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 the Vice President, Government and External Affairs, PRINTING United Alliance, having joined Printing Industries in March 2005 as Director of Legislative Affairs. In this position, she is responsible for providing direct advocacy before Congress and the Administration on key industry legislative initiatives, as well as for the strategic direction of the organization's grassroots and external outreach activities. She serves as Treasurer of PrintPAC, the only industry political action committee dedicated solely to electing pro-print lawmakers.
Previously, Lisbeth was Director, Government Affairs at the United States Telecom Association (USTA), representing telecommunications companies ranging from the nation's largest Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) to small, rural telephone companies. Lisbeth also served as Director of Grassroots & Legislative Services at the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the nation's largest small business advocacy organization.
Lisbeth is a candidate for an M.A. in Political Management at The George Washington University and holds a B.A. from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Prior to working in Washington, D.C., Lisbeth was a teacher with Chicago Public Schools.