We Need to Talk about the Senate

They are the 101 Most Powerful People in the World

Every four years during the Presidential elections, Americans go through the long and arduous process of demonstrating how little we understand our own democracy. The one fault with democracy is that it can be a bit complicated to orchestrate and conceptualize. But Presidents are easy. We all know what Presidents do, right? I mean, we don’t, and I’m working out a book on exactly that, but the point is, we think we understand Presidents. So, historically, Presidential elections drive turnout.

The problem with that conceptualization is, the way our democratic republic is set up, the Executive Branch is one of three theoretically equal Branches of government. So when we call the President the “leader of the free world,” or “the most powerful person in the world,” that’s not exactly accurate. Presidents do wield absurd amounts of power. There has been since about the 1970s or so increasing literature on how overly expansive the Presidency has become. But, theoretically, that executive power is checked by the Judicial and Legislative Branches.

So, really, Americans should be out there demonstrating our ignorance in civics at least every two years. Better yet, we shouldn’t be ignorant in civics, but hey: this is why I wrote a book. Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville should be first in line to buy and read it when I finally get it published because, yikes.

A great President like Obama can succeed in spite of an obstructionist Senate or Congress. But even a great President will do better if she has allies in Congress.

Let’s talk about Mitch McConnell then. I have spent a lot of time trying to deduce some motivation for McConnell besides base greed and lust for power and I always come up empty. I will not pass judgement on the content of his heart, but if we go by Proverbs 20:11 there really is no argument for McConnell being of upstanding character.

Also, he kinda looks like he went 0 for 3 with an actual demon. (Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

In 2010 just prior to the midterm elections McConnell sat for an interview with the National Journal wherein he laid out his plans for a Republican takeover of government and made his infamous statement:

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.

Intent on outdoing himself by Valentine’s Day of this year Mitch McConnell had let some 395 House Bills essentially die in the Senate earning him rebuke from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who called him “the Grim Reaper of the Senate.”

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016, McConnell refused to so much as hold hearings for Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland. His reasoning, in his own words was:

Of course the American people should have a say in the court’s direction. It is a president’s constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, and it is the Senate’s constitutional right to act as a check on the President and withhold its consent. (Quoted in NPR)

This was made nakedly hypocritical when despite public protests and while this Presidential election was taking place, McConnell’s statement on Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death promised to push through a nominee explicitly against the people’s wishes citing not the looming Republican loss of the Presidency or the 2018 landslide loss of the House but the narrow Republican margin in the Senate as justification.

If we ignore the history of Republican voter suppression we could excuse McConnell’s zealotry regarding stymieing Obama’s efforts and trying to take back the government for Republicans as simply a result of his Party affiliations and (mis)understanding of the American electorate. But then of course, he went and did all the other stuff. And we cannot actually ignore voter suppression of BIPOC Americans because it is a real and present danger to our democracy.

But what should really be nerve-wracking at the present moment is that while McConnell does not seem to be publicly participating in Trumps efforts to undermine the results of the election, he also has not congratulated Biden or Harris nor has he signalled to other Republicans that they should recognize the very system underpinning our nation.

This brings us to the possibility of a Democratic Senate majority. As of now, the Republicans will have 50 Senate seats and the Democrats will have no fewer than 48. The final count could be anything from 50–50 to 48–52 with a Democratic majority due to Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote for the former and a Republican majority with McConnell presumably remaining as Senate Majority Leader for the latter.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The reason for this uncertainty is Georgia. Because Johnny Isakson retired before his term was up both his seat and Perdue’s class 2 seat were up for election. Kelly Loeffler was appointed to Isakson’s seat by current Georgia governor Brian Kemp (who ran against Stacy Abrams as Secretary of State and only narrowly won the election after purging voter registration for more than 100,000 Georgians).

However, Georgia election law states that no candidate may be seated unless they receive a majority of the vote and in the November 3rd election no one did. Both Perdue and Loeffler — despite the advantages of incumbency — fell short. Jon Ossoff who is challenging Perdue lags 88,098 votes behind but Raphael Warnock who took on Kelly Loeffler did take home a plurality of votes in his election leading by 343,821.

So, it’s a runoff. And I’d make the obvious Zoolander joke here, but Opening Arguments beat me to it.

Georgians who were not registered for the November 3rd election can register online provided they do so by December 7, 2020. The election itself will be held on January 5, 2021. (The 117th Congress is sworn in January 3, 2021, so I would assume the winners of the runoff will be sworn in separately.)

Georgia in the past tends Republican, but in this election Georgia’s Electoral College votes will go to Biden, who won by wide margins in most counties with total votes in excess of 50,000 and won the general vote by 12,670. The Senate runoffs will not have the advantage of a Presidential race at the top of the ticket, but they will also not compete with third-party candidates. This could go either way.

Perdue and Ossoff faced off in a race that included the Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel who took home 115,039 votes accounting for 2.3% of the total. In the Warnock Loeffler race Republican Doug Collins won 980,454 votes making up 20%. Democrats seem more engaged in this race, and the QAnon conspiracy theory which provided a buffer for Trump in the Presidential election will likely have less of an effect in the runoff as Trump will not be on the ballot. But Republicans are well aware of the stakes and are mobilizing.

Moreover, the talking points in this race are exceptionally partisan and unlikely to flip voters. Warnock and Ossoff are Black and Jewish respectively with both having strong progressive bona fides. Warnock in particular attended Morehouse College and was the youngest senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “spiritual home,” Ebenezer Baptist Church. Republicans however are taking aim at him for his support of President Barack Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a church where he served as a youth pastor welcoming Fidel Castro. To a Democrat and to most other liberal voters such claims are weak particularly given that they are not really statements or actions taken by Warnock himself, but to a Republican they serve as incentive.

Conversely, both Loeffler and Perdue have engaged in questionable trading practices and while neither faced serious repercussions, their actions especially in the face of a pandemic which has resulted in the deaths of over 250,000 Americans have not gone over well with left-of-centre voters. Reaction to Perdue’s refusal to face Ossoff in the final Senate debate, similarly, is more telling of voters’ ideological leanings than it is indicative of a result on January 5th.

Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have won the Presidential and Vice-Presidential election. And they have earned over 80 million votes. That is impressive and indicative of some rather reassuring things about our democracy. Moreover, these are both consummate professionals with exceptional progressive resumes. They will be able to correct the course Trump and McConnell set us on and repair at least some of the damage the Republicans have done.

However, a President’s powers go only so far. A President cannot sign into law bills that have not passed Congress and a President can only veto so much before she is seen as obstructionist herself. Biden and Harris can get into a lot of good trouble just on their own, but they cannot fully heal the country unless the Senate is at least willing to come to the table. With McConnell’s history of intransigence, that essentially requires a Democratic majority.

Senate Republicans — it would appear — wish to be relegated to the dust heap of history.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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