“Controlling” the Senate

That word may not mean what you think it means.

senate_thumb.jpgAs 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).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    Let’s start a pool…how long, after taking control of the Senate, does it take Republicans to do away with the filibuster?

  2. @C. Clavin:

    A) I would be most pleased.

    and

    B) It ain’t gonna happen, as they know that they may be back in the minority in two short years.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    …the parties will turn their attention to the 2016 presidential contest because our system makes the presidency the prize of prizes.

    This is a point that puzzles me. I never know how much weight to give to the agenda of a party in an era of low party control. To take the most obvious example, the Republican Party badly needs to pass an immigration reform bill that will be attractive to Hispanics. But each individual Republican needs to leave no room to his right on immigration.

  4. Tyrell says:

    Politicians are controlled by special interest groups and other groups.

  5. @gVOR08:

    To take the most obvious example, the Republican Party badly needs to pass an immigration reform bill that will be attractive to Hispanics

    I don’t think that the party itself thinks this (although I think you are correct).

    The electoral pressure in the short term is overcoming the long-term calculus (which is typical politician behavior).

  6. Barry says:

    @C. Clavin: “Let’s start a pool…how long, after taking control of the Senate, does it take Republicans to do away with the filibuster?”

    Good question. My guess is that they’ll do what they did before, which is to threaten to remove the filibuster if the Dem Senators don’t submit.

    However, times have changed, and they might find that those guys don’t submit.

  7. LaMont says:

    In a really funny way, I look forward to the Republicans taking over the senate. The GOP will have to put up or shut up. They will have to decide whether in-fighting and blame it on Obama tactics will be the business as usual or they will pass significant legislation with Obama’s help. Either way it turn out, the President comes out better and the Democrats in general takes less heat as they control nothing. I just do not believe the GOP are disciplined enough to continue to lay the broken government mantra over the President’s head while they somehow come out on top. The next wave election just might be the 2016 election in favor of the Democrats.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    Yes, this is very much a case of the dog who continually chases the car and then finally catches it. Now what? The Republicans are going to have to stop whining and actually do something.

  9. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yesterday, McConnell was on TV talking about the need for Reasonable Bipartisan Compromise and urging Democrats to join with him to pass legislation that we can agree on, even if ” we don’t get all we want.”. Time for all dictionaries to update their entries to include a photograph of him beside the entry Chutzpah.

    I’m sure Harry Reid is busy assembling a list of all the times McConnell blocked worthwhile legislation in order to get his fellow Democrats to join him in blocking any and all legislation presented by Republicans. He will say ( and he will be absolutely right) that the media in effect rewarded the Republicans for six years of obstruction, and that the Democrats will be fools to allow the Republicans any legislative success whatsoever, even if it benefits the country in the short term.
    So yep, two years of gridlock and finger pointing. The only way I see any legislation passing ( short of something like alien invasion) is if Reid makes a deal that they will allow a vote on legislation in return for the Republicans letting the President’s agency and judicial appointments through. Otherwise, nothing for two years.

  10. @grumpy realist: I am not so sure. They will likely blame their inability to act on the fact that Democrats control the WH and therefore argue this is why the GOP should be given a shot at the presidency.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I wonder what the reaction would be if Harry Reid said, “My #1 job is to make Mitch McConnell’s tenure as Majority leader an absolute failure.”

  12. Kylopod says:

    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.

    Capturing 60 votes wasn’t necessary for most legislation back then, since the filibuster was still used only on occasion. While the use of the filibuster steadily increased from the 1970s onward, it spiked to record highs after Republicans lost the Senate in 2006, and especially after Obama became president. The concept of the 60-vote Senate for routine legislation and appointments is entirely a new development, and it explains why Dems did away with the filibuster for appointments last year. Even Dems who used to favor having this legislative tool around recognized that it had lost any real value it may once have had.

  13. @Kylopod:

    Capturing 60 votes wasn’t necessary for most legislation back then, since the filibuster was still used only on occasion.

    True, and for that matter, the threshold used to be higher. My point wasn’t to suggest that the 1970s were just like now, but rather to note how rare a 60-vote majority is.

    The concept of the 60-vote Senate for routine legislation and appointments is entirely a new development

    Not entirely new, but it has been on the rise in the last decade or so (and, as you correctly note, has accelerated of late).

    The realignment of the parties since 1994 is the major culprit.

