Reshuffling the Senate

Strong Politico piece takes stock of Senate moves

I was somewhat critical of a David Rogers article earlier this week, but his Politico piece today on the shuffling of committee chairmanships in the Senate is terrific: written for political junkies, to be sure, but packed full of news, context, and history.

The committee system basically creates a structure in which senators whose home states are particularly affected by an issue—and thus who are most likely to be in bed with the dread “special interests”—can take control of policy in that area. Rogers explains how this pattern persists with Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln assuming the top spot on the Agriculture Committee:

Together with ranking Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, she will head the first all-South Agriculture leadership team since Sens. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) ruled the roost in the 96th Congress 30 years ago.

… But the Lincoln-Chambliss team will pose a real challenge for the White House if the Obama administration persists in trying to reopen last year’s farm bill to achieve greater savings.

Rice and cotton interests, with typically high input costs and large land holdings, have always resisted payment limits on farm subsidies. And Lincoln warned Wednesday against tampering with agreements negotiated last year and blessed by a large Senate vote on passage.

(For a closer look at what Lincoln’s ascendancy means for climate change policy, see this ClimateWire story at

The other change involves Iowa’s Tom Harkin taking over the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which had been led by Ted Kennedy. As Rogers notes, Harkin “represents an old-fashioned Midwest labor liberalism”—one that’s been partially eclipsed by Kent Conrad-style budget-hawkery—and his elevation means a “card check” bill, one of the top priorities of the labor movement, may not be dead yet. (According to The Hill, Harkin said this morning that card check might have cleared the Senate in July, were it not for Kennedy’s illness.)

Rogers is also strong on the fact that Harkin will maintain his leadership of an Appropriations Committee panel that writes the budget for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services; holding the two plum spots at once means he “will have more clout over health and public welfare programs than any senator since the late ’60s.” How, and how well, he uses that power will be an important story going forward. Time for a Harkin Watch, anyone?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.