Senators Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, Vice President Dan Quayle, and Senator Trent Lott managed the Senate when the numbers were tied, 50/50.
(US Senate photo)
Just how will a 50/50 Senate operate? That remains an open question .. but any answer ought to question the future of that body in a democratic society.
This is Trahant Reports.
The Senate is split 50-50, 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. And that means the Democrats are supposed to be in control because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie vote. But Senate rules are complicated and there is now a fight going on about just what those rules are.
The last time the Senate was that divided was 2001. Senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle came up with a method to manage that tie. They wrote that it took several weeks of negotiation and “was one of the most difficult undertakings either of us faced in all the years we served in leadership.”
The country really doesn’t have several weeks for that kind of fight right now. Already the Biden administration’s plan for COVID-19 relief is on hold while the Senate waits to move forward. There could be challenges ahead with administration nominees as well as the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
As Lott and Daschle wrote in the Washington Post: “The circumstances are more complicated today: The country is more polarized.” And, on top of that, senators from both parties don’t trust each other as much.
And, more often, it takes 60 votes not 50 to pass legislation because of the threat of filibuster. I say “threat” of a filibuster because that’s the way it works. These days no one has to stand and hold the Senate floor talking for hours and hours. Just the threat is enough to demand a 60 vote supermajority.
This supermajority has both worked for and against tribal nations. It’s helped kill bad legislation — and prevented really good ideas from becoming law.
Then 60 votes or not the Senate is an institution that really needs “structural reform.”
There have only been four Native Americans to ever serve in the Senate and no Native women. Ever.
Today a single vote from a senator from Wyoming is worth 68 times more than one from California. This imbalance is growing, not shrinking. The most recent calculation from Vox shows that Democrats in the Senate represent 41 million more Americans than the Republicans.
There are a lot of options that would make the United States more democratic. It could be a constitutional shift toward a parliament, like most countries in the world. Ideally a parliamentary ballot allows broad representation (another of our peculiar quirks is a system where candidates win with a bare majority, instead of fifty, plus one.) The Senate could even be proportional with states like California having more senators than just two.
The rules fight going on in the Senate is tied to this structural imbalance — and it’s the voters who come up on the short end.
I am Mark Trahant.