Majority Leadership in the U.S. Senate: Balancing Constraints

by Andrea C. Hatcher


*This book is in the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America book series
(Series editors: Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly)

Since 1913, United States senators have recognized one position among themselves as majority leader. The first incumbent, John W. Kern (D-IN), began the gradual process of converting the position into an office. He and his colleagues also set other precedents that, as this research will show, endure nearly a century later. Notwithstanding such a long period of experience, and despite the profusion of political scientists’ accounts of Congress and journalists’ daily observations of the legislative branch, no comprehensive study of the Senate majority leader has found its way into the annals of American politics. This book aims to correct the anomaly.

While leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives has been studied extensively and intensively, there exists no comparable body of research of U. S. Senate leadership, in general, and of the Senate majority leader, in particular. Indeed, much of what we know is House-bound, but if the Senate is an “exceptional” body, meriting a different understanding, so too should we expect the leader of that body, with his multiple constituencies, to merit specialized attention. To be sure, many of the prominent findings of congressional research have been extended to the Senate, albeit mostly in a piecemeal fashion. Because we know much about the House, scholars tend to generalize those findings to the Senate, treating the Senate as an addendum to the House. Accordingly, much of what is known, or thought to be known, about the demands and constraints of Senate leadership comes from auxiliary chapters or even briefer token comparison paragraphs in House studies.

This book is the first comprehensive study of Senate majority leadership––it covers the office and its occupants from the first incumbent, John W Kern in 1913, through the term of William H. Frist in 2006. Data are both qualitative and quantitative. They include materials from archives of several majority leaders—Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield, Howard Baker, and George Mitchell. Also available are statistics of roll call votes, which reveal continuing patterns of legislative behavior, e.g., leaders seem to be drawn from among senators who are “middle-men” in political ideology but who drift toward more extreme positions depending on the size of their partisan majority. This partisanship, however, is tempered by commitments to institutional loyalty. Research further highlights the continuity of majority leadership in the Senate by noting a path dependent relationship between majority leaders and presidents, who depend on leaders to shepherd their proposals. In their relationship to their states, leaders also are found to be attentive to demands for distributive benefits. All told, these multiple constituencies—state, party, Senate, and president—constrain majority leadership in the Senate. The task of the leader is to balance constraints.

In this unprecedented work, Andrea Hatcher examines Senate majority leadership in terms of the constituencies, both electoral and functional, of the Senate majority leader. These constituencies—state, party, Senate, and president—are found to represent constraints on the Senate majority leader as their demands often compete, and the ways in which Senate majority leaders balance them form the contours of Senate majority leadership. It might seem obvious for there to be much variance as Senate majority leaders and their constituents change over time, and, to be sure, differences in leadership styles emerge. However, what is more striking is not the change but the continuity that guides the institutional development of Senate majority leadership. The path dependence is one of constrained Senate majority leadership, not for the conventional wisdom that the majority leader operates in a supermajoritarian institution, but for the broader reason that these plethora of intra-, inter-, and extra-institutional forces pull at the leader. The scope of inquiry is comprehensive, beginning with an identification of trends in the selection of senators to become majority leader. It, then, traces the voting behavior of Senate majority leaders, analyzing by way of statistical findings how the leader represents his party constituency by roll call voting. One key, but often overlooked, variable that this study examines is size of a leader’s majority.

This book is an important resource for collections in political science.


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