Last week I touched on why the Democrats, despite winning control of the Senate ten days ago, may struggle to enact many or any of their progressive ideas during the Joe Biden presidency. In short, they have no margin for error in the chamber: they must win over all 50 Democrat senators to pass their proposals, and the “50th” Democratic senator – Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the least progressive and most likely to rebel – is wary of many ideas beloved by Democratic activists.
But there is another element to the party’s control of the Senate that risks being underappreciated. In contrast to the enduring problem of Manchin, this development should give left-wing idealists everywhere reason to be hopeful: by winning control of the Senate last week, the Democrats won control of the Senate’s committees. And many of the chamber’s most crucial economic committees are about to be taken over not only by Democrats, but some of the most progressive Democrats in the US.
Some of them are familiar. Bernie Sanders, deprived of a cabinet post after being considered by Joe Biden as his secretary of labour, is about to take control of the Senate Budget Committee. This role should prove crucial in a Senate where Biden has only 50 votes, as Democrats will likely seek to pass many laws under so-called “budget reconciliation” bills. These bills, which can be introduced for specific fiscal measures (a term whose meaning will be the subject of much debate), require only a bare majority to pass, unlike other Senate legislation, where 60 votes are required. This will allow Democrats to pass measures without Republican support. Any such bills will be initiated and controlled by Sanders’ committee.
Elizabeth Warren, the other presidential candidate who came closest to challenging Biden in the Democrat primary, will run the Financial Institutions subcommittee. This oversees the banking system, the Federal Reserve, and the institution that Warren helped set up during the Obama administration: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – a body in great need of revival after becoming emaciated under Trump.
Warren and Sanders are respectively rated as the fifth and 15th most progressive members of the Senate by Progressive Punch, an organisation that examines senators’ lifetime voting records. Another major progressive (ranked 11th) is Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who will take over the Senate Banking and Housing committee, of which Warren’s subcommittee is a part. Meanwhile Ron Wyden of Oregon, another progressive (ranked 28th among the Senate’s 100 members), will take over the Senate Finance committee, one of the chamber’s oldest and most prestigious committees, which has oversight of tax-raising bills among much else.
Control of committees is far more significant in the US than in the UK. It is in committees that much of the country’s legislative work is done. In the UK, the government can introduce legislation in parliament and – should it have a strong majority – endure no more than a few days of debate from MPs before a bill is passed. In the US, the White House can only inspire Congress to legislate. It can present blueprints for bills, but the bills themselves are worked up in committee. No legislation can be considered until it is passed by the relevant Senate committee. Control of committees means control of the fine print of US law.
In 2009, for example, Barack Obama’s grand plans, from healthcare reform to a post-crash financial services overhaul, were ultimately decided in Senate committees: ones overseen by far more conservative Democrats than Warren, Sanders, Brown or Wyden. In 2009, Obama’s healthcare plan was in the hands of Max Baucus, a “blue dog” (ie conservative) Democrat from the red state of Montana, to whom Obama had to defer, as he details in his recent memoir. Equally, the rules of the post-crash banking world were written in the Senate by Chris Dodd, the veteran chair of the Senate Banking Committee, who had long-standing ties to Wall Street. The soaring rhetoric of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign foundered in Senate committees.
Abstract ideas win elections, in other words, but policy is determined in the detail. And in the Biden years, the detail is going to be decided by senators far to the left of those who quietly watered down the bold hopes of Obama’s administration. This is an unheralded shift. The subcommittee Warren will chair – a role that nevertheless understates her talent – was also run by a red-state Democrat in 2009, as was the committee that Sanders is soon to take over.
In essence, while Obama had a far greater Senate majority, the Biden administration will face none of the same committee counter-winds. If anything, the Senate committees run by Sanders, Warren, Brown and Wyden will be ahead of the White House, leading the way on left-wing ideas. Already, Sanders has floated the idea of attaching emergency pandemic health insurance to Biden’s post-Covid recovery bills. In his role on the Budget committee, the self-described socialist will help shape White House policy.
Those ideas will still need to win the support of Manchin and all 50 Democratic senators, but Manchin – as with “Red Tories” in the UK – leans left on the economy, despite being culturally conservative and resistant to sweeping structural change.
The committees also play a major regulatory role. Unlike their counterparts in the UK, scrutiny from Senate committees, who have vast staffs and the power to subpoena any witness, can apply great pressure to the many tentacles of the US government, helping to steer federal agencies in a particular direction. Committee chairs decide what to dedicate time to and what to investigative. Their inquiries can set the political climate for any administration.
The Biden years would be set to play out very differently with Republicans atop these committees. While the Democrats’ majority in the Senate is wafer thin, control of Senate committees is a binary winner-takes-all world. With 49 Senators, Democrats would have no committee chairmanships. With 50, they have them all.
By losing both Georgia Senate seats last week, Donald Trump and the Republicans have not only empowered Biden but Warren and Sanders, the very “socialist” forces they spent the past decade demonising. The tempo and tenor of American politics in the next two years may well prove more progressive than anyone had reason to hope on the night of Biden’s victory last November.