Because someone has to be a contrarian in what otherwise looks like a bad November for President Obama and his party: what if Republicans manage not to gain control of the Senate in this election?
You couldn’t blame it on the usual suspects—a lack of money, or an over-abundance of bad candidates, or uphill climbs in hostile Obama-friendly states.
A more likely culprit: a strategic miscalculation on the part of GOP Senate candidates nationwide and the party elders back on Capitol Hill. While making this year’s races a referendum on Obama and his policies, Republicans ignored a fundamental rule of congressional challenges: to get to Washington, one has to run against Washington’s ways—specifically, the accumulation of job seniority and personal wealth that makes Senate incumbents seem long in the tooth and short on integrity.
Here are three reforms that Senate Republican candidates could have talked up, but didn’t in 2014:
First, term limits. No, not forced Senate retirement—it likely wouldn’t receive enough votes in Congress or survive a legal challenge. Instead, offer what House Republicans did when they gained majority control 20 years ago: a six-year limit on Senate committee chairmanships.
Incumbents will hate this—and that’s exactly the point. Senators hang around Washington well into their senior years if for no better reason than to wait out a plum job: for example, an 80-year-old Orrin Hatch taking over the Senate Finance Committee next year. Rotate those chairs, and senators might rotate back to their states earlier than usual.
And while we’re trying to infuse younger blood in the Senate (in the 113th Congress, 27 senators joined the chamber before George W. Bush’s presidency; 12 before George H.W. Bush’s): change the rules on accumulated seniority.
The suggestion here: without limiting how many terms a senator can serve overall, reset the clock to zero at the end of the third term, or after 18 years in Washington. Imagine the chilling effect this would have on senators thinking about sticking around for a fourth term and beyond.
A second area that Republican challengers could have raised: how the Senate handles the reporting of personal finances. Under current rules, U.S. senators are required to report their wealth annually. What are missing are details —senators having to disclose only a minimum of their assets, not an actual balance of holdings (one year, the late John Heinz reported $30 million in wealth when his family ketchup fortune was conservatively estimated to be at least 11 times greater).
So change the process. Force senators, their spouses and their immediate family to report their wealth down to the last dollar and cent. It’s a subtle way for Republicans to get at Harry Reid being the Lyndon Johnson of his Senate contemporaries—a longtime senator from humble roots who accumulated a remarkable amount of wealth while making do on a lawmaker’s meager salary. For Reid, wealth accumulation has come from a steady diet of land deals and playing the market. If he and his colleagues were were required to reveal their exact wealth, it might give a clearer picture as to the intersection between personal profit and the congressional netherworld of earmarks, appropriations, and tax breaks.
A third area for Republicans to explore: time cards. In Kansas, Pat Roberts is in trouble for appearing to be an absentee senator (from July 2011 to August 2013, he spend only 97 days in the state). It’s not unlike the absentee insinuations that took down Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in 2010.
The fix: Each year, senators should be required to detail how many days they spend in their home states—where they go, where they stay, and with whom they meet. Moreover, add a requirement that all senators have to make their Washington appointment calendars available for an annual public review.
Would any of these reforms have changed the outcome of hotly contested Senate races? We’ll never know. Still, it would have provided an avenue for GOP Senate challengers to show that the objective is more than gaining power—it’s changing the culture of an institution that’s too secretive and set in its ways.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping a Republican-controlled from taking up this reform agenda. Then again, Mitch McConnell is already a 30-year veteran of the Senate—an insider, not a bomb-thrower like a newly-minted House Speaker Newt Gingrich back in 1994. Moreover, the stampede from the old bulls who profit from the current seniority system likely would overwhelm a freshman GOP senator bold enough to take up the cause.
Such is the shame of this election. The Senate may change hands; Republicans are taking a pass on changing how the Senate goes about its business.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He’s also covers the 2014 election at adayattheracesblog.com.