Organizing the Senate Can Sometimes Get Messy

No-fuss committee changes haven’t always been the norm

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer meets with Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Tina Smith of Minnesota in the Capitol on Jan. 3. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer meets with Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Tina Smith of Minnesota in the Capitol on Jan. 3. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 24, 2018 at 5:03am

The Senate’s leaders reached a deal to adjust committee membership without much fanfare this month, but such comity has not always been a sure thing.

Last month’s election of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones that set the Republican majority at 51-49 meant that the two parties would need to make relatively straightforward changes, providing for the GOP to hold one-seat majorities on committees either by reducing the total number of Republicans where there was a surplus, or adding an extra Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer opted to take the path of least resistance and avoid infuriating current senators by simply adding extra Democrats to the Finance and Judiciary committees, with some ancillary reshuffling to improve the standing of some senators with more seniority.

But the routine nature of doling out assignments, like much of the Senate’s business, can get complicated. Resolutions making committee assignments are open to debate.

Watch: Smith, Jones Arrive, but Can They Last?

Loading the player...

A switch in time

The fiercest such debate probably took place in January 1953.

In the run-up to the previous year’s presidential election, Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon left the Republican Party and threw his support behind Democratic presidential nominee and Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson.

When Morse arrived in Washington for the opening of the 83rd Congress, he called himself an independent senator and intended to position a folding chair in the center aisle that separates the two caucuses, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Ultimately, Morse backed down from the spectacle of sitting in the middle of the chamber, but a standoff over committee assignments ensued.

“Sen. Morse has stated that he is not a member of the Republican Party and does not wish to be assigned to committees by the majority,” Senate Majority Leader Robert A. Taft said.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic minority leader at the time, had no real incentive to give prime committee slots to Morse, either. The way the Senate divided, Republicans held a 48-47 majority. With Morse the independent and with Republican Richard Nixon assuming the vice presidency, the GOP could hold sway over the chamber.

Morse argued that his assignments to committees, including the Armed Services panel, should be preserved, and “should come from the Senate as a whole.”

He said that was because of seniority, as well as “my knowledge and experience gained from my previous work on them.”

What ensued was an effort by Morse to name himself to retain seats on preferred committees, taking advantage of a Senate rule that the historian’s office suggested had been long forgotten or at least disregarded.

His effort was not successful. Taft and Johnson put to a ballot their preferred slate of committee assignments, leaving space for Morse on the less prestigious committees, including overseeing Public Works and the District of Columbia.

Late last year, senators and aides were gearing up for a possible repeat of 1953 in the event Republican Roy Moore won the special election for the Senate seat in Alabama.

Talk around the Capitol was about allowing the former judge into the Republican Conference, and willingly seating him on committees at all.

Smooth sailing

Even without the suspense of that floor battle, there were some moves that needed to play out behind the scenes.

The resignation of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, which took effect in early January, led to the simultaneous arrival of two new Democrats — Tina Smith as Franken’s appointed replacement, and Jones.

That meant Franken’s committee assignments were up for the taking in addition to the newly created Democratic seats at Judiciary and Finance (where Republicans had previously held two-seat advantages).

Among the seats previously held by Franken were positions on the Commerce and Judiciary panels.

The appearance of two open Judiciary seats was something of an opportunity for Schumer, who was being pushed by outside civil rights groups to make appointments to diversify the committee.

He ultimately granted seats on the panel to Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, both black Democrats who could make runs for the White House in 2020. That move earned plaudits from the likes of Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Their appointments, Clarke said, “recognizes the importance of different perspectives and the value of diversity on the committee, which has jurisdiction over important issues including voting rights, judicial nominations and criminal justice reform.”

Franken’s Commerce seat went to Sen. Jon Tester. A spokesman for the Montana Democrat said the senator wanted to make the switch from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The move won Tester — who is up for re-election this year — accolades from Montana business leaders, including Geoff Feiss, general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association.

Tester’s new role “puts him front and center” for upcoming deliberations on delivering universal access to affordable broadband services, Feiss said in a statement. He called the broadband infrastructure a “fiber backbone” that is critical for rural America, and said his group would work with Tester to push for a federal commitment to aggressive investment for it.

Tester, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee, remains the top Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing the Department of Homeland Security budget.

Rural broadband was also a consideration in another committee switch on the Democratic side.

It has been a priority issue for Smith, the former Minnesota lieutenant governor who now faces a special election in November. She also had an interest in serving on the Agriculture Committee, particularly with a farm bill set to be drafted.

That wish became reality after Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, switched from Agriculture to Environment and Public Works, joining his senior Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin there.

The EPW panel is critical to central Maryland’s success and affects every community in the state, Van Hollen said.

“I’ve been a strong advocate for the idea that environmental and agricultural interests must work together to succeed, and I will continue to fight for Maryland’s farming community in the U.S. Senate,” he said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was perhaps the biggest winner of the latest assignments.

The Rhode Island Democrat secured the added seat at the far end of the dais of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, trade and entitlements.

Whitehouse’s ascension to Finance gives tiny Rhode Island seats at the table of three of the most powerful committees. Senior Sen. Jack Reed is a senior appropriator as well as the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Even with all this jockeying, and with obvious advantages and boasting points for Democrats, there was nary a dissent in the chamber, and the assignments went into effect with no fuss.

Handling a tie

The last time committee allocations really caused a stir came in 2001, when the Senate found itself briefly deadlocked between Republicans and Democrats.

Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi had the slight upper hand once Vice President Dick Cheney took the oath of office, but the two party leaders reached a deal to have equal representation on committees.

Lott and Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota also devised a system under which legislation, as well as nominations of President George W. Bush, could advance to the floor even when there was a tie during committee consideration.

The bipartisan arrangement, which also included committee budgets, proved short-lived, as Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords would soon switch from the Republican side to be an independent, caucusing with the Democrats. That gave Daschle and the Democrats a one-seat advantage.

Jeffords was rewarded with the EPW chairmanship.

The negotiations after the Jeffords switch were in some ways more contentious. Republicans mulled filibustering the effort to reorganize the Senate in June 2001.

Lott had sent a letter to GOP senators saying the new Democratic majority “lacks the moral authority of a mandate from the voters.”

But when the new dawn arrived in June, Lott and Daschle had managed to work out an agreement with committees having one-seat majorities.

Despite consternation among members of the Republican Conference over Lott’s actions crafting the agreement during the tied Senate, the situation serves as a template of what could happen now in the event another Republican seat changes hands this year — or if Schumer and company were to net one seat in the 2018 midterm elections.