The U.S. Senate Is Now a Union-Free State

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) at a news conference in Washington on Dec. 17 Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Senate’s Republican minority lost its ability to filibuster presidential nominees last month. No senators, however, gave up the body’s bipartisan and God-given right to be cranky and self-important, and so last week the Republicans decided that if they couldn’t prevent, they could delay. Rather than filibuster, they’re forcing extra votes and demanding their 30 hours of rule-guaranteed debate on each nominee.

Traditionally, parties had waived this privilege if the outcome of the vote was already clear. Not last week. “The Senate was designed to protect absolutely minority rights,” Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, told the Associated Press. “This isn’t about obstructionism. This is about ‘You limited our rights.’” A tantrum: Coburn, on most other days a consistent, sober, and pragmatic deficit hawk, is describing a tantrum.

But then a funny thing happened. All those nominees put forward by President Obama ended up confirmed, some of them by wide margins: Elizabeth Wolford became a federal district court judge on a 70-29 vote, while Landya McCafferty reached the same perch with 79 votes. Patricia Millett squeaked through to the crucial D.C. Circuit Court on a 56-38 vote. After five hours of debate about a foregone conclusion, Mel Watt, the administration’s choice to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, won confirmation on a 57-41 vote.

And the extraordinary run of confirmations continued yesterday with an extraordinary result: Jeh Johnson became the secretary of Homeland Security on a 78-16 vote, securing a major Cabinet-level post with far-reaching responsibilities that include terrorism and immigration with approval from more than three-quarters of the Senate. Including 23 Republicans.

Given these lopsided votes, it’s hard to figure out what the Republican minority has been doing this whole time. Last week I wrote a brief history of party power in Congress. Parties have much, much more power over their politicians than they used to, and so can demand party-level tactics like minority filibusters in the Senate or Speaker decisions to not bring up bills without a majority of the majority in the House.

So the last week of votes in the Senate show us that Tom Coburn is half right. The body has eliminated a prerogative of the minority party leadership. But that prerogative wasn’t necessarily shared by the entire minority: 23 Republicans had their own reasons to vote for Johnson.

This same dynamic exists when labor negotiates with capital. Think of the Senate minority as the line workers in a plant. They don’t have any power over the majority unless they band together and negotiate as one. With the filibuster, the party leaders had real power and there was reason for individual senators to give up their own votes in exchange for the power of a solid minority.

Think of Mitch McConnell as the union boss of the Senate’s Republicans. The potential vote of any individual senator was masked behind his decision to continue debate. Now that the minority can no longer filibuster—it can no longer collectively bargain—we can measure, vote by vote, how little individual support among minority senators there was for the leadership’s decisions.

As in a plant without a union, the Senate majority—capital—can bargain with labor on a senator-by-senator basis. The United States Senate is a union-free state. Amazing how much more productive those states can be.

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