Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Senate Committees

Matt Yglesias today is back to complaining about how Democrats in the Senate choose committee chairs; Neil Sinhababu says that "it explains a heck of a lot."

Nonsense. Senate committee chairs aren't that important; Senate committees aren't that important. Max Baucus isn't some outlier randomly empowered by a lottery system of committee chairs. The fact is that there are an awful lot of Democrats in the Senate who are close to Baucus -- moderate mainstream Democrats with potential electoral problems if they are perceived as too liberal. Look again at this chart (from Simon Jackman). If, say, Chuck Schumer or John Kerry was installed as chair of Senate Finance, they would not have been able to simply dictate a liberal bill; they would be negotiating with Nelson and Conrad and Lincoln and Baucus, because the committee needs those Senators for a majority. Or, if the committee was packed with liberals, then they certainly could report out a liberal bill...but only to then have to negotiation with Nelson and Conrad and Lincoln and Baucus, and Bayh, McCaskill, Webb, Dorgan, Pryor, and Tester, and a few others, because without them the Democrats don't even have 51 votes, let alone 60.

Of course, the public form of bargaining Baucus has chosen is the sham "negotiations" with Grassley and Enzi. Don't be fooled -- the real bargaining here is within the Democratic caucus and the two Senators from Maine. The only thing that committee structure suggests -- it doesn't dictate, but it suggests -- is who gets first crack at leading the negotiations.

Remember, this is the Senate, not the House. Bills don't have to go through committee; any Senator can offer a substitute on the floor of the Senate, and if it has the votes, it will be the new bill. If Chris Dodd, or if Jack Reed, or if Barbara Mikulski, thinks he or she has a formula that will attract 60 votes, he or she could be arranging it right now. That those things haven't happened means that the problem to be overcome here isn't committees, but the ideological makeup and political context of the Senate.


  1. The only thing that committee structure suggests -- it doesn't dictate, but it suggests -- is who gets first crack at leading the negotiations.

    That suggestion seems to be significant enough to give Matt and I our point. If Max Baucus were just an ordinary committee member and not a chair, he couldn't paralyze the process with this Gang of Six nonsense.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    If the committee was the same but with a liberal chair? Baucus certainly could paralyze the process in exactly the same way he's doing it now. The Democrats have a 13-10 majority in Senate Finance. Only Snowe is open to voting with the Democrats, and Baucus is one of four Dems (with Conrad, Lincoln, and Bill Nelson) who are all reluctant to vote for a bill perceived as too liberal. Those four are going to negotiate a deal (just as the Blue Dogs did in the House committee). If Baucus wasn't chair, then it might be Conrad, or Lincoln, or Nelson who took the lead, but the substance of negotiation would be the same.

    If the committee was packed with liberals (why is the ratio only 13-10, anyway?), then the bill would go through the committee easily...and then the same negotiations would take place before the bill reached the floor.

    It isn't the committee structure that drives the negotiations; it's that there are about fifteen Democrats who don't want to be perceived as voting for a liberal bill -- even if they do want a bill to pass, which I suspect most or all of them do. I'm not at all convinced that liberals would be better off if Pryor or Bayh or Bill Nelson was leading the negotiations instead of Baucus.


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