In most jobs, throwing in for a promotion is a relatively private affair, but on Capitol Hill, attempting to hop from the House to the Senate means inviting the whole country to watch.
This cycle, a dozen House members are asking home-state voters to send them across the Capitol to the Senate. The roster includes nine Republicans and three Democrats, some long-tenured and some freshmen. While a few are building campaigns around their biographies, others can point to legislative achievements that vary from the wonky to the borderline wacky.
Virtually all of the House members seeking a Senate seat can claim a bill or amendment they helped shepherd through the chamber as the lead sponsor (each has been a cosponsor on countless pieces of legislation, some of which have passed).
Sure, there’s freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who sponsored nine pieces of legislation, none of which have passed the chamber. But there’s also Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who’s vying against Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey in a Republican primary to succeed Saxby Chambliss in the Senate. Kingston sponsored a six-month continuing resolution that passed in June 2011 and became law.
Then there are the measures that almost make it out of the chamber. GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, elected to the House in 2001, is vying to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia. A member of the Financial Services Committee who chairs its Financial Institutions Subcommittee, Capito oversaw the adoption of an amendment that called for increasing the Community Development Block Grant, a program that infuses states with federal money for various projects, by $350 million. The underlying bill died, though.
Of course, there are also measures celebrating athletes and historical figures and plenty of post-office namings. Capito got a bill passed in 2009 commemorating the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Kingston backed the bill that named a post office in Hinesville, Ga., as the John Sidney “Sid” Flowers Post Office Building.
But the truth in the House is that most bills don’t make it out of the chamber — and the same is true in the Senate. Only 5 percent of bills are projected to become law, according to the website GovTrack.
So why give up a House position with better electoral chances?
For starters, the Senate’s six-year terms give members some breathing room, and in theory the chance to take political risks by backing legislation that could cost them at home. Then there are the benefits of statewide office: becoming a de facto voice for your state in national politics and possibly positioning oneself as a kingmaker (see Reid, Harry as a well-documented example). Senators are also subject to more speculation about higher office, either a governor’s mansion or the White House.
In Washington, senators have about 20 more staffers on average than House members and don’t have their number of staff capped (though the staff budget depends on the size of the state). The Constitution also grants senators powers not given to representatives, affording them a voice in presidential appointments, which is a significant source of influence.
The modern Senate is also not the same as when LBJ and Mike Mansfield roamed the Ohio Clock corridor and junior senators were expected to fall into line. Today, lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, both freshmen, have emerged as prominent voices in the Republican Party and leading figures in the conservative movement. On the Democratic side, freshman Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut is spearheading an effort to extoll the virtues of Obamacare, and Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii helped organize an overnight, environment-focused talkathon on the Senate floor.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to the upper chamber.
The opportunity to offer amendments to legislation is substantially diminished, a victim of modern partisan warfare. Republicans say that the leader’s office is using the amendment process to lock them out of legislation. Democrats admit that there are fewer votes on amendments, but say they are too easily turned into political fodder for outside interest groups.
“One of the reasons we often do not take to the floor and vote on competitive, compelling amendments is the concern that they will then become the subject of last-minute, aggressive, targeted campaign ads funded by undisclosed donors,” said Sen. Christopher Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. “Rather than being a chamber of honest, open, and free debate, the shadow of secret money turns policy-making into a beacon of risk aversion. Policy-making gets paralyzed, and this serves no one.”
Indeed, some say another drawback to the Senate is the vast sum of money lawmakers must raise to get elected. The price of admission for a winning Senate campaign in 2012 was $10.5 million, compared with $1.7 million in the House, according to a study by MapLight. And those numbers tend to increase each cycle. It’s a threatening trend, as some senators see it.
“Some of my colleagues have said we are bound for scandal,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine. “Indeed that is what has driven campaign finance reform throughout our history.”