What does Democratic control of the Senate amount to?
January 22, 2021 12:45 PM   Subscribe

With the Democrats sweeping Georgia, they now the control the "legislative agenda" in the Senate. What exactly does that mean/entail?

Having spent my first 17 years in Denmark, I didn't study American government as a kid, and later, as an undergrad here in the United States, I never studied any Civics or Political Science either. I'm very much in the dark when it comes to real-world implications of shifts in control of the legislative branch. Please inform. Thanks
posted by BadgerDoctor to Law & Government (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's a little complicated, but basically the Senate Majority Leader controls the calendar. So they can decide the order in which bills are presented for debate and a vote. The way Mitch McConnell used this power was to just never bring up any bills he didn't want to deal with. So you can see how just controlling the calendar can be something quite powerful.

Here is a pretty good overview of the process.
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:56 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]

A lot of the specifics are up in the air, but I'll go straight to the 'agenda' part.

In most bicameral parliamentary systems, especially those that follow the Westminster model, bills that pass the lower house go directly to the upper house for consideration, amendment and approval or rejection.

In the US, each chamber of Congress operates independently, each has the power to initiate legislation (apart from money bills which must come from the House) and the leadership of each chamber controls its own legislative calendar. Under the previous balance of power, the House could pass all the bills it wanted, but Mitch McConnell didn't have to take any action on them at all. This can be politically advantageous because it means your party's members don't have to vote against popular things. It's also an ongoing screw-you to the House.

With Democratic control, House bills will be guaranteed some kind of consideration. They might be filibustered or defeated, but they won't be filed away and ignored.
posted by holgate at 1:02 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]

Congress is basically the US equivalent of the Danish Folketing, and the Senate is half of the Congress, along with the House of Representatives. The president is kind of but not really analogous to the queen. Controlling the legislature is not as important as it is in Denmark, because American president has more power than the queen (or any head of state in a parliamentary system), but the idea is basically the same: if a party (or, more often in Denmark's case, a coalition of parties) controls the legislature, they'll be able to enact their policy agenda. The bills that party supports will be voted into law and they'll carry out oversight of the civil service (or not, depending on policy goals). If the party controlling the Senate is the same as the party controlling the presidency, they'll confirm the president's nominees to cabinet-level positions, other high-level civil service positions, and judgeships.

In Denmark, the head of government is by definition someone who has support in the Folketing, usually by a coalition but nonetheless, the idea of a parliamentary system is that the head of government should always have enough votes to agree with what he or she wants to do. In the US, since the president is elected separately, it's possible to have situations where the president cannot command a majority in Congress. In these cases, very little happens. The bills that the president supports will not pass, and the bills the Senate does pass will be vetoed by the president. The presidential nominations are probably the biggest thing. If the president and the Senate are split, the party controlling the Senate will vote against many nominees. That forces the president to either leave some positions unfilled (technically, they'd be filled by a temporary person), or to nominate more moderate candidates, thereby compromising the president's ability to enact his agenda.

In real world terms, it means that Joe Biden is going to be able to do pretty much whatever he wants to do, in terms of policy, at least until the next Senate election in 2022.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:03 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

At the moment, they’re in a little bit of a standoff, because the new Congress started on January 3 but the Democrats only won control on January 20, so all the committees are still set up with the Republicans in charge. McConnell can try to stall the changeover (approval of a new “organizing resolution”), but ultimately the Senate will do whatever a majority of the Senate wants, so it’s a matter of whether this breaks through sooner or later.

In the meantime, Schumer does have control of the calendar so he can at least get some nominations through. And over in the House, they can start trying to pass some legislation so the Senate can maybe pass some stuff eventually.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:49 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]

In real world terms, it means that Joe Biden is going to be able to do pretty much whatever he wants to do, in terms of policy, at least until the next Senate election in 2022.

Oh dear God, no.

Biden can do anything that he can get every single Democratic Senator to agree with. But the Senate Democratic caucus represents a pretty wide range of ideologies and priorities, and US parties have much less ability to punish wayward members of their Congressional caucuses than parties in most parliamentary democracies. (And that power imbalance is only magnified when the majority is so thin).

There's also the whole question of the filibuster, which is a rule that allows the minority to force a procedural vote that requires a 60-vote supermajority before you can even proceed to an up-or-down vote on most legislation. The current Democratic caucus has started making noises about removing that rule (which they could do with a simple majority) but at least a few members are on record as opposing that, so with a majority so thin, eliminating the filibuster is far from a sure thing.
posted by firechicago at 3:23 PM on January 22 [15 favorites]

Yeah, so there are four big things: (1) as the majority party, the Democrats set the agenda and determine what legislation comes to the floor for a vote; (2) as the majority party, the Democrats control what happens in committees, which can affect what they themselves choose to advance from committee to the floor; (3) as the majority party, as long as everybody in the caucus votes with the caucus (not a guarantee) the Democrats can pass legislation as long as it's not filibustered by the minority party; (4) the minority party can filibuster almost anything (a notable exception being judicial appointments), basically burying the issue unless they get whatever they want (most common) or enough of the minority party break ranks and vote to end the filibuster (unlikely).

The majority party could, in a procedural vote not itself subject to filibuster, vote to eliminate the filibuster itself. There was already a previous procedural vote eliminating the filibuster for judicial appointments, but both Mitch McConnell (the now former majority leader) and Chuck Schumer (the new majority leader) have clearly been uncomfortable at how such a move might come back on them and/or their parties after a switch in power. Joe Biden is himself a big institutionalist and he's generally expressed opposition to the elimination of the filibuster, but his belief in comity and bipartisanship may be archaic and obsolete, a point he himself has been hedging.

Mitch McConnell is playing legislative games now to block Schumer's agenda, trying to extract a commitment to preserve the filibuster. It's hard to say what will happen over the next six months, but depending on exactly how much opposition the Republicans mount to popular legislation, things could change.
posted by fedward at 6:38 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]

And since we're getting into the wrinkles: the Senate is a 'continuing body' because only 1/3 of its membership is up for election every two years, which in turn means that the rules adopted by the last majority remain in place until they're changed by a new majority.

Since bills by rule have to go through 'markup' in committees before a floor vote -- a parody of actual committee markup, as bills are written by staffers -- the old rules currently set the composition of committees, which creates a 'goofy' situation where people who shouldn't have power retain power because the people who don't have power retain the power to stop the people with power from changing things to reflect that they're now in charge.

This is why the structural parts of the US constitution are mostly stupid.
posted by holgate at 10:42 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]

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