A little context on the Sanders Global Warming amendment

Written on January 16, 2015

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend who was complaining that the Senate was going to vote on whether or not global warming exists and is human made. He was making points about how the whole Senate will look silly by being forced to demean themselves with a vote on something the rest of the world takes as a truth.

The fact that Majority Leader McConnell is allowing an open amendment tree is a little amazing based on the recent history of the Senate. The trend in both houses of Congress over the last 25 years has been one of marginalizing the rank and file in favor or a highly structured floor votes where the outcome is probably already determined. The calculation is a little different in this case because McConnell wants to eventually vote to override the President, but still, this is a (probably temporary) warming of Senate Relations.

That said, votes in the Senate are one of the most structured ways through which legislators can express their preferences. Legislation that has reached the floor has gone through several rounds of bargaining to get both technical and nontechnical language exactly right. It is precisely because of that reason that chamber leaders usually make legislation difficult to amend on the floor. Let’s say Congress is trying to pass a national budget and everything seems worked out but then some member comes and tries to attach an amendment banning federal funds to abortion once the proposal reaches the floor. Well now, all bets are off. The whole calculation just became different at the very end and most visible part of the process.

Amendments like that are one of the reasons chamber leaders limit amendments in the first place. If the majority party is responsible for, and will ultimately be held accountable for, the legislation it passes then it’s number one priority is to ensure that the majority party doesn’t look stupid. This is the fundamental insight of Cox and McCubbins’ book on agenda control. The Majority party has a responsibility to it’s members to help them get re-elected and a major part of that is making sure they talk about and advance laws that they think will help their “brand” as a party.

More specifically, some Republicans from blue states will probably have to vote against this amendment so it doesn’t get attached to the broader bill and ultimately, those Republicans will look bad and will hurt their re-election chances. I wonder how many of these votes Democrats will make Republicans go through before McConnell decides to lock down the process again. My guess is that it will not be many.