A 50-50 Senate: So How Does That Work? (And Why Georgia Still Matters)
It’s 50-50, folks. The two final Senate races of Election 2020 have been decided. Senators-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their respective Georgia run-off campaigns, thus becoming the first Democrat senators elected from the Peach State since 2005 (and Warnock becoming the state’s first black senator and only the second black senator elected to a Southern state since Reconstruction). Clearly, this has ramifications for future policy and politics on Capitol Hill. But it also represents a practical challenge in running the Senate. If the operations manager in you is wondering, “How does a 50/50 Senate even work?”, read on.
While rare, an evenly split Senate has occurred a handful of times in history, most recently in 2001 when President George W. Bush was sworn into his first term. It was a partisan mirror image back then, with Republican Vice President Dick Cheney as the ceremonial president of the Senate and, therefore, the tie-breaker. While the US Constitution made that part easy, there were still thorny issues to resolve, such as: committee ratios, staff resources, and even division of office space. Typically, to the victor belong the spoils and the party in control maintains the greater share of power in these areas. In a 50-50 world, it’s up to the top leaders of both parties — Democrat Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) — to forge an agreement on how to divvy up the operation.
Many experts believe Schumer and McConnell will look back to the unique “power-sharing” agreement made by their predecessors in 2001 as an example. That year, Democrat Leader Tom Daschle (SD) and Republican Leader Trent Lott (MS) cut a deal that allowed all Senate committees to have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans (with protocols on how to advance legislation out of committees should a tie situation occur). In terms of the scheduling and consideration of Senate legislative and executive business, the deal required both party leaders “to seek to attain an equal balance of the interests of the two parties” (Congressional Research Services, 12/27/06). Basically, a handshake. Committee budgets and office space were also evenly divided, as were other functional duties like allowing minority party Senators to act as presiding officers and allowing equal access to common spaces in the Capitol complex.
Of course, the current Senate party leaders are free to negotiate their own way out of this sticky wicket – and already Schumer is telling colleagues he plans to seek a one-seat advantage on committees (and possibly two seats on subcommittees), but the 2001 deal would be an easy and quick template for Schumer and McConnell to adopt. “Quick” is a relative term, however. In a memo former Senate Leader Lott sent to lobbying colleagues the day after the Georgia races were called, he noted that it took two weeks for his deal with Daschle to be cemented; it was passed by voice vote on January 8th. The current leaders are already starting behind this time curve due to the late Georgia run-off election.
In an email accompanying his memo, Lott noted that the simple 50-50 power-sharing agreement worked, stating, “We passed a tax cut, appropriations, a defense bill, and the No Child Left Behind education bill in the first six months.” He also noted that daily open communication between Schumer and McConnell will be key to making any similar agreement work.
A footnote from the old Daschle-Lott power-sharing deal of 2001? It lasted barely six months. In May of that year, Senator Jim Jeffords (VT) formally switched his party allegiance from Republican to Democrat, thus creating a 51-49 chamber. While there is not an expected party flip on the horizon in 2021, vacancies created by sudden retirement, illness or even death have occurred in the past. And in this uncertain time of COVID-19, short-term quarantines or the virus itself have kept Senators away from their voting duties. A 50-50 split is fragile and may not last for a full two-year Congress. In the near term, though, VP-elect Kamala Harris will become very accustomed to the routine of shuttling from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.
An extra wrinkle is the Warnock seat. Because Warnock was elected to complete the six-year term of a retiring Senator (his opponent, Kelly Loeffler, had been appointed as a placeholder in that seat and lost her official election bid to retain it), he will need to stand for re-election (or allow an open seat to be up for grabs) in 2022. Which means the nation’s eyes and potentially the political trajectory of the Senate will be focused on Georgia – again! – in just 670 days.
Lisbeth Lyons is Vice President, Government & Political Affairs, PRINTING United Alliance, the largest, most comprehensive graphic arts trade association in the country. With more than 20 years of experience representing the voice of business on Capitol Hill, Lisbeth advocates for public policies that protect and advance the economic future of the printing and packaging industry. She oversees PRINTING United Alliance’s legislative, political, and grassroots advocacy initiatives, and has served in executive leadership of multiple successful advocacy campaigns, such as Coalition for Paper Options, Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, and Stop Tariffs on Printers & Publishers Coalition.
Prior to representing PRINTING United Alliance, Lisbeth served in similar roles at Printing Industries of America, US Telecom, and the National Federation of Independent Business. She also spent three years as a K-12 teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system, where she was on the forefront of urban education reform in the mid-1990s.
Lisbeth is Midwestern born and bred, having grown up in the St. Louis metropolitan area and attended college at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, before starting her career in Washington, DC. She holds a B.A. in English/Sociology and a professional graduate certificate from The George Washington University School of Political Management. She lives in the historic Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.
An avid leader and learner in professional development, Lisbeth was a founding member of the Government Relations Leadership Forum, and is an active participant in organizations such as Council of Manufacturing Associations, Women in Government Relations, and National Association of Business PACs, among others. Lisbeth is often a featured speaker at premier industry conferences; she has spoken to Boards of Directors, corporate executive management teams, and state and regional trade associations across the country from coast to coast.