Friday, May 15, 2009

Donkey Diversity

This Politico report gives further evidence of a phenomenon that I've described in this and other posts. In order to increase their numbers in the Senate, the Democrats have had to extend themselves beyond their hard-core base.

New Democratic senators from such states as Alaska and Virginia cannot be expected to support the entire agenda of veteran Democrats from states such as California and Massachusetts.

From the other end of the Capitol comes a familiar characterization of the Senate. Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says “if you have 60 cats, you got to get them all together in the same place to get something done ... herding senators and herding cats have a lot in common.”

That's somewhat more true on the Senate side than it is in the House. But even in the House, things have changed since legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn, Democrat of Texas, supposedly would tell junior congressmen, "if you want to get along, go along." House members may still be easier to herd than senators, but members of the lower house have increasingly developed an independent streak in recent decades.

It's a difficult question. Members of both houses of Congress are answerable to their constituents. But the party leaders in each house need to influence their membership, in order to get anything done. An ability to carefully apply carrots and sticks is a key part of a congressional leader's job description.

That Politico report reminds me of a story that my favorite political science professor liked to tell. When John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, his Democratic Party had large majorities in both houses of Congress, 263-174 in the House and 64-36 in the Senate. But Kennedy was stymied in trying to get legislation through the Congress, largely because those party numbers masked the clout of the Conservative Coalition.

In the 1962 midterm congressional campaign, Kennedy advocated the election of more congressional Democrats, in order to get his legislative program adopted. With those large Democratic majorities already in place, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican leader, supposedly responded by asking "how many Democrats does he need?"

Well, the current Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, is hinting at a message similar to Kennedy's, for the 2010 elections. Given the realities of Senate rules, and the lack of party discipline in that legislative body, Reid might need more than the 60 he'll have when/if Al Franken is seated as junior senator from Minnesota.

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