Back in the old days, it seemed that at least in the House of Representatives, power was a zero-sum game. If a party was in the majority with a dozen or more seats to spare for occasional defections, it had the ability to do just about anything it wanted. For those relegated to the political Siberia of House minority status, there was little ability to have even a voice, much less a hand shaping the legislation that might become public law.
That changed to a certain extent in the late 1980s and early 1990s when then-Rep. Newt Gingrich led an insurrection pushing out the get-along-go-along House Republican leaders—those who had perfected the art of engaging in legislative combat by day while sipping bourbon and branch water with the majority-party members and leadership by night. The Gingrich-led House Republicans became a band of guerilla warriors, contributing to their gaining control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Tying the majority up in procedural knots and forcing those majority-party moderates in competitive districts to either break with their own party or cast votes that were harmful back in their home districts became the pattern for both Democrats and Republicans when they were in the minority. In an increasingly polarized America with the House often relatively evenly divided, the dynamics in the House are totally different than they were 40 years ago.
The Senate was a different animal by design. With the threat of filibuster, unanimous consent, and other rules and traditions long in place, minority-party senators were never the legislative eunuchs that minority House members used to be. Unless a party had a supermajority of 60 or more seats, they had a harder time running roughshod over the minority party. Each individual senator, even those in the minority, had greater clout. To be confirmed, executive-branch nominees had to secure a broader base of support, had to be acceptable to a wider philosophical and geographic swath of senators.
As the Senate Historical Office notes on its website, “In selecting an appropriate visual symbol of the Senate in its founding period, one might consider an anchor, a fence, or a saucer. Writing to Thomas Jefferson, who had been out of the country during the Constitutional Convention, James Madison explained that the Constitution's framers considered the Senate to be the great ‘anchor’ of the government. To the framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a ‘necessary fence’ against the ‘fickleness and passion’ that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to ‘cool’ House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.”
But with changes relatively recently enacted or now being considered, that unique role of the Senate is jeopardized. To the extent that the Senate becomes a majority-rules institution, simply a smaller version of the House, but with states rather than individual congressional districts represented, it would become superfluous. What’s the point of the Senate if it becomes such an institution?
Meanwhile, in the House, Democrats who so badly wanted to get back in the majority are now facing the reality that nominally being in charge is not as much fun as they expected. Fissures in a minority-party caucus are less visible and less important than those in the majority, and those within the Democratic Party are now front-page stories, no longer ignored. One byproduct of the diminished number of conservative and moderate Democratic primary voters—and subsequently elected officials—is that just as there is an endangered number of liberal and moderate Republicans, the few remaining in the middle become increasingly isolated and, politically speaking, more impotent within their party.
Moderates in both parties also get tarred by the brushes of their most visible members. Even before she was sworn into office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got significantly more news coverage than full committee chairs and ranking members who had served in Congress for decades. The news media, by who they choose to elevate with coverage, now effectively define who is perceived to be the leaders in their party, whether selected by their peers or not.
One other pattern I’ve noticed is that people in one party are quick to point out when the leaders of the other party put the squeeze on their members to toe the party line. In a recent Q&A session, an obviously conservative person pointed to current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's admonishment of mavericks this week after a number of defections on procedural floor votes, but seemed unaware that not too long ago, then-majority Republican leaders conducted similar whipping. That’s what leaders in the majority do, but they have to be judicious in which votes they choose to take a hard line on and when to give members a pass to vote their districts. It isn’t pretty but it is necessary, and a leadership that pushes too many moderates too often find itself back in minority status.