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December 12, 2002

Bringing Democracy to the Senate

Bringing Democracy to the Senate

Let's consider a hypothetical situation. In 2004 a third national political party comes out of nowhere and captures not only the White House but a couple of Senate seats, with the rest of the Senate evenly divided between the Republicans and Democrats. The hypothesis is nuts already, so let's call the new party the Green Libertarians. Their symbol is the Jackalope, and they were elected on a platform of arming animals so that they can protect themselves from wetlands developers.

So the balance of the Senate when the 2004 congress is sworn is 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats and 2 Glib senators. At that point, how are the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate chosen? The Senate website isn't much help, giving only the following account of how the leadership positions are filled;

The floor leaders of each party today are elected by a majority vote of all the Senators of the said party assembled in a conference or, as it sometimes is called, a caucus. The practice has been to choose the leader for a two-year term at the beginning of each Congress. After the parties have held their elections, the selection is made known through the press or by announcement to the Senate. The majority and minority leaders are the elected spokesmen on the Senate floor for their respective political parties, having been elected by their fellow Senators of the same party to whom they are responsible.

Normally in cases of an evenly divided Senate, the Vice President will break the tie by announcing that he will vote with his party on procedural matters. That's how Trent Lott became Majority Leader in the 107th Congress, until James Jeffords jumped ship. In the case above, the Vice Presidency is held by a Glibertarian, so the tie holds. The Glibs hold the balance of power, and can negotiate the best deal for themselves with either party before announcing which party they intend to vote with on procedural matters. Once they've made their decision, the actual process of filling the Senate Majority is a formality, as it has been since 1925. A formality, because there's no point in actually voting on who fills the post. The outcome is foreordained once the Glib senators state who they are voting with.

But what if the Glibs refuse to say how they will vote prior to any particular procedural vote? What if Jeffords had? In order to actually elect a Senate majority leader at this point, must the Senators actually vote for one person or another, rather than than presenting one man or another as a fait accompli? The question has never come up, but I'm going to go with the common sense position (dangerous, I know) that at this point either the Senate majority leader position will be vacant for that particular congress, or that the Senators must actually vote on who fills the position.

Simply put, if the question of who holds the Majority Leader post is answered by an announcement about how a particular member intends to vote on procedural matters, then that imples that a procedural vote is needed to elect a Majority Leader. There's never been a vote, because the outcome of such a vote has always been known beforehand. But does that mean that it always will be?

I ask, because at this point in time it seems that Trent Lott, despite the almost universal condemnation of his remarks on Strom Thurmond, will remain as Senate Majority Leader for the 108th Congress. Lott doesn't need the support of a majority of Senators in order to hold on to the post of Senate Majority Leader. Rather, all he needs is the support of 26 Republicans. Once he's elected as floor leader in that caucus, he's in, because that is the way it has always worked. In this case, the name "Senate Majority Leader" is a misnomer, as it is almost certain that a majority of Senators would not vote for Lott if an actual floor vote was held. Most especially they would not if it was a secret vote.

But suppose for a second that a Republican or two declared that, although they were not changing their party membership, their party should no longer count on their support in all procedural matters?

I'm thinking John McCain and Lincoln Chafee, though it could be anyone, given the wide-spread dismay within the Republican ranks at Lott's implicit support for segregation. It would be nice to think that my new Republican Senator would have that kind of balls, but I don't really expect that out of Libby. Jesse might have done it once upon a time, but not over this issue, certainly.

At the instant of that announcement, Lott could no longer claim to be Majority Leader. Daschle could not lay claim to the title either, though it is possible that the Minority Leader would at this point take over some of the tasks normally carried out by the Majority Leader. Or the Senate could revert to the format it had before 1925, when geographic blocs and Committee Chairs wielded more power. Certainly the two (or more?) maverick Senators would command immense power as holder of the swing votes on procedural matters. Lott would be out on his ass in either case, arguably what the majority of Americans, as well as a majority of Senators, would prefer now anyway. Remember majority rule?

Yes, it would be a messier system, but it would also be more democratic. And that's the point. Is it likely to happen? God, no. It would require a politician with a a spine, and those are vanishingly rare.

But damn, would it be fun to watch.

Posted by Bigwig at December 12, 2002 03:41 PM | TrackBack
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