Assuming U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley wins reelection in November, there are five reasons for Oregon Democrats to feel encouraged, even though Republicans seem likely to gain control of the United States Senate.
1. GOP Control is Unlikely to Last More Than Two Years
Projecting beyond the current electoral cycle is always hazardous, but simple arithmetic allows some speculation. As senators accrue seniority and stature, their seats become more secure. Obama’s 2008 victory paved the way for about a dozen first-time Democratic senators, including Merkley. They’re defending their seats for the first time in 2014. In 2016, the hot seats shift to the GOP freshmen who benefited from the 2010 Tea Party revolt.
Add to that the difficulty Republicans have had in recent presidential campaigns and you won’t find very many conservatives who are looking forward to 2016.
2. Filibuster Will be Further Weakened by Republicans
Sen. Merkley deserves some credit for making significant and strategic noise about filibuster reform. In response, Majority Leader Harry Reid weakened the filibuster on his own terms. Senators don’t like it when their traditions are trifled with, so Republicans naturally complained. But there’s a deeper tradition in politics and schoolyards — revenge. If the Republicans control the Senate in 2015, you can be near certain they will give the Democrats even less minority power, paying them back for diminishing minority power in 2013.
In an age when it’s become so difficult to get anything done in Congress, the brake lever of the filibuster won’t be missed, at least not by those who believe in and hope for productive legislating in Washington, DC.
3. Vetoes Would Sharpen the National Debate
President Obama has vetoed exactly two bills in almost six years, fewer than any full-term presidents since 1850. Obama may lose control of the Senate precisely because he asked his allies to do his dirty work of rejection. Sen. Reid has refused to schedule votes on any bills the president didn’t want on his desk, denying senators opportunities to align their votes with their constituents. Many of those senators have struggled to defend their record.
Vetoes are clarifying. Just ask Oregon Governor Kitzhaber, who earned the nickname “Dr. No” for vetoing more bills in the 1990s than any other Oregon governor. But look at the consequences. Kitzhaber is cruising to reelection and the party he opposed has been shut out of power for two decades. Obama and the Democrats likewise will benefit from a steady stream of vetoes against Republican bills that lack popular appeal.
Gridlock will continue, but the lock on the grid will move from Sen. Reid’s passive vote scheduling to the Oval Office’s active veto power. Better optics.
4. Republicans May Revive Earmarks
Republicans will do what they can to gather the two-thirds majorities they will need to override those vetoes. Watch them quietly revive earmarks. It was a noble experiment to eliminate these costly riders that allowed legislators to fund pet projects back home, but it hasn’t worked.
As it turns out, funding a namesake aquarium or building a bridge to nowhere are the favors senators most like swapping. Bringing earmarks back would be an admission that the gears of government need the lubricant of money. That’s an admission more easily gotten from Republicans than Democrats.
5. Oregon Senators Have Powerful Seats
Sen. Ron Wyden is the current chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Merkley recently joined the Senate Appropriations Committee. If you believe that money is power, Oregon has not had this much power on Capitol Hill since the Packwood-Hatfield era ended two decades ago.
Our senators may not be able to wield much of that power during the next session of Congress if they are in the minority, but fewer obstruction tools for the minority and more freedom to fund local projects could pay off for Oregon in 2017.
If a Democrat wins the White House and brings back a Democratic majority in the Senate in 2016, we might be looking at something close to a perfect vision for Oregon as we head toward 2020.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs