Wednesday, November 05, 2014

How Much Does Control of the Senate Matter?

In the weeks leading up to the election, the key question everyone focused on was whether or not the Republicans would get control of the Senate. It was never clear to me why that was supposed to be so important. As long as the Republicans control the House, the Democrats cannot pass any bills that the Republicans are solidly against. As long as the Democrats control the White House, Republicans cannot pass any bills that the Democrats are solidly against unless they have large enough majorities in both houses to override a presidential veto, which they were not going to get.

I do not want to overstate my case. A Republican majority in the Senate means that Obama cannot appoint judges, in particular Supreme Court judges, that the Republicans are solidly opposed to. It means that the Republicans can pass popular legislation that the Democrats oppose and force Obama to either sign it or veto it. It might make it possible to override a veto of popular legislation with the help of a few Democratic legislators. But the bottom line for legislation is still what it was. Nothing can get passed if either party is solidly opposed to it.

Which brings me back to my theory of why people vote. It isn't to change the political outcome, since any reasonable person knows that, in a large population polity, his vote has virtually no chance of doing that. It's for the same reason people go to football games—to cheer for their side.

In order to have a game you need some definition of winning and losing. In order for it to be interesting, the definition has to leave the outcome in doubt. If winning the midterm elections was defined by whether or not the Republicans retained their majority in the House or by whether they gained enough seats in both houses to override a presidential veto, it would have been a very boring contest, since the answer to both questions was known long in advance.

Viewing it as a contest over who ended up in control of the Senate, on the other hand, made it a game worth watching.


13 Comments:

At 9:22 AM, November 05, 2014, Blogger Brian said...

People certainly vote to express themselves and to cheer on their side, as you say, but as in the case of "who will win the Senate?," they also use voting to send a message. It's a signaling device to indicate approval or displeasure. In the case of voting for senator, people used the vote to indicate that they don't like what Obama has been doing.

 
At 9:23 AM, November 05, 2014, Anonymous Skip said...

Oh, the main reason it's important apart from judges is precisely to force the Senate Democrats to have to make painful choices, for the purpose of using them in the 2016 advertisements. The House passed many of these things, but Senator Reid blocked any consideration of them the last session. Next session, all of these guys are going to have to go on record as either opposing the President, or opposing things which are really popular in their states.

 
At 10:39 AM, November 05, 2014, Blogger Brandon Petaccio said...

Well, there have been several elections, even recently, where the outcomes were determined by extraordinarily slim margins. I'm reminded of the 2012 Republican primaries. That in mind, we can consider the influence that one voter has on other voters. I view elections like a tug of war. It's unlikely that any one person makes the difference, but the collective that does make the difference does not exist without the individual.

 
At 11:10 AM, November 05, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm keenly aware that the probability of my lone vote changing an outcome is virtually zero. I vote Libertarian to symbolically signal my antistatism by increasing their vote total by 1. (Here in Florida, the LP candidate for governor got a record 3.8% of the vote!) David, have you ever voted, and, if so, why?

 
At 12:33 PM, November 05, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

David, I think your post contains the assumption that elected Republicans fight for the things their electorate wants. I think that on perhaps a majority of issues, at least the important issues, this is not the case.

So, some of this may be about further padding against the inevitable tide of Republicans who fail to vote against things the Democrats support.

 
At 5:29 PM, November 05, 2014, Anonymous BC said...

"It means that the Republicans can pass popular legislation that the Democrats oppose and force Obama to either sign it or veto it....But the bottom line for legislation is...nothing can get passed if either party is solidly opposed to it."

It seems to me that the ability of the majority party to set the legislative agenda and determine which bills get voted on is quite important. The majority can decide which issues to link or unlink together, while the President can only veto bills as a whole. For example, suppose the Republicans passed an immigration reform bill that allowed more immigration but repealed Obamacare under the premise that immigration and welfare are incompatible. Then, Obama would be forced to choose between satisfying those in the Democratic coalition that care more about immigration and those that care more about Obamacare.

