Loretta Sanchez spent much of her time at the California Democratic convention last weekend trying to persuade the party faithful that her 19 years of experience in Congress makes her the best choice to replace Democrat Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate.
Unlike the House, where the strength is in building coalitions, individual senators have a lot of power — the place runs almost entirely on unanimous consent. Personal relationships matter and senators don’t respect those they don’t respect or those who can’t keep their promises.
Especially in an increasingly partisan world, the ability to make friends across the aisle is key in the Senate. For example, Boxer was successful on transportation legislation because she was able to find common groundwith Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., with whom she disagreed with on almost everything else.
“Relationships are very important in a Senate that runs on consensus,” said Jim Manley, former spokesman for Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman, is running against fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, the state Attorney General and frontrunner in both polling and fundraising, as well as two former state Republican party chairs, Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro.
Harris, Sundheim and Del Beccaro all lack prior legislative experience. Sanchez says she’s the only candidate who is “ready to hit the ground running on Day 1.” While her time in the House would give her a structural advantage (if elected) over other freshman, the issues any of them would be able to fight for would be largely determined by their committee assignments.
The Senate as an institution puts a lot of value in seniority — it’s how committee assignments and office space are doled out. It used to be culturally important too, when new senators were expected to stay quiet and learn for a year, although that’s waning in modern times.
Committees are where senators do the vast majority of their work. Bills usually go through committee before heading to the floor. So senators need to either usher their bills through committee themselves or have someone who sits on the committee usher it through for them.
While candidates talk about what they’ll do when they get to Washington, it really comes down to what committees they are assigned to. In fact, instead of going to Washington to change the world and push a laundry list of party priorities — as candidates often talk about on the campaign trail — the first few years are spent getting on the good side of their committee chairs and ranking members, rising in seniority, gaining clout by cosponsoring bills and working with others, becoming an expert in a policy and then finally starting to move legislation through committee.
The leadership determines assignments. Senators will request what committees they want to be assigned to, but the caucus leadership will decide assignments based on expertise and need.
Manley said that Reid, who is retiring, used to spend a great deal of time post-election working with the new senators to fill spots based on where the vacancies were, making sure committees were adequately represented by the different regions of the country, and of course taking into consideration what the new members want — although there were no guarantees.
Senators usually serve on at least three committees, and prior experience is a factor. There’s a good chance that a state attorney general like Harris would be assigned to the Judiciary Committee. And there’s a good chance Sanchez would be assigned to Armed Services or Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committees, since she currently serves on similar committees in the House.
With Boxer leaving, there will be an opening on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is a prime spot for a Californian as this committee has jurisdiction over roads and environmental policy. So a Californian could make the case for this assignment based on regional representation. And a nod from Boxer could help too.
Boxer will also leave an opening on the Foreign Relations Committee, where senators can boost their foreign policy credentials — a nice launch pad for a presidential run, if any of them feel so inclined (as the saying goes: every senator sees a future president when they look in the mirror).
Former or current members of Foreign Relations are: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
In the old days, the motto was freshman should be seen and not heard. In fact, the maiden speech was a big deal — freshman wouldn’t speak on the floor for a year.
The tradition has eroded over the years. In 2015, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., waited just a few months into his term to deliver his maiden speech. And Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., made news by actually waiting a year — the only freshman in a class of 13 to do so.
How will experience help?
Besides Sanchez, none of the top candidates have legislative experience. But, according to Manley, Harris’ time as AG gives her other experience, like running a large department and being decisive.
Structurally, Sanchez’s 19 years in the House gives her an advantage over other freshman, since multiple senators are sworn in on the same day. Ties in seniority need to be broken somehow.
Priority is given to former senators, then former members of the House, then former presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members and governors. If none of those apply, then it falls on population of the state. And if that doesn’t work, it goes by alphabetical order.
Sanchez has served with many current senators over the years, since many were elected out of the House. She’s also served on conference committees (when the two chambers come together to work out the differences between the House version of a bill and the Senate version). She’s also served on the Joint Economic Committee, which has members of both chambers on it.
But her experience and existing relationships alone may not get her more respect on the other side of the Capitol. Sanchez would have to prove herself just like the others.
“You either demonstrate you have the chops or not,” said Manley.
Cross-posted at CalWatchDog.