  14. LaMont says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I understand that strategy but wouldn’t the GOP have to first put something on the table that the majority of the American people are in favor of to use that tactic? If their agenda is unpopular thats one card they can not use. Or, they will have to come together and push more political palatable ideology. Chances are, if they have enough Democratic support behind any of it, the President will also support it. The Keyston Pipeline is probably the one issue the President might veto. However, once that poltical capital is spent, It will surely not be enough to justify the strategy in the two years before the 2016 elections.

  15. stonetools says:

    @grumpy realist:

    The Republicans are going to have to stop whining and actually do something.

    I bet you won’t like what they’ll try to do. Got a uterus? Well, I’m pretty sure they want dibs on that.

  16. stonetools says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I hope Harry Reid doesn’t say it (because IOKIYAR to get away with saying that).
    But I’m betting that’s his plan.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @stonetools:

    Yesterday, McConnell was on TV talking about the need for Reasonable Bipartisan Compromise and urging Democrats to join with him to pass legislation that we can agree on, even if ” we don’t get all we want.”.

    I hope Mitch gets all the bipartisan cooperation that his Republican leadership provided to Democrats over the past 4 to 6 years. The last time I saw Republican Bipartisan Compromise it was on “America’s Most Wanted,” or maybe it was on “COPS” jumping a chain-link fence in some sunbelt city neighborhood.

  18. LaMont says:

    @al-Ameda:

    I think this is the essence of Steven’s article. I just don’t believe that the Dems will act in the same way as the Republicans did. However, that will actually require the Reupublicans to compromise on some hard right issues that kept themselves divided. I don’t see it happening. They sold their soul to the tea party in 2010 and the tea party will complete the work of destroying them by 2016…

  19. stonetools says:

    @LaMont:

    I think this is the essence of Steven’s article. I just don’t believe that the Dems will act in the same way as the Republicans did.

    I think Harry Reid is a vengeful man. I think he knows exactly how much McConnell f**ked over the President, the country and the Democrats with his obstructionism and he means to pay back in kind. That might not be statesman-like but I get the feeling that Reid ain’t the let bygones be bygones type.
    Now this has zero to do with political science but sometimes personality decides tthese things. We will see.

  20. LaMont says:

    @stonetools:

    Yeah, It will be interesting to see what happens. If I were Reid I would sit back and watch the Republicans detroy themselves.

  21. Anonne says:

    I think that Democrats are more prone to cave than Republicans in the face of adversity. But then, with “Democrats” like Joe Lieberman and Joe Manchin, it isn’t any wonder why. Even so, the Democratic Party is less prone to hurting the country for the sake of power than the Republican Party, and it’s a shame that that will only be rectified in presidential election years. Slowly, in about a generation or two after these die off, maybe we will be able to get back to discussing policies instead of personalities.

  22. JohnMcC says:

    I think that the most important aspect of the Repub victory (if it is in fact ‘written’) is in the minds of the Repub party: Obstruction was a winning strategy. I don’t see any reason for them to quit creating stupid controversies and begin to address national affairs. As we southerners say, they’re going to dance with the one who brung ’em.

  23. Gustopher says:

    The Democrats don’t have a Tea Party biting at their flank, driving them away from compromise. And, as the Republicans have lurched to the far, far right, some more conservative Democrats have been elected.

    McConnell will get his 60 votes far more often than Reid did.

  24. al-Ameda says:

    @Anonne:

    Even so, the Democratic Party is less prone to hurting the country for the sake of power than the Republican Party, and it’s a shame that that will only be rectified in presidential election years.

    Republicans play for keeps, Democrats do not.

    It’s hard to imagine the Democratic Party shutting down the federal government once, let alone twice, over anything. Republicans went to the mat 2 times in an effort to derail ACA, and they were willing to countenance a default to achieve their objective.

    Republicans are willing to practice medieval medicine – blood-letting and leeches – on the federal government in order to advance their objectives. This makes sense, Republicans are an anti-government party, they have no strong interest in governance (good or otherwise).

  25. PJ says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My point wasn’t to suggest that the 1970s were just like now, but rather to note how rare a 60-vote majority is.

    On the rarity of a 60-vote majority.
    The last time an election resulted in Republicans holding 60 percent of the Senate? 1920.

  26. Tony W says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    why the GOP should be given a shot at the presidency

    It might actually be time for that again. The economy has recovered sufficiently from the last few.