Agenda Setting in the U.S. Senate: Costly Consideration and Majority Party Advantage by Chris Den Hartog and Nathan W. Monroe. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 252 pp. $85.00.
Chris Den Hartog and Nathan W. Monroe note that for a variety of reasons, the study of the U.S. Senate has been stubbornly resistant to scientific, theoretically sound inquiry. For them, previous arguments about the Senate have tended to be as post hoc and inductive as the process and procedure of the chamber are thought to be ad hoc and idiosyncratic. The authors seek to change this with their ambitious attempt to integrate the descriptive understanding of the Senate found in the literature with a deductive theory of Senate politics centered on majority party advantage.
Den Hartog and Monroe admit that the advantages enjoyed by the Senate majority party fall short of what we sec in the House. At the same time, they use this divergence in constructing a widely applicable model which posits that in legislatures generally, the advantage of majority over minority or government over opposition boils down to the asymmetric costs faced in getting proposals considered on the plenary agenda. These asymmetries vary from legislature to legislature, but characterizing this variation is useful in conceiving of a continuum of legislatures.
This argument turns contemporary understanding of majority party advantage (at least in the literature on the House) on its head with its emphasis on positive as opposed to negative agenda power. The Senate majority party does not enjoy the extent of negative agenda power that the House majority party does (because of the Senate's lack of a powerful Rules Committee and a germaneness requirement for amendments). But its numerical advantage, its control of committee chairs (a position whose power scholars of the Senate have often denigrated), and its ability to undermine the minority's strategic use of amendments through motions to table, specifically, and party discipline on dispositive votes on amendments, more generally, all make it relatively less costly for the Senate majority party to bring to consideration and pass its policy proposals than is the case for the minority party. This asymmetry represents an easier path to legislating and represents a resource that can be used to the majority party's advantage when bargaining with rank-and-file members and leaders of the minority party for procedural concessions, since they presumably have policy proposals they would like to see considered and passed as well.
A colleague of my mine is fond of saying that as far as political science is concerned, there are two chambers in America's national legislature: the Congress and the Senate. For a variety of reasons, scholars have ignored the Senate in building models of the U.S. Congress. Den Hartog and Monroe offer an important corrective, demonstrating that the sort of sophisticated theoretical and empirical research usually conducted in the context of the House can find traction in the Senate despite the challenges it presents. In so doing, they have also produced a simple yet elegant argument that has important implications for the comparative study of legislatures. This book should be on every legislative scholar's book shelf, and I look forward to seeing it appear increasingly often on graduate and undergraduate syllabi.