The Green Papers Commentary

Senator Jeffords and the "Power Shift" in the Senate

Monday, June 4, 2001


On Wednesday 6 June 2001, the United States Senate of the 107th Congress will reconvene after its Memorial Day recess and Senator James Jeffords, Republican of the State of VERMONT, will formally become an Independent; officially, the Democrats will- at that very moment- become the Majority party in the Senate as they had been for the 17 days between the convening of the 107th Congress and the inauguration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as President and Vice President, respectively. Democrats have been walking around with wide smiles on their faces, along with an extra spring in their step, ever since Senator Jeffords formally announced his intentions to leave the Republican Party this past 24 May; at times, one half-expected to see footage on CNN or MSNBC of Democrats of both houses in Congress encircling the White House, holding hands and singing Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead (I did see, while traveling through Vermont over the Memorial Day weekend, a hand-painted sign stuck in what New Englanders call the "door-yard" of a home alongside U.S. Route 7- the Ethan Allen Highway, mind you- reading "THANK YOU, SENATOR JEFFORDS!"-- to which I could only think " 'Thank You' for WHAT?!").

Meanwhile, the Republicans have been making quite a bit of money for the manufacturers of both sackcloth and ashes; "Mea culpa"s have been raining down from on high among the circles of GOP national power: Andrew Card, President Bush's chief of staff, himself took full responsibility for Jeffords' defection; there are even rumors that Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi will step down as Republican leader in the Senate, especially if the BIG rumor- that last year's major challenger for the GOP Presidential Nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona, will soon become a Democrat [!!]- turns out to actually be true. I'm sorry, folks; it is time for everyone to stop, step back, take a deep breath and look at Senator Jeffords' party switch with a bit more cogent analysis.

The only real effect that Jeffords' defection will have, for the time being, is that it will make Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia- for the second time during this Congress- President pro Tempore of the Senate (a more or less ceremonial position in any event); assuming that Senator Lott does not, in fact, fall on his sword, the leadership in both Parties in the Senate otherwise remains the same. More importantly, the Senate membership remains exactly the same and these Senators will vote on the floor- as well as in committee- the way they would have voted had Senator Jeffords remained a Republican: those Democrats who would vote with the Republicans on some issues will continue to do so... and vice versa!

The "power shift" the Jeffords defection causes is less about "power" than it is about "shift" (as in: the words "Majority Whip", to take one example, shift to underneath a different name during Senate coverage on C-SPAN): the Ranking Members of Senate committees now become their Chairmen but what does this really portend? Yes, it's true that- under a Chairman Patrick Leahy- the Senate Judiciary Committee, to take one obvious example, will allow liberal Special Interest groups to, perhaps, gain more "face time" on TV during hearings on appointments to Federal judgeships than they would have had under a Chairman Orrin Hatch: meanwhile, the size of the spotlight held on conservative Special Interest groups will be lessened accordingly-- but so what? When, for example, has the National Abortion Rights Action League ever convinced a conservative Republican Senator to vote against a conservative judicial nominee put forth by a Republican President?! (I believe Clarence Thomas is actually now serving on the U.S. Supreme Court!) The only way the Party shift re: who the Majority in the Senate happens to be can be seen to have any significance other than one that's merely procedural- given the fact that the Senate membership remains as it was going to be after the elections this past November- is if one allows oneself to totally confuse "action" with "accomplishment"!

The same thing applies to those upset with Jeffords' jump from the GOP because he was so recently re-elected as a Republican; I have never heard such whining! Jeffords' political views are widely known, particularly in his own home State- he is, after all, now in his third six-year term as a Senator, for goodness sake!!: before he was first elected to the Senate, he was a seven (count 'em: 7!)- term Congressman (elected Statewide, to boot!!); any voter in the State of Vermont who honestly thought James Merrill Jeffords was a dyed-in-the-wool "lockstep with Trent n' the boys in the GOP cloakroom" type had to have just crawled out from under a rock after more than a quarter century in quiet, self-satisfied hibernation!!!

The problem is that the Two-Party System (still functioning in each house of Congress as regards organizing a working Majority and a contrasting Minority) no longer functions as a workable diagram for national political analysis outside those very Halls of Congress: we note that the 50-50 Senate is now to be 50-49-1 and we all act like it is no longer split... yet, it actually remains split as it has been since this Congress first convened last 3 January: between 40-something "follow the leader[ship]" Democrats of various stripes (from the "tradlib" post-postNewDealists all the way to "lefties" like... well... Paul Wellstone of Minnesota), 40-something "cloakroom" Republicans of likewise various stripes (from the moderately conservative to... ahem... Jesse Helms of North Carolina), with a relative handful (numbers in the single digits) of centrists (who are themselves "centrist" in various and sundry ways: John Breaux of Louisiana and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut among the centrist Democrats; Linc Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine among the centrist Republicans) holding the balance of power in the Senate. If George W. Bush will now have trouble putting forth hard core conservative judicial nominations, it is no more trouble than he would have had prior to 24 May's announcement: most assuredly, Senator Jeffords did not cease to be a centrist simply because he no longer is a member of either Major Party in that body!

When the political makeup of the Senate is significantly altered from what it is now, especially when its membership changes significantly as well (as it almost certainly will- regardless of which Party emerges as its Majority- after the 2002 Midterm Congressional Elections), then-- maybe-- you have a story (though the Senate has almost always been a moderate body compared to the House of Representatives [regardless of which Party has controlled either chamber] anyway: the Framers of the Constitution actually, however inadvertently, designed it that way!). Until then, pardon me while I yawn... "Dog Bites Man", "Sun Rises in East" are not News; neither is "Jeffords of Vermont doesn't always vote with most of his GOP colleagues": the impending change of Majority Party in the Senate hasn't changed this latter observation one bit!


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