One could argue that the House Republicans could have already done this even when the Dems controlled the Senate. However, Senate Dems' decision to not bring a bill up for a vote would have attracted much less media attention than would an explicit Presidential veto. Also, when Dems controlled the Senate, they could have passed their own alternative bills that contained only the provisions that they liked.

There are an infinite number of bills that the parties could consider for passing or blocking. The majority gets to decide which of those infinite number actually get considered.

 
At 3:16 AM, November 06, 2014, OpenID hudebnik said...

"A Republican majority in the Senate means that Obama cannot appoint judges, in particular Supreme Court judges, that the Republicans are solidly opposed to."

That was already true under the filibuster rule, which is precisely why Senate Democrats were seriously considering weakening the filibuster rule.

"It means that the Republicans can pass popular legislation that the Democrats oppose and force Obama to either sign it or veto it."

This, to my mind, is the real difference, along with (as Skip says) "to force the Senate Democrats to have to make painful choices, for the purpose of using them in the 2016 advertisements."

 
At 3:22 AM, November 06, 2014, OpenID hudebnik said...

One more thing: in a number of places you say "that the Republicans are solidly opposed to." In the past six years, there's been a simple criterion for this: "anything Obama supports, even if it was previously a Republican position," because they didn't want anything to be accomplished on Obama's watch.

Unless the Republican leadership decides to change this strategy with an eye to 2016, coming out for something rather than just against Obama, absolutely nothing will get done.

 
At 6:10 AM, November 06, 2014, Anonymous Simon said...

"In order for it to be interesting, the definition has to leave the outcome in doubt." This requirement fits not only competitive games but also experiments.

To corroborate or falsify a theory, we derive from it a non-obvious prediction which we can test empirically. Before an election, people make predictions based on their beliefs. In 2012, some of us believed that (1) legacy media are rapidly loosing their power and (2) this helps the Republicans, so... (3) Romney will win. The failure of (3) to happen suggests we were wrong somewhere. This time, some Democrats seem to have believed that Obama's policies were reasonably popular and so the Democrats should do O.K.

So in addition to a game worth watching, the non-obvious election provides us with an experiment to test our assumptions.

 
At 7:34 AM, November 06, 2014, Blogger jimbino said...

Republican control enhances the opportunity for the Senate to investigate the IRS, Benghazi, Fast & Furious and other matters.

 
At 8:20 AM, November 06, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

I quite often vote, primarily for symbolic reasons. Given the opportunity I vote for the libertarian candidate, except when the LP nominates someone who isn't a libertarian, as they did for president a couple of elections back.

Years ago, I got a flyer from the Democratic congressional candidate listing all the terrible things here opponent was in favor of. I was in favor of all of them, so felt some obligation to vote for him and did. This election I voted for the Republican candidate for governor, not because I knew anything good about him but because I wanted to vote against the Democratic incumbent and that was the only way of doing so.

 
At 6:59 PM, November 06, 2014, Blogger John David Galt said...

The idea that one vote never matters is similar to the theory that in a battle line, each man should run away as soon as he can get away with it (because this optimizes his individual outcome, even though if enough people follow that advice the line will collapse, which is one reason armies have sergeants). I can't fault the logic as far as the individual is concerned, but I find the process fun enough that I vote, and thus feel that I'm part of the fight.

As for control of the Senate -- there is a UN "traffic in small arms treaty" pending that would allow Obama to ban pretty much all guns, and because even the Republicans aren't really solid on this issue, many people were afraid he'd find a way to make a deal and sneak it through. If the Ds had picked up 5 or 6 votes, he probably could have done it.

 
At 12:08 AM, November 07, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

I sometimes vote when I get the opportunity, as a matter of whim, but it really makes no practical difference whether I do or don't.

If voting is a battle, I'm doomed to lose regardless, because I don't support either side.

 

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