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That Bold New Crop of Senators

- June 21, 2010

Greg Sargent:

bq. Freshman and sophomore Senators, who were elected in 2008 and 2006, have been quietly challenging some of the business-as-usual practices in the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Ezra Klein:

bq. …the number of the young Democrats who’ve loudly criticized the body is striking, and a pretty clear result of their entering the institution at a time when its worst habits have begun to overwhelm its daily operations.

It’s worth noting that “younger” members of Congress have historically been a force for institutional reform. I can comment on the two cases in which I’ve been involved in some research. In this piece (pdf), Eric Schickler and I describe how younger Senators were crucial in the decentralization of appropriations in 1899. These younger Senators “gained turf” from taking power away from a single Appropriations Committee and dispersing it to seven legislative committees. This was not a partisan cause at all; both Democratic and Republican party leaders opposed it.

In another piece (pdf), Eric Schickler, Eric McGhee, and I investigate the series of important reforms carried out in the early 1970s, including weakening the seniority criterion for choosing committee chairs, various “sunshine” provisions, and the Hansen reforms and Stevenson reforms to the House and Senate committee systems, respectively. Here again, junior members were an important constituency for reform (as were liberals in both chambers).

Are the conditions ripe for a new round of institutional reform driven by younger members, particularly in the Senate? According to one model, a large influx of new members makes reform more likely. I don’t have historical data at my fingertips, but it’s worth noting that, if I’m counting correctly, 27 Senators were elected for the first time in 2006 or thereafter. That strikes me as high (although I could be wrong). And the the activism of a relative newbie like Claire McCaskill is interesting in this regard.

Another argument, from Barbara Sinclair’s book, is that reform depends upon incentives. We write:

bq. Sinclair’s argument suggests that an electoral environment that rewards individual activism will encourage changes that disperse power to junior members.

Specifically, in the 1970s, Sinclair argued that interest group demands were rising and that the news media and campaigns were increasingly focused on Senators as individuals — both of which made it more valuable for Senators to be policy entrepreneurs and activists. Junior Senators could better accomplish this goal if resources and power were dispersed, hence the need for reform.

How do the incentives align now? On the one hand, some Senators — particularly Democratic Senators — are frustrated with institutional norms that enable minority obstruction and generally gum up the works. Some may perceive an electoral incentive for the Senate to get stuff done, especially amidst a severe recession and with trust in government at a notable low. On the other hand, “getting stuff done” has meant passing laws that aren’t wildly popular, such as TARP, the stimulus, health care reform, etc. So it’s not clear that inaction is politically riskier than action. But I don’t know how individual Senators perceive it. Some may sincerely prefer reform anyway.

The broader lesson from this research is very much in line with what Sargent observes: although partisan and ideological cleavages drive a lot of legislative behavior, intergenerational cleavages can be important too.