Midterms and the importance of the Senate

Pond in the University Parks

Talking with friends about the upcoming American midterm elections, there seems to be some confusion about the relative impacts of different outcomes. While I am not an expert on American politics, by any means, the following seems to be the gist:

1. Losing the Senate would be a really big deal. The United States Senate is probably the most powerful legislative body in the world. While the power of the President has increased enormously in the 20th century, the Senate still retains critical powers. Article One of the US Constitution requires Senatorial advice and consent before the United States can enter into foreign treaties, and before the President can make important appointments. A President with a hostile Senate has a seriously constrained field of action.

2. As I understand it, the House of Representatives is much less important, when it comes to the overall ability of the executive branch to govern.

3. The Democrats face an uphill battle to gain control of the Senate. Rick Santorum seems likely to lose his seat in Pennsylvania (as Savage Love readers will no doubt cheer). One seat each in Montana and Ohio are leaning towards Democratic challengers. One each in Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia could possibly change hands. Finally, the Democrats are defending a vulnerable seat in New Jersey. In order to gain a 50% +1 majority, the Democrats need to swing six seats.

4. Basically, whichever party has the majority in the Senate gets to chair all the committees. This lets them pass along legislation they favour, while forever entrapping legislation they oppose. Many argue that the American Congress (both the House and the Senate) is meant to operate on the basis of consensus. If so, that noble ideal is long lost in contemporary American politics. Controlling committee chairmanships is thus really important.

Those who know more than I do are strongly encouraged to comment. I would love to understand it better myself. With the elections just over two weeks away, and with the composition of the American government rather important for the immediate future of the world, it would be good to have increased understanding.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Midterms and the importance of the Senate”

  1. But keep in mind that unfortunately, Democratic seizure of the treasured two thirds majority will keep them from effectuating the fullest power of the body.
    What we can hope for is true bi-partisan cooperation to threaten to override the veto and ratify treaties etc, as it was planned.
    Obama in ’08!


  2. The margin for Senate control isn’t that large; there are probably going to be a couple Independents who win election, in Connecticut (Lieberman) and Vermont, which means it only takes 50 to get 50% +1.

  3. Perhaps you should point out that only 1/3 of the Senate is actually up for election every two years.

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