6

In theory, both Chambers of the American Congress hold the same amount of power - one cannot pass a law without the agreement of the other. But in practice it seems that the media is focuses a lot more on the Senate and the votes over major laws (such as the Obamacare repeal) often come down to a battle in Senate rather than in the House of Representatives. I am aware that it is the Senate which appoints members of the courts and of the President's cabinet, but this only happens a few times per year at most

So why is the media attention focused so much at the Senate? Is it because there's only 100 members? Is it because they have longer election terms?

  • "I am aware that it is the Senate which appoints members of the courts and of the President's cabinet, but this only happens a few times per year at most" This is not true at all. Only a few per year usually generate high-profile debate, but, according to the Senate's own website, "Approximately 4,000 civilian and 65,000 military nominations are submitted to the Senate during each two-year session of Congress." Of particular note, every federal judge must be confirmed, not just the Supreme Court justices. – reirab Jun 22 '20 at 18:40
7

Yes, it's mainly because the Senate has fewer members and the current Republican-controlled Senate only has a slim majority.

  • Majority (52%): 52 Republicans1
  • Minority (48%): 46 Democrats + 2 Independents (caucus with Democrats)

Conversely, the House has more members and the Republican-controlled House has a bigger majority, so they can afford to lose a few votes and still pass a bill.

  • Majority (55%): 239 Republicans
  • Minority (45%): 193 Democrats

Over the past year, it has shown that it is more difficult to pass bills2 in the Senate. For instance, the American Health Care Act was passed in the House on a 217–213 vote, but it could not pass in the Senate. Despite opposition from all Democrats and 20 Republicans (8% of Republicans) voted against it, the bill could still pass the House. This would not pass, if 8% of Republicans in the Senate opposed it.

So, this shows that the Senate cannot lose more than 2 votes on any bill they wish to pass by a simple majority. Getting all 52 votes is difficult due to the fact that it is essential to convince moderate Republicans in the Senate to support any piece of legislation.

As FiveThirtyEight elaborates:

In five of those six instances (all but one that rolled back a regulation created by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), the two Republican “no” votes were Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. This is not surprising. Both senators are among the five Republicans who most often break with the Trump administration’s position according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score. (Collins is the GOP senator who votes against Republicans most often.) And of course, Collins and Murkowski were two key opponents of the GOP’s push to repeal Obamacare.

[ ... ]

Also keep an eye on the possibility of Collins or Murkowski joining with Tennessee’s Bob Corker or Arizona’s Jeff Flake or McCain, the anti-Trump trio that has more political freedom than most members because none of them are likely to face Republican voters again. (Corker and Flake are retiring in 2018, and McCain has been diagnosed with brain cancer.)


1 When Alabama Senator-elect Doug Jones is seated, this will further decrease the Republican majority by 1, making it 51–49.

2 Note that only judicial nominations and bills that go through the reconciliation process can pass by a simple majority. Read more about this here.

2

I am aware that it is the Senate which appoints members of the courts and of the President's cabinet, but this only happens a few times per year at most

The Senate doesn't appoint; it confirms presidential appointments.

So far this year, Donald Trump has appointed 22 judges and has around the same number of nominations pending. Similarly, Trump has 208 executive appointments confirmed with another 159 pending out of 1212 positions that get filled. This seems more than a few. Admittedly, only about twenty of those appointments are high profile cabinet or Supreme Court positions.

The Senate also ratifies treaties. These are rare but impactful.

There are 100 Senators and 435 House of Representatives members. Due to Senate rules, many votes require the support of 60 Senators. Since both chambers have to approve every bill, this means that individual Senators have more impact than individual (House) Representatives.

2

I'm not sure that the thesis presented is actually accurate, since "prominent" is hard to define. But there's definitely at least several factors in play that may lead to a perception of prominence, almost all of which sum up to how things turn out in the Senate is less predictable/more suspenseful:

  1. In recent history, the House was far more lopsided, partisan wise, than the Senate.

    Moreover, with only 100 members, the typical 4-6% margin in the senate means you often need to flip only 2-3 votes to reverse the result. In the House, even a "small" margin of 4% (and usually it's more) means 17? members have to flip to achieve surprise instead. Far less likely.

