This week, Democrats reclaim control of the U.S. Senate -- a gift from Jim Jeffords, newly minted independent from Vermont. This has Democrats crowing about how they are going to put a stop to George W. Bush's conservative agenda and pursue one tilted more to the left.
In truth, the Senate switch means very little real difference, either to the pursuit of Bush's agenda or that of Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota and the new Senate majority leader. There are many reason for this, but the most important is simply the nature of the Senate itself. Unlike the House of Representatives, where majority control is absolutely critical, neither party ever really controls the Senate.
In the House, the speaker has enormous institutional power, both directly and indirectly through his control of the House Rules Committee. No bill or amendment can be considered on the House floor unless there is a rule, passed by the full House, that allows for its consideration. For this reason, most legislating in the House is done in committee. Hence, House committees are very important, since they generally are the only place an individual member of Congress can affect legislation.
By contrast, any member of the Senate can pretty much bring up any bill for consideration at any time. This means that the power of the majority leader is very much weaker than that of the House speaker. Indeed, the Senate didn't even have a formal majority leader until 1925, when Sen. Charles Curtis, Republican of Kansas, first assumed that title.
Committees are also less powerful in the Senate for the same reason. In the House, getting a bill out of committee is the essential first step in the legislative process. By contrast, legislation is often brought up the Senate without hearings or committee mark-ups. In effect, the mark-up frequently takes place on the Senate floor itself, with every senator having the same power to amend bills that is normally reserved only for members of the committee of jurisdiction in the House.
As a result, senators don't pay nearly as much attention to their committee assignments as House members do. This also comes from the fact that senators are on many more committees than House members. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a senator to have hearings, mark-ups and other committee business going on simultaneously in several of his or her committees. It is physically impossible, therefore, for senators to devote all the attention they should to what goes on in committees. Since committees aren't as important in the Senate, this means that committee chairmanships aren't as important, either.
The major exception to this general rule, however, is in the case of nominations. Unlike bills, which are often brought up without hearings, nominations must have hearings and be voted out of committee for them to be considered. This is why the whole issue of nominations, especially to the courts, is so important to Republicans. Even so, Republican presidents have been forced to deal with Democratic Senates during most of the postwar era, and they always managed to get the vast majority of their nominations approved. This was true also for Democrat Bill Clinton, when he had a Republican Senate to deal with over the last 6 years.
Finally, it should be noted that the power of the minority is vastly greater in the Senate than the House, in part due to the filibuster, something denied to the minority in the House. And early in new presidential terms, the Senate's minority has a very keen incentive to stick together in order to force the president to deal with them. That is why Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, was able to scuttle Clinton's ill-conceived economic stimulus plan in 1993 and get every Republican to vote against his deficit reduction bill as well, even though many Republican senators undoubtedly supported it in principle. Similarly, Daschle has been able to hold Senate Democrats together, in large part so that they can increase their leverage with Bush.
The long and short of this is that if Democrats think they are going to start running the show just because they now have a one-vote majority in the Senate, they are dreaming. Of course, they know perfectly well that their control is nominal and not worth very much. But when your team is on a losing streak, you tend to celebrate any win, no matter how small.
At least some Republicans actually believe that Democratic control of the Senate is good for them, because they no longer need to bend over backward to accommodate their left flank. One senior Republican Senate staffer even told me that loss of the majority is "wonderfully liberating." We will soon see if this is really so, or just a case of making lemonade when one only has lemons to work with.