So You Want to Be a Senator, Huh?

Fully a dozen House members are seeking a promotion.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: House Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Subcommittee Chairman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) listens to testimony during a hearing on the Dodd-Frank Act and the definition of Systemically Important Financial Institutions on Capitol Hill May 16, 2012 in Washington, DC. The recent announcement by JPMorgan Chase of a $2 billion trading loss loomed large in the hearing as lawmakers heard regulators testify about what makes a bank or institution 'too big to fail.'
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
May 5, 2014, 5:08 p.m.

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.”

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