Feb. 10, 2016

Taking Stock of House-Senate Differences

I am often asked about the differences between the House and Senate. Sometimes I jokingly respond, “Do you have another hour?” However, some political scientists make the case that the two bodies have become more alike.

In their Journal of Politics article, “The Gingrich Senators and Party Polarization in the U.S. Senate,” Sean Theriault and David Rohde argue that the more the Senate is populated by former House Members who cut their political teeth during the Republican revolution sparked by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the more the Senate is taking on the coloration of its more populous counterpart.

While they concede this is due in part to the changing political orientation of states, they argue it can also be traced to the partisan conditioning of Senators when they served in the House. (I maintain that the partisan turn in Congress began in the late 1960s with the Democrats’ reform revolution that culminated in the 1970s by replacing the old order of committee government with party governance. It simply accelerated under Republicans.)

One difference that remains is the Senate’s more generous allowance for floor amendments. While the House tends to limit floor amendments generally, and strictly enforces its germaneness rule, the Senate is more open. Its germaneness rule applies only to general appropriations and budget measures. Everything else is fair game for random potshots using any weapon available.

That scatter-shot analogy is not chosen lightly: Increasingly, nongermane amendments in the Senate are offered for strategic political purposes. This may be where the “Gingrich Senators” are affecting the process in new ways. Backbenchers Gingrich and his allies mastered the political amendment tactic in the 1980s to embarrass House Democrats.

Let’s take the STOCK Act as a case study. That acronym, coined in 2006 by Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), stands for Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge. The bill is designed to make it unlawful for Members of Congress and their staffers to use nonpublic information derived from their official positions to make a private profit.

Slaughter recently told me how she had been pushing the bill for six years to no avail. In this Congress, she and (now) prime sponsor Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) had only nine co-sponsors until “60 Minutes” aired a segment Nov. 13 citing alleged insider stock trading by Members of Congress. With that expose, the bill took on an additional 277 co-sponsors almost overnight.

Within four days of the program, Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) had introduced their own STOCK bills. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the measures Dec. 1 and ordered an original bill reported Dec. 14. Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) filed the bill Jan. 26 (without a report), and that same day it was placed on the calendar and called up by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid proceeded to offer a substitute (without explanation of the changes).

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