High Road, Low Road for Majority Rule : Congress: The differences between House and Senate will transcend today’s euphoria of Republican unity.
A funny thing happened in the Senate while public attention was riveted on the pageant of sweeping reform opening in the House: The upper chamber rejected out of hand a motion by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin to eliminate the filibuster, that ancient device that allows senators to speak as long as they wish so long as three-fifths of their colleagues don’t vote to shut them up. (In practice, the filibuster is not what it used to be when senators blocked a vote by holding the floor with marathon speeches and irrelevant readings; today, it is enough to threaten a filibuster to gain parliamentary advantage.)
Once again the Senate was affirming its aloofness from its tempestuous legislative partner on the south side of Capitol Plaza. In characteristic hauteur, the Senate was putting out two messages: that it will do little tinkering with its venerable rule book simply because party control has switched, and quick and easy passage of measures by the House will not be followed by equivalently brisk action in the Senate.
Resort to the filibuster is probably the most apt symbol of the monumental differences between the chambers. While Republican senators used the filibuster to devastating effect in the last Congress and while some Democrats are vowing to use it to turn the tables, it is not primarily a partisan weapon. It is, rather, an exquisitely personal instrument of power.
The ability to throw the legislative process into neutral finds its closest analogy in a world in which every country, no matter how small, possesses a nuclear arsenal. It is a mark of individual sovereignty, a token that is brandished when you demand to be taken seriously and a sign that you are a force to be dealt with. It can, moreover, be used by anyone--Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative--and for any cause, weighty or frivolous. It is the great equalizer that puts Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska with his paltry 600,000 constituents on a par with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her 30 million Californians. So it is little wonder that Harkin’s proposal to do away with it garnered only a handful of supporters. The majority of senators saw it as unilateral disarmament and wanted no part of it, even the members of the newly minted GOP majority who might well be its target.
Similarly dramatic House-Senate distinctions can be seen in the manner in which the leadership of committees changed hands. Democrats who for so long sat above the salt and treated even their most senior Republican colleagues as valets now felt like deadbeats who had been tossed out of a fancy restaurant and were suffered to watch from the sidewalk as their betters feasted.
On the Senate side, the changing of the committee leadership was no big deal. When Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan swapped chairs with Republican Bob Packwood, he knew that his successor as head of the Finance Committee could no more ignore him in his conduct of the panel’s business than he could disregard the laws of gravity. Chairmanship of a Senate committee is treated as a kind of regency. Chairmanship of a House committee has in recent years often meant autocratic license to dominate minority members.
When legislation emerges from a highly partisan body like the House and follows its constitutionally decreed trajectory to the Senate, where prerogative, not partisanship, is the natural law, what happens is instant deceleration of the sort that calls for seat belts.
When the time comes for the House agenda to shift from internal rules changes to deficits, taxes, foreign policy and the overarching question of just how much government Americans want, another, more enduring set of dynamics will come into play. And even if Dole and Gingrich were as close as Damon and Pythias--which they surely are not--the built-in constitutional tensions will make themselves felt. Gingrich will be representing an institution in which the writ of the majority carries the day on almost any measure. Dole will be leading a body in which the individual is sovereign and almost nothing of any importance can be achieved with a bare majority of 51 votes. At such times, shared partisanship will be seen as a pretty insubstantial bond.