.

We continue to read reports containing additional information about the nature of President Trump’s phone calls with Ukrainian President Zelensky and his administration’s conduct in the weeks and months before and after those communications. Ignoring for a moment the political reporting, we know that someone inside the intelligence community found the President’s conduct alarming enough to warrant an official whistleblower complaint. The complaint was so alarming that the inspector general of the intelligence community, appointed by President Trump, said that it was credible and urgent and a complaint that by law must be submitted to Congress. This is not one of those discretionary moments; the law says this must be transmitted to Congress. We still have not received the whistleblower complaint…

Schumer then informed his colleagues (and the American people who were watching) what he was going to do next.

I will request the unanimous consent of the Senate to pass a resolution calling for the whistleblower complaint to be provided to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, as prescribed by law. Let me repeat that. Later today, I will request the unanimous consent of the Senate to pass a resolution calling for the whistleblower complaint to be provided to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, as prescribed by law.

In summing up, Schumer placed his Republicans colleagues on the side of the status quo.

I made several requests of the majority leader yesterday in an effort to collect the facts, to which I have received no response. Today, I will seek approval for a simple resolution calling for the whistleblower complaint to be transmitted to the relevant committees in Congress. I hope the majority leader and Senate Republicans will not block it. I hope they will rise to the occasion and realize that this is their constitutional duty and realize that this involves the security of the United States.

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.

In a short time, I will ask my colleagues’ consent to pass a simple resolution. It essentially says ‘that the whistleblower complaint received on August 12, 2019, by the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community shall be transmitted immediately to the Select Committee on Intelligence of the Senate and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives.’

Schumer then defined opposition to the resolution as anti-democratic. 

I cannot imagine any legitimate or straight-faced reason for an objection to this unanimous consent request. The only reason for any Senator to object would be to shield the President’s conduct from scrutiny by the public and the representatives they elect to represent them; that is, to protect the President from accountability.

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.

The request, despite its noncontroversial nature, speaks to the issues that go back to the founding days of our Republic: checks and balances, the separation of powers, and the constitutional duty of the President and the executive branch to faithfully execute the laws of the United States. The Senate, today—right now—should speak with one unified voice to reaffirm those time-honored principles and defend the grand traditions of our democracy.

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. 

All of us share the concern for protecting whistleblowers who use appropriate, established channels to raise legitimate concerns. The Senate’s obligation is to treat such allegations in a responsible and deliberate manner, to avoid racing to judgment based on media leaks, and to not fuel media speculation with reckless accusations. There is much we do not know about the complaint lodged with the intelligence community’s inspector general, including whether the complaint involves intelligence activities at all.

Before the Democratic leader elected to go to the media yesterday, the chairman and vice-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had already been working together in a bipartisan manner—free from politicization—to get more information from both the Acting Director of National Intelligence and the intelligence community’s inspector general. Given the progress the committee was making, I don’t believe this made-for-TV moment was actually necessary. I would have preferred the committee be allowed to do its work in a quiet and methodical manner. It doesn’t serve the committee or its goals to litigate its business here on the floor or for the television cameras. Nevertheless, I agree that the DNI should make additional information available to the committee so it can evaluate the complaint consistent with the statute and other procedures that exist to safeguard classified and sensitive information.

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.

I also want to express my appreciation for President Trump’s announcement that the White House will release tomorrow the ‘complete, fully-declassified, and unredacted transcript of [his] phone conversation with President Zelensky.’ I hope this will help to refocus the conversation away from reckless speculation and back toward the facts.

So, stipulating that our objective here is simply to conduct the kind of bipartisan oversight of intelligence matters that the committee has successfully conducted in the past, I have no objection to the Senator’s request.

Schumer had the last word. He used it to reiterate the narrative that forced McConnell to back down.

It is welcomed that we can join together to do our job of oversight. I want to thank the majority leader for not blocking this request, because I think every one of us in this Chamber realizes the
importance of oversight and the need to prevent an overreaching executive from going that far. Getting the transcript is a good step, but it is the complaint we need. That is the gravamen of this resolution. It is the whistleblower’s complaint, not the transcript, that we need and are asking for in this resolution.

Lessons Learned

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.