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DHS funding flap: Republicans 'control' the Congress. Really?

Even when a party has a majority of seats in both chambers of Congress, it cannot effectively pass legislation – or even get its agenda to the floor of the Senate for a debate. That's not 'control.'

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    Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, shown with Senate majority whip John Cornyn of Texas, right, and Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota in February.
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Even this morning I keep hearing reporters use the verb “control” to describe the Republican Party’s relationship to Congress. This word choice is especially disjunctive given that the stories in which this word is deployed are those about the current fight over funding of the Department of Homeland Security (i.e., the fight that the Republicans are currently losing in the Congress that they have been described as “controlling”).

This makes me think of something that some dude wrote back in November:

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..

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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.

The general upshot: I am in no way surprised by the current situation (and am somewhat amazed that the GOP allowed itself to get into this bind and, further, that the press covers it like it is anything other than totally predictable). I do understand that some Republicans (perhaps most) think that this impasse gains them political points with their base, my question would be: to what end? The base will already vote for them in 2016.  After all that talk about having to govern, perhaps some actual governing would be nice.

Having said all that, let me return to some other themes I often write about. In the past I have criticized the rules of the Senate that empower the minority party to block the majority party from passing legislation in the chamber. Many readers seemed to assume that my criticism were linked to the fact that the Democrats controlled the chamber when I wrote some of those criticisms. However, may I say that now that the Republicans have the majority of seats in the chamber, I would like to see them able to actually legislate. Despite any number of criticisms that I would level at both the competitiveness of US congressional elections (for example here and here) and even to the structure of representation in the Senate itself,* I think that once voters have awarded a majority of seats to a given party that that party ought to be able to engage in regular lawmaking without substantial obstruction by the minority.

Really, the Republicans should be in a position, with a majority of seats in both chambers, to pass legislation that directly challenges President Obama’s approach to the immigration issue. Yes, the president could veto such legislation, but it would also transform the nature of the debate, both by making the confrontation being between the legislative and executive branches, but also by making that debate about specific, concrete policy options.

In general, I would note the following issues:

  • We seem to increasingly find ourselves in a situation in which a regular way of trying to accomplish legislative success is playing chicken (i.e., maneuvering a situation in which all or part of the federal government might be shut down). Recent examples include numerous debt-ceiling confrontations, the federal budget itself in 2012, and now DHS specifically.
  • Even when a party has a majority of seats in both chambers, it cannot effectively pass legislation.
  • Addressing the immigration issue specifically (one which has clearly been broken for at least a decade) has been reduced to a combination of prosecutorial discretion and questionable executive orders.

On that third point, I would specifically note that both parties have during the time noted both controlled the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress (and had some time of unified government). This is not to say “both sides do it,” as I do think that it is clear that large chunks of the GOP are dedicated to blocking immigration reform, but rather to point out that there is some significant dysfunction within our policymaking institutions being revealed by our general inability to govern in an area of clear need. (See also: the budget process in general over a similar timeframe).

The ongoing inability of our legislature to function in a reasonable fashion is going to lead to more presidential moves like those made by Obama on immigration. It will also lead to ongoing self-imposed crises like this shutdown and that.  As such, we need a more thorough public examination of these issues.

*I have mentioned this at numerous times in the past, but cannot recall a specific post to cite.  I do not have a problem with the notion of a second chamber that represents states, or even one that does not represents equally.  However, the two-per-state rule coupled with population patterns creates some distortions that I believe are highly problematic.  Not only have some crazy ratios between large population and small population states (CA to WY being the most extreme), it is possible for Senators representing a distinct minority of the population to control the chamber (and with the filibuster, the Congress).  This is problematic from the point of view of representativeness.  (One post that at least touches on this issue is here).

Steven L. Taylor appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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