Policy Summary: On January 3, 2021 Vice President Michael Pence administered the oath of office to six new senators who had been elected in the November 2020 elections. Additionally, those senators who had won re – election in November were also sworn in. Two days later, elections were held in Georgia for both of Georgia’s Senate seats and a Democrat won each race. Their victories ensured that seats in the U.S. Senate would be equally split between Republicans and Democrats 50 – 50. Kamala Harris’ election as Vice – President gave the Democrats the ability to cast the tie – breaking vote if any vote in the chamber resulted in a tie.

With the Senate chamber equally divided, the chamber adopted new rules. The “Organizing Resolution,” as it is popularly called, is a power sharing agreement that details how the chamber would operate with an equally divided Senate. The most significant portion of the agreement deals with the make up of the senate committees and how business would be conducted in the committees and the various subcommittees that make up the whole committee. The resolution states that membership of the committees and subcommittees would have an equal number of Senators from each party. And, since control of the chamber rests with the Democrats and the recently elected Democratic Vice President, the chairman or chairwoman of each committee, or “the one who holds the gavel,” will be a Democrat. Since the Republicans had been in control of the Senate the last six years, Republicans had more members on committees and they had been the chairman or chairwoman of every committee in the Senate during that time period. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis: The Organizing Resolution, which passed by unanimous consent on February 3, 2021, is significant because of the rules it lays out regarding committees for the Senate for this session.

There is a common misconception that bills that are introduced in the Senate or the House get a full vote by the Congressional chamber but that is not the case. (There are rare exceptions like the reconciliation process to pass budget bills). After being introduced in the Senate, bills get assigned to the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the subject matter of the bill. That committee and its members review the bill, make amendments and sometimes hold hearings to gather more information. If the committee votes to “report” the bill then the bill is sent to the full Senate chamber for a vote by the entire chamber. But if the bill is “not reported” then the bill “dies in committee” and there is no further action on the bill. This happens frequently especially when committee members vote on party lines. When Republicans were the majority in the Senate, committees were comprised of twenty-one members – eleven Republicans and ten Democrats. If Republicans did not approve of a bill, they often voted against it in committee, which effectively killed the bill’s chances.

With the even split in the Senate, the chances of Democrats advancing their legislative priorities have now increased. With Democrats now taking control of committee chairmanships they can control what is on the agenda for the committees. Republicans had often refused to schedule committee hearings for bills and other business that was not in line with their legislative priorities. Even before the passage of the Organizing Resolution, Republicans still took an obstructionist stance as when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) refused to schedule a hearing for Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for Attorney General. But now that committee chairmanships have been transferred to Democrats, government business can no longer be held up with this tactic.

With membership in committees equally divided and the prospect of bills dying in committee not likely to happen during this Senate session, the question arises as to what will happen if there are tie votes in subcommittees and later in full committees. Instead of party line votes that could kill a bill, tie votes will now be sent to the full committee for a vote there. And if there is another tie, the status of a bill will be sent to the full chamber where a vote will be taken whether to place it on the calendar for a full vote. This is key because now the full Senate can vote on bills. There are often hundreds of bills every session that never make it out of committee for consideration. Senators who are not a member of a relevant committee often never even hear about a bill much less get a chance to vote on it. But that will not be the case anymore. As long as the Senate is equally split, committees can no longer hold up a bill. Unless outright defeated in a committee vote, bills that pass or end up tied will finally make it to the Senate floor where the entire chamber can review the merits of the bill. And with Democrats in charge of committees by virtue of their appointment to committee chair posts, they will control what bills will get a hearing and a vote. This will result in the Democratic Party and the Biden Administration having a better chance of advancing their legislative priorities in this Congressional session. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE 

Engagement Resources:

United States Senate Committees – webpage of Senate committees.

GovTrack.us – full text of the Senate’s 2021 Organizing Resolution.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.

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