Thursday, October 30, 2014

Whither the Senate?

And everybody gets a share
The most accurate poll aggregators are broadly consistent in their expectation that the Republicans will take a slim majority in the Senate next week. I'm not a political scientist, and the underlying reasons why such an unpopular party should win control of the entire US Congress are not, to me, the basis for a particularly interesting discussion. Instead, I'm going to take a few minutes to think through the ramifications of such a loss.

One important thing to realize is that we very likely won't know who controls the Senate just because the election is over and the votes are counted. Both Georgia and Louisiana will likely result in run-off elections, and Louisiana's would not take place until January 6th.  But even then, we may no know the real results until the new Senate is sworn in, as those new Senators elected as Independent or non-party aligned candidates will only then announce which party they would caucus with.

Which means the Lame Duck session might be important. If you want to see people suddenly cast off the shackles of party rhetoric to suddenly speak their mind and act their conscience, the right moment is when they are on their way out the door. Whether any actual legislating gets done, you can expect some high drama and head-turning rhetoric.

One of the important products of the Senate majority is who becomes the Majority Leader. The Senate Majority Leader is a political leadership role with outsized importance, controlling not just the Senate agenda and rules but part of the larger day in and day out political and ideological conversation. Along with the President, the Vice President, The Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority leader can speak with sufficient volume to make his or her voice heard over the background noise. And should the Republicans take the Senate, the number one topic will be Senate Rules.

The current Senate under Harry Reid made some changes to the rules regarding a filibuster against Presidential administrative and judicial appointments. The conventional wisdom is that let the genie out of the bottle, and now every time the Senate majority changes hands, the rules will be changed to suit the party taking power. Despite claims that he would restore the original rules, it seems highly unlikely that a Majority Leader McConnell would actually return additional power unnecessarily to the Democrats. So the open question is whether he would eliminate the filibuster altogether, rendering the Democrats a helpless minority, or merely leave things the way they are right now. Certainly the more radical 'tea party' wing of the Republican Senate Caucus would want to maximize their power to force President Obama to veto bill after bill passed by both houses of Congress, while the more moderate - or perhaps cautious would be a better word - Republicans will recognize that they are likely to be back in the minority in as little as two years. 

The bloodiest fight will come if a Supreme Court vacancy opens up before the end of Obama's term. The Republicans will refuse to allow a vote on ANY nominee in hopes of just running out the clock, but that's the shortest route to a true constitutional crisis imaginable. If we end up having that fight, the outcome may well determine the future of American democratic governance.

Which brings us to the question that will provide the most entertainment over the next couple years. Will a Republican-controlled Senate be able to find common ground with the significantly more radical Republican-controlled House of Representatives? There will be many times when the House passes bills so radical and prima facie ludicrous that not even Republican Senators will vote for them. Remember, even if they win the majority of seats, it will be a very narrow majority. If no Democrats vote for a given bill, they won't be able to sustain more than a couple defections.

The real question about effective legislation in a divided government environment where Republicans control both houses of Congress is just exactly how onerous will a bill have to be before our famously 'moderate' and bi-partisan President vetoes it? He certainly won't sign Obamacare repeal, but how hard will he fight to protect social welfare programs and a common-sense regulatory regime? And if the Republicans put unpleasant right wing conditions on every bill, will Obama eventually just sign them in order to 'govern'?

Stay tuned. It's gonna be a bumpy ride....

1 comment:

  1. Down the terlet.

    Funny, my emails are full of Harry Reid telling me, "DO SOMETHING, IF!" Because if I don't, Obama will be impeached.

    Meanwhile, Democratic candidate for Senator in South Dakota has gotten the cold shoulder from Harry and the DSCC.

    They're mad because their right-wing choice, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, didn't get a clear path smoothed to the Democratic nomination.