The Power of Individuals: Party Control in the Senate

I will examine how much influence party leadership has in steering the votes of their individual Senators toward the party ideology, both in committee and in on the floor. Parties have ideological goals and platforms that they want to achieve and the extent to which those goals are realized is a reflection on the strength of the party and the competence of the party leadership. Therefore, party leaders will be heavily invested in ensuring that their particular platform is executed to the farthest extent possible. While individual senators also have ideological goals, they are also concerned with being reelected. Since senators are elected from each state in its entirety, their constituents likely do not support the platform of either party in its entirety and thus each senator cannot always support the efforts of the leadership. These realities of political life, as well as potential ideological differences between individual senators and the party caused by differences in constituents, ensure that the parties will never have a group of senators who are in complete lockstep with their platforms and thus will always have conflict.

The question here is determining how exactly the interplay between numeric advantage and party control translates into individual action. The conflict between individual senators and the party should be played out along lines of interest. Both actors want to maximize their ideological return, the party by gaining power and the senator by being reelected. Thus the party wants to balance railroading its members into ideologically pure legislation, which could result in them losing reelection and a decrease in the party’s strength, and allowing them to cater to their constituents, which could result in legislation that does not follow the party’s platform as closely. Senators want to balance following their party, in order to gain support from the party in their reelection campaign, and appeasing their constituents, who will actual determine their reelection. The puzzle arises from determining how the conflict between individual senators and the party plays out in the Senate, where more heterogeneous constituencies as well as the traditions of deliberation and compromise make it more difficult for party leaders to exert House-style control over their members.

I became interested in this topic when during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. A great deal of attention was focused on Senator Ben Nelson, who broke with his colleagues and threatened to filibuster with the Republicans to prevent passage of the bill. This one member and his decision to vote against his party temporarily stopped passage of the president’s signature legislation. The Democratic Senate leadership’s inability to marshal all of their votes stand in contrast to the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate, who were able to force unanimous opposition to the bill. I became interested in what factors differentiated Senator Nelson from the Democratic position and why his party leadership was temporarily unable to influence his vote.

I‘d appreciate any comments or suggestions you may have and look forward to seeing all of you in November.

– Cadet Lieutenant Matthew Curliss, United States Military Academy

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One Response to The Power of Individuals: Party Control in the Senate

  1. Your project sounds really interesting, Matthew! I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of interpersonal influence and organizational leadership, so I will be interested to see where your research takes you as you tackle these issues from a political point of view.

    Good luck on your work; I look forward to meeting you in November in DC. (Although, incidentally, I’ll be at West Point between 14-18 October for an Ethics Conference, so I guess its feasible I could run into you then…)

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