September 30th, 2017

The GOP in the Senate

Commenter “physicsguy” remarks:

I read yesterday that the GOP reps are getting very annoyed with their brethren in the Senate. And, I think they’re correct. Look at where it has all broken down…in the Senate. And in particular we can point directly to McCain, and the ladies from Maine and Alaska. Sad how 4 people can totally derail an entire country.

I’m not sure who the 4 people are. I only count 3: McCain, Collins, and Murkowski (Olympia Snowe used to be another, but she’s long gone from the Senate). But anyway, it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 or 4 (although in a tight race, that small difference can make all the difference in the world); the principle is the same.

The GOP reps aren’t the only ones getting annoyed. This annoyance has been going on for as long as I’ve been blogging, and probably longer. I share it.

However, I also see it somewhat differently, at the same time. I know, for example, that Maine is a purple-to-blue state. Every now and then there’s a big surprise from Mainers—that Paul LePage ever became governor there is a total shock to most Mainers I know, for example. I truly doubt anyone to the right of Collins could be elected senator there, but whether I’m correct or not about that theory (LePage’s governorship argues that I might be wrong), Susan Collins and Maine have been joined at the hip for twenty years. In 2014 she was re-elected with over 68% of the vote; in 2008 her total was over 61%. In other words, unless she wants to retire from the Senate, Collins isn’t going anywhere. She apparently suits the people of Maine quite well.

So although Collins—and McCain of Arizona, and Murkowski of Alaska, are indeed moderate Republicans, or RINOs, or mavericks, or back-stabbers, or whatever you want to call them, they represent an actual wing of the GOP and the desires of their constituents. But—and here is the actual point of this post—one of the main reasons these people wield so much power is that the GOP margin in the Senate is so small.

A fifty-two vote majority isn’t much in the Senate. It means that to prevail without Democratic votes (and usually the GOP must function without the help of any Democrats) there must be near-unanimity in the party. Even a couple of moderates (or any sort of outlier) are going to have a great deal of power because the GOP majority is so tiny. And senators love power, and most of them are going to milk that power for all it’s worth, trying to get concessions for their states and basking in the glow of their fame. After all, going along with the pack doesn’t get you many headlines, does it? And these people—especially Collins, with whom I’m most familiar—really are moderate politically, so it’s not as though they’re compromising many of their own principles to vote against the more conservative wing of the GOP.

If the GOP wants to avoid this problem, the only solution is to get a bigger majority in the Senate. That’s the reality as I see it.

Take a look at the history of party control of the Senate. I arbitrarily chose a starting date of 1951, the 82nd Congress, and studied the composition of the senates after that. The pattern is crystal clear. Democrats controlled the Senate far more often, sometimes widely and sometimes narrowly. They also controlled it widely far more often, and with far greater margins. For many years, for example, during the entire decade of the 60s and for much of the 70s, their margins were huge (often over 60 and even close to 70).

Not only has the GOP been the minority party in the Senate far more often than the Democrats have, but the GOP majorities (already few and far between) have been far smaller than those the Democrats have enjoyed. A big big majority for the Republicans—the biggest since 1951, as far as I can see—has been 55. And that august figure was achieved by the GOP only a few times.

The GOP in the Senate is frustrating for a number of reasons. The first is that their numbers have usually been small. The second is that even when they have a majority it’s been a small one, subject to pressure by “mavericks” and moderates. The third is that even when in power, the leaders don’t seem to be able to effectively pressure those mavericks and moderates right back (one suspects the Democrats would somehow be able to do it if the situation were reversed).

The fourth frustration isn’t really about the GOP in the Senate, it’s about the Senate itself. The Senate is a place of many rules—some of which seem designed to stifle the passage of legislation—and it is also a place of many swelled heads. The reasons for the latter aren’t always clear, but they have something to do with the smaller size of the Senate relative to the House, the fact that senators are elected from larger areas (the state) than members of the House, and that they stay for a much longer term. Therefore they have much less need to be responsive to the people. This was by design of the Framers, but they also said that senators should be elected by state legislatures rather than by popular vote. In 1914 that was changed to the present system, which seems to me to represent the worst of both worlds.

9 Responses to “The GOP in the Senate”

  1. Cornhead Says:

    These Democrat Senators will NEVER vote with the GOP on anything that is important and where their vote would matter.

    Ben Nelson of Nebraska held himself out as a moderate and independent but when it counted, he was with his party. Party is more important than state or country.

    If Mitch wants a legacy, get rid of the 60 vote rule. It is just a rule; not like Hamilton put it in the constitution.

  2. huxley Says:

    I’m not sure who the 4 people are.

    neo: Perhaps physicsguy is thinking of Rand Paul as the missing fourth.

  3. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Since the make up of the Senate is an exact reflection of the voters, clearly the March Through the Institutions has succeeded.

    The problem isn’t the Senate, the problem is the electorate that elected that Senate.

    “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” – Abraham Lincoln

    “We cannot expect Americans to jump from capitalism to Communism, but we can assist their elected leaders in giving Americans small doses of socialism until they suddenly awake to find they have Communism.” Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev, 1959

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Geoffrey Britain:

    I agree about the leftward march in general, but I don’t think it’s been reflected in the recent senates during the 20th Century. The biggest Democratic majorities—by far—occurred during FDR’s time and then again in the 1960s and 1970s. The GOP has gained power in the Senate after that, during some of the Reagan years, some of the Clinton years, some of the Bush II years, and now.

  5. Geoffrey Britain Says:


    Hopefully that represents a counter trend. Imagine a world in which common sense and classical liberalism ruled.

  6. Lizzy Says:

    I’d guess that this annoyance has to do with this group’s history, along with Lindsey Graham and Snowe (when she was still there), in regularly breaking with the GOP to assist the Democrats in the Senate in implementing their progressive policies. Bi-partisanship can be great, but it only seems to happen in one direction.

    Conservative voters gave the GOP the House, the Senate and the presidency and yet this crew continues to assist the Democrats. You’d think the GOP Senate would seize this moment and work together to implement conservative legislation. Instead, they are slow-walking legislation, publicly fighting among themselves, and battling Trump as if he were the opposition party.

    There are a lot of big egos on the Hill and in the WH, and we know there’s some animosity, but is it too much to ask that they deal with this behind closed doors and get busy doing what they’ve promised their voters they’d do?

  7. parker Says:

    I think amending the Constitution should be a rare thing, but an amendment to repeal the 17th is a no brainer to me. It strengthens the role of the states and given that the GOP controls more state governments currently, it would hopefully negate the votes of the ‘mavericks’ or eliminate they all together. The founders wanted the sovereign states to have an important seat at the table.

    Unfortunately, the 9th and 10th have been ignored by DC and the courts for a long, long time.

  8. Rick Gutleber Says:

    Lizzie, it’s almost as if many in the GOP in the Senate want to punish the electorate for foisting Trump upon them. No, wait, it’s exactly like that.

  9. Dave Says:

    I could never understand why democrats only demand the abolishment of the electoral college claiming that its undemocratic for the fact that electorals aint proportional assigned according to each states’ population, but made no such demand to abolish the senate while being even more guilty for the same crime under their standard. Now I understand why, it is simply bc they have been enjoying an advantage in the senate for so many years over the republicans.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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