In the May 13 edition of the Observer, former state Rep. Steve Flowers argued in his state-wide political column that the retirement of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby “will be nothing short of devastating” for the state of Alabama. Furthermore, Mr. Flowers claimed that whoever takes Sen. Shelby’s place in Washington “will have no real power for at least 18 years.” As a former senior policy advisor in the United States Senate, these arguments confound me. Indeed, these claims display a fundamental lack of knowledge about the U.S. Senate.
A single U.S. senator wields extraordinary power regardless of his or her seniority. For a contemporary example, look no further than West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who effectively controls the policy agenda of his own party in a split senate. The Senate Majority Leader cannot even make a procedural move without first ensuring he has the support of Sen. Manchin. Is this not “real power?”
The notion put forth by Mr. Flowers is that the senate’s power is based on seniority and one must “wait your turn” to be a “committee chairman or player in the senate.” This is so laughably preposterous, that it boggles the mind Mr. Flowers feels so comfortable misinforming the entire state of Alabama with such nonsense.
The senate’s power is based on consent, not seniority. A single senator, regardless of seniority or committee assignment, can shut the floor of the senate down with the right procedural moves. Eight years ago, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, then in his first year of office and in the minority party, shut down the federal government for sixteen days to try to defund Obamacare and stop its implementation. Is that not “real power” to Mr. Flowers?
Or how about former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions? In his ninth year in office, he was a tour de force in organizing nationwide resistance to President Bush’s proposed amnesty for illegal aliens. Sessions was successful and built enough opposition to the plan over the August recess that both of Georgia’s senators, who were initially supportive of the plan, returned to Washington and told President Bush that amnesty was dead-on-arrival. A single senator stopped the president’s agenda. Is that not “real power” in Mr. Flowers’ mind?
Mr. Flowers apparently believes “real power” only comes from running the appropriations committee and doling out money in backroom deals to one’s political allies and friendly interest groups. Yes, that does constitute power. But that is hardly the purpose of a senator or the extent of one’s ability to effectively fight for his or her constituents. Indeed, one can argue that Mr. Flowers’ swampy mindset, seeing senators as little more than federal money machines, is precisely why America is now $30 trillion in debt and on the edge of fiscal calamity.
Mr. Flowers may be billed as Alabama’s “premier political journalist and commentator,” but that very clearly should not extend beyond the confines of the state legislature. Stick to Montgomery politics, Steve.