“Controlling” the Senate
That word may not mean what you think it means.
As we head into election day 2014 we are poised to see the Senate likely change hands in terms of which party has the majority of seats in the US Senate. Since the House is almost certainly to remain in Republican hands (barring the truly unforeseen) then that means the Republicans will have the most seats in both chambers of Congress. The last time this was the case was the 109th Congress (2005-2007) when the Republicans held 233 House seats (and the Democrats 201 with 1 independent) and they held 55 Senate seats (with 44 and 1 rounding out the chamber).
Note that I did not say that the Republicans would control Congress. This is a different issue entirely. The party ostensibly controls the House at the moment and will continue to do so, but Speaker Boehner’s true control of that chamber is hampered by factions within his party (although it is still more than fair to say that the Republicans control the House).
By “control” I mean the ability of the majority party to set the legislative agenda in the chamber and to be able to see that agenda successfully through the the chamber. By this definition, control of the US Senate is nearly impossible to achieve because of the rules of the chamber which privilege the minority in most of the business of the chamber. A unified bloc of 41 Senators can stop almost any legislation from passing the Senate (there are some budget bills that operate on a basic majority rule principle and there are some modification of the rules in terms of dealing with appointments). In simple terms, a party that lacks 60 seats lacks full control of the chamber.
This situation is especially true in the current era of more ideologically rigid parties, as it is most likely that the minority will stick together (making cross-party coalitions around specific legislative items harder to achieve).
As such, I do not see a shift in the Senate leading to a substantial change in the practical status quo. Yes, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will both get a shift in media treatment and their daily jobs will change. However, in a weird way being the Majority Leader is not all that it is cracked up to be, since the media will proclaim that the majority party “controls” the Senate but the reality will be that getting things accomplished will not be easy in the least. Meanwhile, Senator Reid will find that being in the minority is a lot more fun than being in the majority.
It is worth noting that since the 1970s capturing 60 votes (which was common in the 1960s)* in the Senate is much like capturing unicorns. The Democrats did have 61 seats back in the 94th (1975-1977) and 95th (1977-1979) Congresses. But, of course, that was a) in the wake of Watergate, and b) when the South was almost solidly Democratic.
We have only seen one other case of a 60-vote majority since then (well, actually two): during the 111th (2009-2011) Congress. The nature of these two periods of 60-vote control underscore how difficult such “control” of the Senate is to achieve. Specifically we have to start that tale with noting that the outcome of the election produced the following outcome: 56 Democrats, 41 Republicans, two independents (who would causes with the Democrats), and one race that would not be settled until July (the Minnesota contest). So, the 111th Senate started with a functional 58-41 breakdown in favor of the Democrats, which was not full control of the chamber. However, even that was misleading because several of those Democratic seats (such as the ones occupied by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton) had to be temporarily vacated as they moved to the executive Branch.
Then the following happened:
1. On April 30, 2009 Arlen Specter changed his party affiliation to Democrat from Republican (taking the chamber to 59-40).
2. On July 7, 2009 Al Franken finally won the contested election in Minnesota (taking the chamber to 60-40).
3. On August 25, 2009, Senator Edward Kennedy died (taking the chamber to 58-40).
4. An appointee fills the seat a month later (back to 60-40).
5. In February of 2010, Scott Brown (a Republican) wins the Kennedy seat in a special election, taking the chamber to 59-41.
As such, the Democrats had a 60-seats majority (and true control of the Senate) from July 7, 2009-August 25, 2009 and from September 25, 2009-February 4, 2010.
That tale is just to show the number of weird twists and turns it takes to get control of the chamber. Keep in mind, too, that 2008 was an election in which the Republican Party was at a significant low in popularity, and b) the chance to elect the first African-American president enhanced Democratic turnout. (That is, it was an especially auspicious set of election circumstances for Democrats).
In short: true control of the Senate is hard to come by.
As such, what is likely to happen once the Senate goes to the GOP? Basically I expect the following scenario: the rules of the Senate will empower the Democrats to block any legislation that they do not like. Further, the parties will turn their attention to the 2016 presidential contest because our system makes the presidency the prize of prizes. This latter point means trying to set up a narrative to blame the other party for whatever can be thought of. This means that while while a lot of rhetoric will emerge from the chamber, I don’t expect a lot of legislation. One significant outcome is that the already slow process of confirming executive nominees to the bench will further slow down (if not nearly stop). Also: the hearing to replace AG Holder will be even more dramatic than otherwise would have been the case (but it was going to dramatic no matter what).
What isn’t going to happen: a lot of legislative output to create clear confrontation on policy between the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House.
Now, in moving from an empirical description of how things work to a normative preference, I will say this: I would love to see the Congress in a position to actually pass legislative that the Republicans favor and for the President to be in a position to either veto that legislation or negotiate outcomes with the Republicans. Such a situation would either a) provide a stark and serious debate between the two sides in terms of actually policy preferences for voters to deal with going into 2016, or b) result in actual governance. However, the rules of the Senate will preclude this outcome and, to be honest, the parties don’t seem all that keen on pursing that type of activity in any event because rhetoric is easier to produce than legislation and they would rather play the campaign game for 2016 than actually try and govern in 2015.
*Without getting into details in an already long-ish post, the rules used to be different—the threshold to stop of filibuster was higher than 60 at the time).