Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Saucer that Cools the Coffee?

Of the many kooky aspects of the Senate and their many rationalizations, perhaps none is more celebrated that the six-year term. Six years in office is supposed to allow Senators to get to know one another and gain each other's respect, in addition to developing an area(s) of expertise. Consistency in membership is supposed to be one of the reasons the Senate is the "greatest deliberative body in the world." Staggered elections are supposed to contribute to that consistency, insulating the Senate from the "whims of the public."

Now, whether one still supports six-year terms and staggered elections for Senators, the current situation provides us a perfect opporunity to test some of the assumptions underlying their justifications. For one, in an era when the public's "whims" have tilted heavily in one direction, we should expect the Senate to have been slower at adapting to these whims than was the House. To test this hypothesis, I made some quick lists of 1) the seats in each body that have changed partisan hands since Jan. 1, 2005 and 2) seats that have different members since Jan.1, 2005 even if they are of the same party.

As it turns out, the 55 House seats we have gained between the 109th Congress (202 seats) and the 111th Congress (257 seats) is 12.6% of the House, actually less than the 14% gain - from 45 to 59 seats - in the Senate. Under the measure of seats that have new occupants, which would undermine the enhanced institutional knowledge that the staggered terms are said to ensure, the Senate does not fare much better. My calculations (it is important to know here that I count seats that do not yet have new members - Gregg, Gillibrand, Emanuel, Solis - as if they did, because they soon will and all as a direct result of the 2008 elections) are that 134 House seats have new members since the Jan. 1, 2005 (note that Jim Ryun (KS-2) is not included in this total as he lost his seat to Nancy Boyda (D) in 2006 and subsequently won it back in 2008. That
turns out to be 30.8% of the House. Over the same period 28 Senate seats have changed Senators.

Clearly, the Senate has experienced as much change as the House in these particularly turbulent times. Six-year terms and staggered terms cannot isolate the Senate from political waves.

The full list of Senate seats that have changed is below:

Mark Begich (D-AK) for Ted Stevens (R-AK)
Mark Udall (D-CO) for Wayne Allard (R-CO)
Michael Bennet (D-CO) for Ken Salazar (D-CO)
Ted Kaufman (D-DE) for Joe Biden (D-DE)
Jim Risch (R-ID) for Larry Craig (R-ID)
Roland Burris (D-IL) for Barack Obama (D-IL)
Ben Cardin (D-MD) for Paul Sarbanes (D-MD)
Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) for Mark Dayton (D-MN)
Al Franken (D-MN) for Norm Coleman (R-MN)
Roger Wicker (R-MS) for Trent Lott (R-MS)
Claire McCaskill (D-MO) for Jim Talent (R-MO)
Jon Tester (D-MT) for Conrad Burns (R-MT)
Mike Johanns (R-NE) for Chuck Hagel (R-NE)
Bonnie Newman (R-NH) for Judd Gregg (R-NH)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) for John Sununu (R-NH)
Bob Menendez (D-NJ) for Jon Corzine (D-NJ)
Tom Udall (D-NM) for Pete Domenici (R-NM)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) for Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
Kay Hagan (D-NC) for Elizabeth Dole (R-NC)
Sherrod Brown (D-OH) for Mike DeWine (R-OH)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR) for Gordon Smith (R-OH)
Bob Casey (D-PA) for Rick Santorum (R-PA)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) for Lincoln Chafee (R-RI)
Bob Corker (R-TN) for Bill Frist (R-TN)
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for Jim Jeffords (I-VT)
Mark Warner (D-VA) for John Warner (R-VA)
Jim Webb (D-VA) for George Allen (R-VA)
John Barrasso (R-WY) for Craig Thomas (R-WY)

1 comment:

Jonathan Cooper said...

Good analysis. I don't think many people realize House and Senate has more-or-less equal turnover. I certainly didn't.

But if you don't support 6-year terms with staggered elections, what do you propose as the alternative? If you propose elections for the entire Senate all together, wouldn't that make the Senate MORE vulnerable to public whims that happen to come in Senate years, while inoculating the body to whims that come in non-Senate years (assuming Senators aren't elected biannually as House members are)?