What Happens When The Senate Splits 50-50?

With Republicans picking up three seats in the Connecticut Senate last Tuesday, the Senate will be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.  Article Fourth, section 17 of the Connecticut Constitution provides that the “The lieutenant-governor shall by virtue of his office, be president of the senate, and have, when in committee of the whole, a right to debate, and when the senate is equally divided, to give the casting vote.”  Thus, assuming the Democrats in the Senate vote together, they effectively have a majority because Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman will vote with them to break any tie votes.

But what does an evenly divided Senate mean for other trappings of power, such as leadership of committees, and even such mundane things as who gets the nicer offices and better parking spaces?

The state constitution does not answer this question. However, the issue has arisen before in the U.S. Congress and other states.  We can look to them for guidance.

For example, following the 2000 elections, the U.S. Senate in the 107th Congress was evenly divided for a brief period of time.  Although Vice President Dick Cheney, through his tie-breaking power, gave the Republicans a technical majority, the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, worked out a power-sharing arrangement.

In short, the answer to how the Democrats and Republicans in the Connecticut Senate will share power appears to be political, not legal, in nature.  Let’s just hope that the agreement our leaders work out is based on what’s best for the state, not on who wants bigger staffs, nicer offices and better parking spaces.

UPDATE (11/14/16): Kevin Rennie has an interesting discussion of the issue over at his Daily Ructions blog.  I read his post to suggest that because the parties are evenly divided, and because the Lt. Governor does not participate in the vote for selection of Senate leadership, there can be no “majority” leader and “minority” leader in the usual sense.

FURTHER UPDATE:  For folks who like to get into the “weeds” on issues like this, take a look at Rule 18 of the Senate Rules: “The majority leader shall be elected by the members of the majority party in the Senate.” The question is who is the majority party when the Senate is evenly divided between D’s and R’s.  The current Democratic leadership argues that they are the majority party because the Lt. Governor will vote with them, giving them an effective governing majority.  But although the Lt. Governor presides over the Senate and casts tie-breaking votes, she is not a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.  So who is the “majority party” for the purpose of Rule 18?  As I noted in my original post, the answer is political, not legal.  The two parties are going to have to work out a power-sharing arrangement.

UPDATE (11/17/16): Kevin Rennie discusses the latest developments in negotiations between the D’s and R’s in the Senate concerning a power-sharing agreement.  He writes:

Democratic leader Martin Looney will remain as President Pro Tem of the upper chamber. If the deal holds, There will be be joint majority leaders, Bob Duff for the Democrats and Len Fasano for the Republicans. The parties will exercise joint control over the Senate calendar, allowing lobbyists to charge their bewildered clients more.

7 Comments on “What Happens When The Senate Splits 50-50?”

  1. Michael says:

    You want to know what happens when the state senate is split 18- 18? Look no further than August 23, 1991, when an evenly split senate voted on the income tax, and the income tax passed 19 to 18.

  2. Bob says:

    Technically, when they reconvene there will be no “Senate Rules.” The rules currently in effect were adopted by the 2015-2016 Senate, and it is well accepted that one legislature cannot bind a future legislature. As of January, the rule 18 that you reference will no longer exist unless it is re-adopted by the new Senate.

    The question will be whether the Lieutenant Governor can break a tie vote on who should be President Pro Tempore and a procedural vote to adopt Senate Rules and Joint Rules.

    • Dan Klau says:

      Thank you Bob. Much appreciated. Do you have any thoughts on the answer to the question you posed?

      • Bob says:

        The plain language of the constitution seems clear… the lieutenant governor can break any tie when the senate meets as a committee of the whole, which would include votes on procedural matters and leadership. There is nothing that would limit his or her tie breaker to votes on legislation.

        This is a practical necessity. The constitution requires a President Pro Tempore…. in fact, the line of succession for the office of Governor ends at that office. There must be a mechanism to break deadlock in election of a President Pro Tempore.

      • Dan Klau says:

        Bob, I agree that the Lt. Gov would get to cast the tie-breaking vote in selecting the President Pro Tempore. So it seems like Senator Looney is likely to hold onto his position. But do you believe that makes the Dems the “majority” party in the Senate for the purpose of committee leadership, etc.?

      • Bob says:

        Committee makeup is determined by the rules which, again, don’t exist if and until they are readopted… and this legislature is free to change the rule however they want. Technically speaking, if the Democrats had the votes, they could adopt rules that allow for no Republican representation on the committees.

        But there’s a political reality, and the Republicans could threaten to shut down and paralyze the legislature if they are not treated as equals. If there is a power sharing arrangement, that will be the reason why.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s