Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Working Sixty

Georgia finally held its Senate runoff election yesterday, and the incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss won. This means that the Democrats will control, depending on the outcome of the Minnesota recount, 58-59 Senate seats, below the 60-vote threshold for breaking filibusters. And yet, I'm strangely ok with that. 58-59 votes may actually be better for the Democrats than 60.

As it stands, the Democratic caucus may not have 60 members, but that doesn't mean there isn't a working filibuster-proof majority. The two moderate Republican senators from Main, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, are usually with us when it matters the most. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is almost as moderate as the Maine duo, and may become even more so in the next Congress as he faces re-election in a blue state. Other, more conservative Republicans vote with the Democrats on select issues, like George Voinovich of Ohio opposing the Bush tax cuts and the nomination of UN Ambassador John Bolton, or Pat Roberts of Kansas on Medicare. Then you have a rare few like John McCain himself, who may not vote with us on the actual issues but is loathe to filibuster them.

So basically, Democrats have 60 votes without having 60 seats, and that may be a good thing. If the Democrats controlled 60 Senate seats, they would also face the expectations and pressures that come along with 60 seats, yet the caucus would rarely vote with one voice. Conservative red-state Democrats like Ben Nelson of Nebraska would know their vote counted all the more, and could be harder to control or keep in line, demanding rewards and extracting promises every time they faced an issue unpopular with their home state constituents. An example: the senator I interned for last spring, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, is very pro-gun. In the early 1990s, President Clinton called him to ask his support for the Brady Bill. As an NRA-endorsed, gun-loving senator from a very red and libertarian state, Baucus had a problem with that, but told Clinton that he would support the bill if Clinton would nominate a Montanan to the circuit court, something that had not happened since Baucus was elected in 1978. Clinton got his vote, but only barely.

Those arguments will come up less with cloture/filibuster votes then they will with actual passage votes, and they'll happen even less if the senator in question isn't a crucial part of a 60-member caucus. Senator Jim Martin (D-GA) may have had a nice ring to it, and there certainly would have been justice in defeating the guy who slimed war hero Max Cleland, but as far as Senate procedure goes, we didn't really need it. Things will be just fine the way they are.

I will, however, add a cautionary note about checks and balances. The idea of divided government is certainly an attractive one – six of the last eight years have shown us that one party control can lead to complacency and corruption. A party just isn't eager to investigate its own members. However, in his book Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations (Yale University Press, 1991), Yale Professor of Political Science David Mayhew found that the number of major Congressional investigations does not actually go up during times of divided government. I have several problems with his sample frame, but these findings are intriguing. If Dr. Mayhew is correct, then divided government leads only to gridlock, not balance.

Yet for all this, President-elect Obama will still have to reach out to the center and to the right, for at least three reasons. One, he has to get re-elected; two, it seems to be his personal preference and governing style; and three, he still has to contend with the House Blue Dogs. And for those of you still disappointed in the new one-party rule, I would remind you that it isn’t completely one-party: there is a 7-2 Republican majority on the Supreme Court, or at the very least, a 5-4 conservative majority.


Jordan said...

Yes, but if you're like me. Legislating from the bench is as unconstitutional as prohibiting free speech.

Nathan Empsall said...

If conservative are to be believed, half of what the Dems want is unconstitutional anyways, so it's not a matter of legislating from the bench but of striking down "illegal" laws, like during the New Deal. Additionally, if corruption or power issues wind up being the issue again, well, that's precisely what the courts are for.

Nathan Empsall said...

Hmm, you were right, this is a better medium for such discussions than 2am text messaging. ;)

Jordan said...

Quite right! :P