Seniority isn’t what it used to be in many workplaces — even in one of the most august, the United States Senate.
That's why we're not surprised that John N. Kennedy, just about the least senior among the senators, is already causing trouble in the chamber he entered in January.
Kennedy was a longtime head of the Louisiana Treasury, an important office but one with a small staff and with relatively limited functions in state government. For Kennedy, who had started out in the reformist administration of Gov. Buddy Roemer, the office nevertheless gave him a platform to criticize state budgeting practices. His office was in charge of guarding the money, not budgeting, but that hardly phased him.
Now, he is almost dead last in seniority among 100 senators. Luther Strange, an Alabama Republican, is No. 100, having been appointed to fill the seat of Jeff Sessions, named attorney general in the new administration of President Donald Trump. Kennedy is just ahead of Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat. Although they entered the Senate at the same time, and neither has any previous federal service or was a governor, he ranks slightly above Masto because he's from the more populous state. That arcane pecking order follows the Senate’s honored traditions.
But as more senior senators have learned quickly, the new fellow from Louisiana is no respecter of traditions, having quickly joined with more senior colleagues to cut back the Senate’s prized August vacation.
“I know I'm new here and there are a lot of traditions, and people need to do things back home, but we can't pass things back home,” Kennedy, a Republican from Madisonville, said during a news conference Tuesday. “I don't know any working class Americans who get to take a whole month off.”
Remarkably, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, has agreed, and the Senate will work until Aug. 11.
Officially, the leader of the GOP majority blamed Democrats for slow-walking approval of Trump’s nominees for courts and federal offices. This takes some nerve, given McConnell’s blocking for an entire year President Barack Obama’s last nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland. The fact is that neither party has an unsullied reputation in the confirmation process.
Less officially, the reality is that the tangle over the GOP priority of a new health bill has created a backlog in a chamber — as well as the U.S. House across the hall — that is barely functioning anymore as a legislative body.
When it comes to traditions, we’re not surprised that Kennedy is willing to disrupt the stately processes in his new office. But we wish that the Senate as a whole would start paying attention to some traditions that the entire body has abandoned, starting with quick and judicious consideration of Trump’s nominees. Garland deserved that consideration last year, from Republicans.
Another tradition that's gone out the window is the timely approval of federal budgets.
Kennedy is well aware of the Louisiana families still struggling with catastrophic flooding from last year, but the Congress and the administration have been mired in other matters, and the budget for federal agencies, including those administering flood relief, is approved only in short-term continuing resolutions and deals among the senators.
Some practices become traditions because they work. The Senate's long history of compromise, the means by which it approved vital services, is an institutional tradition worth reviving.