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Guest Thinkers

The Sins of the Senate

House Democrats are in trouble. Even with substantial majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats have been unable to get the economy back to operating at full capacity. Whatever the other achievements of this Congress, voters are going to hold them responsible.

House Democrats are likely to take the biggest hit. Because Senators come up for election only every 6 years, just a little over a third of Senate seats are at stake in this election. That’s why Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight still gives the Democrats an 82% chance of holding on to the Senate. But everyone in the House is up for election. Because the Democrats have a majority in the House, they have more seats to lose than Republicans. And, of course, the reason the Democrats have that majority in the first place is that anger with the Republicans and enthusiasm for Obama two years ago helped them win seats in districts that normally go Republican.  Democrats in those districts face long odds to win those seats again.

The irony is that it’s not really the fault of Democrats in the House. They were prepared to do more. As Jonathan Cohn points out, the House passed a climate change bill and a health care reform bill that included the public option, both of which would have energized the Democratic base. House Democrats even wanted a larger stimulus package, which—as unpopular as the idea of stimulus seems to be right now—might have helped improve the economy.

As Cohn says, it was the Senate—the so-called “world’s greatest deliberative body”—that kept Congress from doing more. As George Packer recently explained in The New Yorker, it’s extremely difficult to get anything through the Senate, even with a 60-vote majority. The filibuster—the product of an old Senate rule that allowed debate to go on indefinitely—allows just 40 senators to block almost any legislation. Even when you have 60 votes in theory, just one defection can sink a bill. Senate rules also allow a single senator to place an anonymous hold on a bill or a nominee for office, and effectively hold the entire chamber hostage. In February, for example, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a “blanket hold” on 70 of Obama’s nominees in order to demand military contracts be awarded to contractors in his home state. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has likewise refused to let the White House’s nominee for Office of Managment and the Budget Director, Jacob Lew, get a vote for months, until she is satisfied with the way permits for deepwater drilling are being issued.

None of that is House Democrats’—or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA)—fault. Obviously, many people are glad they didn’t do more and will be happy to see them lose the House. But, as Greg Sargent says, it is perverse that House Democrats will bear “the brunt of voter punishment for what are really the Senate’s failings.”


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