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The 50-50 Senate

Mike McCartney

11th January 2021

What will this mean in terms of Biden's (progressive) legislative agenda? Let's look at voting behaviour factors within Congress

There was cause for celebration among members of the Joe Biden administration elect as the result of the party capturing the two Senate run off seats in Georgia. This means that the second chamber is now poised 50-50 with Kamala Harris able to exercise the casting vote in a tie. But that does not mean that Biden will be able to usher in some sort of progressive revolution. While having control of the Senate will make life a lot easier in some respects, such as getting Cabinet and judicial nominees through, it will not be as easy in a legislative sense.

Without drilling down into tremendous detail, it is worth briefly considering what influences the way members of Congress vote.

In no particular order:

  1. Personal ideology. Members of Congress, much like MPs in the UK, start off in politics with some sort of vision of how society can be made better off. So by the time they become members of Congress they will have policy positions on most issues that are to confront them in the legislative chamber. So someone who is fiscally conservative is unlikely to vote on government bills that expand federal spending.
  2. Special intérêsts. Pressure/interest groups are far more influential in US politics than in the UK. This has a great deal to do with a much larger number of access points. So groups like the NRA, which is widely considered to be the most powerful interest group in the USA can be extremely powerful in lobbying members of Congress. Here we could look in some depth at the amount of money involved in US election cycles, how ‘the greenback always rules’, PACs and so forth, but we’ll just leave interest groups as a factor.
  3. Constituents. The ‘folks back home’ are more influential in the US political system than in the UK. This links to the idea of ‘bringing home the bacon’ and how members of Congress are far more likely to adhere to delegate principles of representation rather than Burkean ideals about acting as a trustee, or principle of the party mandate.
  4. Which brings us to the party itself. US parties historically are much looser coalitions than their UK counterparts. What is interesting is that in recent years parties in the UK and the US have very much been travelling in opposite directions. US parties have become more ideological and polarised (measured by voting records in the respective two chambers of Congress), and by contrast anyone familiar with the work of Philip Cowley will testify that British MPs are more rebellious than ever. Notwithstanding these contrasting trends US parties are not completely cohesive, and therefore Democrat party whips will struggle to steer the votes of the two most conservative Democrats in the Senate are Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
  5. Congressional colleagues. These could be other members of Congress from nearby states, or fellow members of committees, or congressional staffers, who may be able to influence how a member of Congress votes if one of the above factors is not central to their decision. There may be tactical or strategic reasons for supporting a particular bill, eg getting on side with a colleague may result in receiving their support at some future stage.
  6. Media influence. Depending on the size and importance of an issue, there may be pressure at a local or national level (much more likely to be local). A good example of the latter is national security.
  7. The administration. This is where members of the executive have to build good congressional relations. Indeed it is absolutely fundamental to the success of a Presidency given the nature of the separation of powers in the USA in order to avoid the prospect of gridlock. It is often said that of the geographical distance between Congress and the White House that ‘a mile and a half is a long way’. Many presidents in the past have exploited whatever tools available to them. Lyndon Johnson employed his years of experience in the Senate as a former Majority Leader (as well as making the most of the honeymoon period after John Kennedy’s death) to achieve radical reform (such as a civil rights act that his predecessor would probably not have done), and by contrast Ronald Reagan appealed over the head of Congress directly to voters to build support for his tax cutting agenda.

This is one worth following closely under the Biden administration.

For more on this see this excellent short piece from the UK Guardian, “You can’t lose a single vote': can Biden navigate the 50-50 Senate?

Each senator will wield an inordinate amount of power and is likely to prove a tricky challenge for the incoming president”: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/08/50-50-senate-split-joe-biden

For a bit of an extension exercise we could research the policy positions and voting record of the two Democrat Senators mentioned above.

For a start, here s Joe Manchin’s Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Manchin

And here is Kyrsten Sinema’s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyrsten_Sinema

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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