3

Framers of the Constitution, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, spoke out against the concept of parties, and the Constitution does not mention them. See for example https://www.history.com/news/founding-fathers-political-parties-opinion . Therefore, how did we arrive at the situation where the leader of the majority party in the Senate has the enormous power to call issues to a vote? How does this power trace ultimately back to the Constitution?

3
  • 1
    Probably worthy of a full answer, but the blog post What makes Senate leaders so powerful? thoroughly addresses this: "In reality, any rank-and-file member, or the minority leader, can make a motion to proceed to a bill or nominee on the Senate floor. They simply choose not to and instead defer to the majority leader to do so." – hichris123 Dec 30 '20 at 6:11
  • That's very interesting and is definitely worthy of a full answer! According to that the majority leader's power derives from the president pro tempore's willingness to recognize him first. However, the Vice President constitutionally outranks the president pro tempore as the presiding officer of the senate, even though the VP does not usually use this power nowadays. So now I'm wondering, if R holds Senate, is it possible for dem VP to change that convention and recognize a different senator first? – causative Dec 30 '20 at 8:47
  • 1
    Someone else was curious about that recently too! Can the VP technically take over the Senate by ignoring certain precedents? – hichris123 Dec 30 '20 at 17:02
8

Article I, Section 5 says

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings ...

That gives both the House and the Senate wide latitude to adopt whatever rules those bodies choose. The Senate, for example, has adopted rules that allow for the fillibuster while the House has not. In general, the House has adopted rules that give more power to the Speaker of the House and other leaders than the Senate gives to leaders in that chamber.

Nothing stops either chamber from amending their rules. Either chamber could, for example, adopt a rule that allows any member to force a vote on any proposition they like. Practically, however, the more people that have the ability to call (or prevent) votes, the more difficult it is to get any legislation passed. If individual members could force votes whenever they wanted, they could force hundreds or thousands of votes on amendments to a single bill which would tie up the chamber in votes for weeks or months. They could likely sabotage many pieces compromise legislation by forcing members to vote on every unpopular element individually in a bid to make the overall legislation less appealing. For example, when the Senate was considering Obamacare, there were a number of elements designed to shore up support for the legislation from a handful of wavering Senators. Among those elements was the "Cornhusker kickback" which gave Nebraska preferential treatment in order to ensure Sen. Ben Nelson voted for the entire bill. It would have been very tough for that element to have survived an up-or-down floor vote but it would have been very tough for the entire bill to have passed without it.

7
  • So they have wide latitude, and then what happened? Do the rules of the Senate explicitly mention parties, or do the members simply vote in a nominally nonpartisan way for someone to set the Senate agenda? When and how did this come to be, and what was the earlier state of affairs? – causative Dec 29 '20 at 22:25
  • 2
    @causative - Both chambers have majority leaders and minority leaders which implicitly at least recognizes the reality that there are two major parties. The rules on committee membership, for example, specify how to determine how many members on each committee the majority and minority members can appoint. Each chamber adopts its rules every session (generally without too many modifications) so you'd need to go through hundreds of sets of Senate rules to see precisely how a particular rule has changed in ~230 years. – Justin Cave Dec 29 '20 at 22:39
  • 1
    I'm interested to know just how much of the Senate rules explicitly deny power to third parties. If the Senate rules allocate power to "majority" and "minority" party members that sounds like explicit disenfranchisement of third party members. I'm wondering if that's really the case or if the rules are unbiased in that regard and it just works out that way due to party discipline. – causative Dec 29 '20 at 23:01
  • 1
    @causative - The relationship between Senate rules and third parties seems like a separate question. You can look at the current Senate rules rules.senate.gov/rules-of-the-senate and see that many rules refer to a "majority leader" and a "minority leader" which implicitly recognize that the US is a two-party system. Technically, that doesn't disenfranchise a third party so long as its members caucus with either the majority or the minority but it does mean that unless the rules are amended, you couldn't have a "third party leader" with powers equivalent to the minority leader. – Justin Cave Dec 29 '20 at 23:15
  • 1
    @JustinCave I haven't read the rules but it's entirely possible that they call for the minority leader to be chosen by all members who aren't in the majority. It's also possible that the majority is defined in such a way as to allow the majority to be a coalition. That would allow for coalition majorities and minorities with singular majority and minority leaders even without a two-party system. – phoog Dec 30 '20 at 3:14

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .