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The Georgia runoff: Why it matters which party controls the Senate

Republicans and Democrats have poured record-breaking amounts of money into a pair of Senate runoff elections in Georgia. But will it pay off?

The rising full moon above the U.S. Capitol in Washington is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.
Kevin S. Vineys, Associated Press

The fate of U.S. Senate control rests in the hands, or ballots at least, of Georgia’s voters.

Tuesday’s runoff election between Republican David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock for two Senate seats has attracted record amounts of money into the campaigns, The Los Angeles Times reported.

But will it pay off?

Politicians and political scientists argue for and against the claim that a Senate majority is vital for the party and the president to implement their policy goals and legislative agendas. Here’s why:

A majority is overrated

“The hard truth about the U.S. political system is that very little legislation gets enacted without bipartisan support,” wrote University of Utah political science associate professor James M. Curry and Princeton University politics and public affairs professor Frances E. Lee for the Deseret News.

The two political scientists researched more than three decades of majority parties policy goals and over 250 proposals. They found that parties controlling both the House and the Senate fail to pass their policy priorities about half the time.

“In a unified government, congressional majority parties failed on 43% of their agenda priorities; in divided government, the number was 49%,” they wrote.

Although Curry and Lee found instances in their research of majorities successfully passing “ambitious proposals”, like 2010’s Affordable Care Act and 2017’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, there were only a dozen of these majority victories in more than 30 years.

“While parties with unified control can achieve some policy gains, they also frequently experience disastrous defeats on even their highest priorities,” they wrote. These high-profile policy failures included Democrats inability to pass climate change legislation in 2009-2010 and Republicans failing to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“Despite party polarization, building bipartisan support for legislative proposals remains by far the most likely path to policy achievement,” according to Curry and Lee.

Policy priorities rely on a majority

Stumping for Ossoff and Warnock ahead of the runoff on Monday, President-elect Joe Biden told Georgians how important their Senate victories would be for his own policy priorities.

“By electing Jon and the reverend, you can make an immediate difference in your own lives, the lives of people all across the country, because their election will put an end to the block in Washington on that $2,000 stimulus check,” the president-elect told Atlanta rallygoers, Politico reported. “That money will go out the door immediately.”

Biden was referring to the pandemic response Caring for Americans with Supplemental Help Act that passed out the House last month, but never found traction in the Republican controlled Senate.

According to Politico, Biden’s legislative priorities include additional coronavirus relief, a focus on infrastructure, green jobs and a minimum wage hike.

“Democrats concede the scope of the agenda is dependent on the Georgia results,” Politico wrote.

Dual victories for Democrats on Tuesday, would also lead to “a quicker confirmation process for his Cabinet nominees,” according to Politico. Most Cabinet positions, like department secretaries, require a Senate majority to be confirmed.

And with control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the Biden-Harris administration could start running as sooner than if Congress was divided.

But, as Curry and Lee pointed out, their chance of successfully unilaterally driving policy in Washington are about as good as a coin toss.