If elected, the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa, Joni Ernst, would wield a lot of power.

Catch of the Day: Why Each Senator Matters

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Jamelle Bouie for a nice item on the radicalism of Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa. Would it matter if one out of 50 (give or take five) Republican senators was far from the mainstream?

The Senate has become an almost parliamentary body, with lockstep unity on most issues. If elected to the Senate, Ernst would join with Sen. Mitch McConnell on almost every vote; that she happens to believe conspiracy theories doesn't change the fact that she's a Republican first and foremost.

But for as much as both sides walk in lockstep, individual senators still retain a tremendous amount of influence, from power over legislation and nominees to substantial media attention. A senator who wants to can bring an issue into the national conversation: Think Sen. Rand Paul and drone warfare, or Sen. Ted Cruz and his crusade against the Affordable Care Act. Above and beyond their party affiliation, it mattered that Paul was a libertarian and Cruz was an avatar for the Tea Party base.

That's very important.

The U.S. Congress may now feature quasi-parliamentary-style voting, but it isn't a parliamentary body. In most parliamentary systems, the government supplies bills to the legislature, which then votes for them. The big power of in-party backbenchers is that they can threaten to bring down the government by voting against party bills.

That's not how Congress works. Yes, during periods of unified government the president will choose legislative priorities and the party in Congress often goes along. But even then it's generally Congress, not the White House, that drafts bills. Congress is free to add items to the agenda, or to ignore the administration's priorities, as Republican Congresses did when they rejected President George W. Bush's Social Security and immigration proposals.

This also means that individual members of Congress act. We have bills with names such as Dodd-Frank because Representative Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd wrote it, with input from members of their committees. They decided what would go in the measure and what would stay out; they negotiated compromises with each other, their respective committees and individual swing senators. Especially on the Senate side, any lawmaker who cares about a provision has an opportunity to fight it out. They don't win on every issue, but they have an opportunity for meaningful input.

Even in the House, which is much more top-down, largish voting groups within the majority party can force their party to cut deals. And within those groups, individual members are the engines. So individuals can matter -- and reporters should cover them.

To put it another way: Yes, parties are very important, but they mostly reflect the combined choices of their individual members. Every change in membership can change the choices of the Republican conference.

Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net