Ganging Up In The Senate Not So Bipartisan After All

Originally published on May 22, 2011 1:49 pm



As Ron mentioned, Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, dropped out of the Senate's so-called gang of six this past week. The group of three Republicans and three Democratic senators had been working on a deficit reduction plan. Senator Coburn said the group had reached an impasse over entitlement spending, a point he repeated in a TV interview.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Whatever we come up with has to solve the very real problems. And it can't be light. It's got to recognize that entitlements are a significant portion of our problem and if you don't really address those, you haven't fixed the problem.

HANSEN: Coburn's departure has raised questions about the purpose of such bipartisan groups in the Senate. For more, we turn to Ross Baker. He's a professor of political science at Rutgers University and he joins us from the studios there. Welcome to the program.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): Thanks very much, Liane.

HANSEN: You have said that these bipartisan groups or gangs, as they're sometimes called, are a Senate phenomenon. Why Senate?

Mr. BAKER: Well, the Senate is the kind of place where people really do get to know each other. Smaller body than the House, senators serve on more committees than House members, so they have more venues in which they can get together. The Senate calls the roll on votes the old-fashioned way. You kind of come into the chamber and you wait for your name to be called. It gives you an opportunity to stand around and talk to people and so on.

By contrast, in the House, there's an electronic voting system. People come in, take out their cards, insert them in the voting machine and leave. So, it's a very different kind of environment. The ecology of the Senate promotes this kind of cooperation.

For example, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been trying to put together a kind of bipartisan lunch group. And actually he invited Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, to come into a budget briefing with Senator Conrad, the chairman of the budget committee, was giving. And Senator Conrad kind of looked at this Republican intruder and ordered him out of the room.

But there are all of these opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to get together and you would think that there would be more productivity. But the polarization is such that it's just very, very hard for people to get anything done.

HANSEN: These groups don't seem to have such a great track record. In recent years, there was an original gang of six focusing on health care reform, another group worked on cap and trade law, and neither were successful. What do they hope to achieve then?

Mr. BAKER: Well, you know, it's really it's interesting. There's so many gangs in the Senate - I've actually looked them up - and, you know, these go back quite a ways. The gang of 14 was trying to deal with the filibusters against circuit court judges and so on. It's sort of like members of the Senate are auditioning for "West Side Story" with all of these gangs.

And the reason why they don't get very far is, number one, leadership doesn't like them. They're always seen as a kind of alternative to leadership. So, the two party leaders, Senator Reid and Senator McConnell, are always kind of wary of these kinds of impromptu ad-hoc groups of senators. The other thing, of course, is the committee chairmen also don't like them. So, you put those two things together and these gangs tend to have some pretty formidable enemies.

HANSEN: So, they're just trying to do then something maybe dramatic, get people to pay attention?

Mr. BAKER: I think that's right. I think in some ways these are very good agenda-setting operations. You know, you get six senators - three of each party - working together and people do sit up and take notice. The Senate being a much smaller body, is in a sense, you know, one senator kind of represents his or her own gang. But you put together more of them and they're of two different parties and, you know, people kind of look at them and say, well, there's a possibility that we can get something done.

HANSEN: So, what do these gangs say about the legislative process? I mean, is the normal process too tough, so these gangs are kind of an outgrowth of the contentious battles between Democrats and Republicans? Is the process too frustrating?

Mr. BAKER: It's frustrating and it's contentious. And what Congress does is on public display. And particularly now that there are just so many websites and so on that deal with politics that the people who care about politics are very well informed. They tend to be very vocal. And you have on a variety issues, social issues, economic issues, the debt and so on, just highly inflamed, highly polarized environment, which, of course, has been well observed.

But what that does, it tends to prompt people to kind of hive off into small groups and say, well, maybe sort of we can huddle together and figure this thing out.

HANSEN: But they rarely do.

Mr. BAKER: But they rarely do.

HANSEN: Ross Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Thanks, Ross.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.