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Reagan and His Lost Majority


By Mark A. Peterson

If the Republicans lose control of the Senate, President Reagan will not be a "lame duck. He'll be a dead duck." That was the pre-election assessment offered on ABC's Nightline by the President's long-time friend and ally, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) Even Laxalt's hand-picked intended successor for his Senate seat, however, fell victim to the Democratic surge that ended six years of Republican reign in the United States Senate.

Sen. Laxalt's comment provides one framework within which Tuesday's election results should be evaluated. Technically, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution made Ronald Reagan a lame duck the moment the ballots were tallied in 1984. Perceptually, the President has continued to maintain an image of performance and success in dealing with Congress. The new 55-to-45 majority in the Senate changes the political landscape, though, and raises the following question: what impact will the Republican loss of the Senate have on President Reagan's ability to secure legislative victories in Congress?

To appreciate the significance of the Democratic majority in the Senate, one has to return to the first months of the Reagan administration. By August of 1981, President Reagan was basking in the glory of his two sweetest legislative successes: the massive budget cuts and the sweeping personal and investment tax cuts. The enactment of these bills generated for Reagan an image of invincibility and legislative acumen persisting throughout his tenure in office.

But for two essential factors tied to the 1980 election, such conventional assessments of the Reagan presidency would be quite different. First, the Republicans gained 33 seats in the House of Representatives, bringing their total to 192. While that was far short of the 218 needed for a majority, combined with the 30 to 40 Southern Democratic "Boll Weevils," there were enough Republican Representatives to activate a working conservative majority. Second, the 12 new Republican seats in the Senate gave the Republicans direct control of at least part of the Congress and the White House for the first time in more than 25 years. One need only talk with the officials in the Reagan Administration who also experienced the partisan divisions of the Nixon and Ford years to understand what a Republican Senate meant for Presidential success.

The midterm election of 1982, when the Democrats captured an additional 26 Congressional districts, ended conservative dominance of the House. Because the Senate remained in Republican hands after the 1982 and 1984 elections, however, Ronald Reagan continued to enjoy valuable leverage over the legislature--enough to preserve the impression of accomplishment even when Administration positions were severely challenged. Not all Republican Senators have been pleased with the President's actions, but when Reagan's policies have been "saved" on Capitol Hill, it was the Republican majority in the Senate that made it possible. The outcome of Tuesday's Senateelections has brought this process to an end.

When the 100th Congress convenes in January, the new Senate majority will bring with it not a legacy of accommodation with the President, but rather the memory of a President whom most Democrats on the Hill refer to as the most partisan in their experience. Their challenge will be most keenly felt in areas where the potentially most enduring features of the Reagan Revolution have yet to be securely crafted, namely those of judicial appointments, Central American policy, and the defense buildup. We can only speculate, for example, about the likely nominees for judicial positions who will be dropped from White House lists due to the prospect of facing a Democratic controlled Judiciary Committee chaired by either Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '56 (D-Mass.) or Sen Joseph P. Biden (D-Del.).

Does this mean we are about to witness a long string of Administration defeats in Congress? No. First, in terms of sheer bulk, there is not much that President Reagan wants from Congress except to protect the gains achieved largely in the first year, which is a much easier task to accomplish than policy initiation. He has the smallest domestic legislative agenda of any President in the post-war era, and whatever rhetoric he has committed to social issues like prayer in the schools and the prohibition of abortions, they have never been serious interests of the Administration. Second, the advent of a Democratic majority in the Senate has the ironic effect in some areas of replacing moderate Republican committee chairmen with more conservative Democrats, such as on the Finance and Appropriations Committees. Third, the next two years will be as much a period of trial for the Democratic majority as its members struggle to achieve some meaningful unity that will give the party political currency going into the 1988 Presidential election. Finally to paraphrase Twain, Ronald Reagan has repeatedly demonstrated that reports of his political death are greatly exaggerated. President Reagan will be a "dead duck" only when his successor places the left hand on the Bible and takes the oath of office.

MARK A. PETERSON is an assistant professor of Government. He is currently teaching "Government 1300: The Politics of Congress" with H. Douglas Price and the junior seminar "President and Congress--Choices in Domestic Policy." He is in the process of completing a book on Presidential-Congressional relations.

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