Now we can look forward to more obscene tax cuts for the rich, wholesale rape of the environment, huge deficits, obstruction of any investigation into corruption and a packed judiciary." Letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, November 7, 2002.
According to much postelection commentary a shift of two Senate seats has delivered full control of national policy to the Republicans. Soon oil companies will drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and conservative judges will assume seats on various federal courts, among other Democratic nightmares.
In fact, as any freshman who did not sleep through American Government 101 should know, nothing of the sort is likely to occur. Certainly, there will be some movement. The Homeland Security Bill, for example, has already become law, Democrats having realized that seeming to place the interests of public sector unions over national security was not a winning electoral strategy. In budgetary matters, the Republicans will do better on the margins and a compromise version of prescription drug coverage will pass.
But Republicans with loftier ambitions are likely to be disappointed, for the switch in control does not greatly increase the likelihood that major Republican legislation will pass the Senate. The implication of the filibuster is that on most matters (the budget is the exception that seems to have misled so many) sixty Senators must be willing to take up legislation or nominations. Nothing that forty-one or more Democrats strongly oppose will pass. The switch in control has not magically produced sixty votes for a Republican version of a prescription drug bill or a producer-friendly energy policy. Two months ago Tom Daschle could not pass anything that forty-one Republicans were willing to filibuster, and two months from now the same will be true for Bill Frist and forty-one recalcitrant Democrats.
In sum, for those who like policy gridlock, little has changed. What the switch in control will change is the "show time" aspects of the Senate process. We will see more of Bill Frist and less of Tom Daschle on TV. There will be more publicity for bills favored by the Republicans, different hearings with different witnesses, and more votes intended to embarrass Democrats. That's the way the game is played.
There is, however, a danger as well as a benefit to the Republicans in their new status as the party in control of the national government. With control comes responsibility for national policies and national conditions. One reason that congressional Democrats fared so badly in the 1994 elections was that Democrats controlled everything and thus took full blame. After Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole assumed leadership of their respective chambers, however, President Clinton was able to shift blame to the Republicans and "triangulate" to reelection, an option now unavailable to President Bush. Republicans now bear full responsibility for the state of the nation during the coming two years, but they have less power than most people realize.