    This means that the votes are usually MORE assured (and less surprising/suspensful) in the House than in the Senate - thus leading to Senate being more prominent.

     #   | Year | Senate % | House % |
     115 | 2017 | 48/52    | 45/55   |
     114 | 2015 | 46+2/52  | 43/57   |
     113 | 2013 | 55/45    | 46/54   |
     112 | 2011 | 53/47    | 56/44   |
     111 | 2009 | 58/42    | 59/41   | <-- biggest recent Senate margin.
     110 | 2007 | 50/50    | 54/46   |
     109 | 2005 | 44/55    | 47/53   | <-- last year House had more margin
     108 | 2003 | 51/49    | 52/48   |
     107 | 2001 | 49/50    | 48/52   |
    
  2. The House is more polarized, again leading to more predictable votes.

    I'll need to find data to back that up, but it's not surprising based on fundamentals - House elections are far more localized and therefore a Senator may need to appeal to wider and less polarized audience to get elected.

    This amplifies #1, in that, there are less House members who are truly moderate and therefore more likely to be a surprise vote.

  3. Filibuster.

    To top off #1, Senate often needs 60 votes to overcome filibuster (pass cloture vote). Over the last 40 years, it has been very rare for either major party to be able to get 60 votes without at least some crossover votes from the other major party.

    Since 1980, there has been only one Congressional term during which either party had enough votes in the Senate to end a filibuster without any votes from the other major party. This was a period of several months in 2009 and early 2010, when the Democratic caucus (including Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman, who were technically independent, but caucused with Democrats) had 60 seats in the Senate.

    Unsurprisingly, it was during this period when Obamacare (PPACA) passed in the Senate. This was also why the House essentially had no choice but to accept the Senate version of the bill after Republican Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts to serve the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term after his death, ending the Democrats' 60-seat Senate supermajority.

    The House prohibited Filibuster.

  4. Presidential veto

    On top of #3, you also sometimes need 66% of the vote to override Presidential Veto. This is, for all reasons listed above, harder to do in the Senate than the House, and less predictable.

  5. Other differences between Senate and House also lead to more suspense/interest in Senate, as per this list from UTexas:

    • Floor action is less influential in the House but more in the Senate

    • Scheduling generally controlled by majority party leadership and Rules Committee in the House; whereas is agreed by majority+minority leaders in the Senate.

  6. Senate has more control/influence on foreign policy (which most people pay more attention to, due to higher visibility) while House deals more with boring fiscal stuff. Senate == Episode IV; House == Episode I.

  • 1
    @reirab - ah yah, didn't think of that. Feel free to edit appropriately – user4012 Jun 23 '20 at 1:21
2

Going back to the original intentions of the Founders, the Senate was always meant to be a more powerful, significant body than the House. The House was constructed as the voice to the people, and the Founders expected that the House would be a contentious venue, prone to demagoguery and pandering, with Representatives closely reflecting the interests of their small constituencies. They expected Senators, by contrast, to be the voice of the states: a more sober, august, deliberate, and elite body who would put the interests of the states and the federation above the petty squabbles of local politics. The division was roughly equivalent to the system in the ancient Roman Republic, which placed an aristocratic Senate over various other popular legislative assemblies: the Plebeian Council, the Tribal Assemblies, the Centuriate, the Curiate. The intention was to give the citizens strong input into their government, while allowing that input to be moderated and regulated by dedicated elites.

The Senate was always meant to be the place where bills go to die, as Senators weed out intemperate and ill-considered proposals passed up form the House, though the Congresses of recent history have taken this practice to an unfortunate extreme.

Modern media is merely (and I suspect unconsciously) conforming to the Founders intuitions. Because Senators are fewer in number and elected by larger constituencies, they have an elevated social status that makes them more attractive as public figures. Further, even though both Houses must approve legislation, the Senate has 'last say' over bills, always producing the final draft that will be passed on to the President. As such, media attention on bills is more pronounced when they are in the Senate, since that is where the bills are closest to being passed into law.

  • I find it interesting that the modern House seems to generally be less contentious than the Senate, since the Speaker can generally get whatever they want passed. Or at least, they keep the contentiousness behind closed doors in committees and.caucus meetings. – Bobson Jun 23 '20 at 23:26

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