Negotiating around Obstruction: Legislative Effectiveness in the US Senate
by Travis Johnston, University of Massachusetts, Boston
This essay examines how senators quietly navigate the legislative process, from bill introduction to the chamber floor. Drawing on my experience as a committee staffer, I discuss how effective legislators engage with their coalitional partners, and opponents, during closed-door negotiations. In today’s polarized Congress, the legislative process is fraught with veto points, but effective legislators deploy subtle tactics to avoid these obstructions. Shortly after a bill has been referred to committee, legislators reach out to their colleagues to determine their individual policy priorities. This allows committee leaders and the bill’s sponsors to anticipate potential roadblocks. Later, during negotiations over legislative text, senators carefully construct the legislation section-by-section, and sometimes even word-by-word, to avoid upsetting any constituencies that are pivotal to the bill’s fate. With partisan activists and other mobilized groups closing monitoring Congress, specific phrases or an ideologically loaded term can upend legislative negotiations. While a single phrase may seem like a minor point for sinking the bill, the threat of electoral blowback is nonetheless enough to cause some members to withdraw support for the legislation. By welcoming groups into the process, and then meticulously crafting the legislation around sticking points, effective senators manage both their colleagues the legislative agenda.