Governing as the Junior Senator from California

After a decisive win in the election for California’s seat in the U.S. Senate, Senator-elect Kamala Harris has begun her transition leading up to being sworn in on January 3rd. This week, Harris began announcing the names of people from her campaign and Attorney General offices that will be part of her team in Washington.  As we might expect based on the Vox piece we read about the effects of electing women to office, Harris’ hires for her D.C. staff includes several women in prominent roles. However, assessing which kind of lawmaker Harris intends to be goes beyond her picks of staffers; looking at the kinds of issues on which she is focusing as she transitions to Washington should give us an idea of which policies we can expect her to work on.

Since the election, Kamala Harris has frequently spoken out against President-elect Trump and his policies. She is especially focused on Trump’s immigration policy, which she has vowed to fight against. Her focus was underlined by her decision to make her first public appearance after the election at the head quarters of an immigrants’ rights group in California. This suggests that she has already chosen immigration as a central issue in her legislative agenda. However, Harris faces several obstacles to being an effective lawmaker, the most significant of which is being a freshman senator from the minority party.

In their analysis of what makes an effective lawmaker, Volden and Wiseman (2014) present a list of qualities and approaches that seem to be common practices for the most effective legislators. While some of these qualities are harder to assess in a politician new to a legislative position, some of these can nevertheless help us make an educated guess as to the kind of legislator Senator-elect Harris will be.

First off, Harris’ focus on immigration issues throughout her campaign and now her transition suggests that she takes the interests specifically relevant to Californians into account when shaping her message. Furthermore, a focus on immigration and criminal justice reform serve a good extension of her expertise and experience as the Attorney general of California, a further indicator of success.

Finally, while it seems unlikely for a Democrat in the current climate to seek out compromises across party lines, Harris has certainly mastered the skill of cultivating a broad set of powerful allies. This skill is best exemplified by looking at her list of endorsements from the election.

One final interesting aspect of Harris’ legislative agenda what her choice of issues might tell us about her priorities in terms of her future political career. Her clear indication that she intends to lead the fight on immigration issues against President Trump’s administration aligns with Herrnson’s (2016) analysis of the types of committees legislators pursue. In this case, immigration reform is a divisive issue with plenty of opportunity for Harris to position herself on the national stage. This, in combination with the already consistent speculation that Harris is aiming for a presidential run in 2020, suggests that Harris intends to continue to try to advance her political career.

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5 thoughts on “Governing as the Junior Senator from California”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article especially since you emphasize Harris’ ability to be an influential candidate even if she is a member of the minority party in Congress. Although Volden and Wiseman recognize how “members of the majority party are generally more effective than members of the minority,” they note that “strategies embraced by women are particularly valuable when they are in the minority party.” (Volden and Wiseman, 192). It will be interesting to see how successful Harris is in the upcoming term given their analysis.

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    1. Definitely! I think it’s interesting how we’ve talked about throughout the semester how lawmakers behave differently when they are in the minority. I think, regardless of gender, the measures of success in the minority in a polarized congress are very different from measure of success for members of the majority. I think this has been especially clear in the last few weeks when looking at Democrats’ rhetoric of standing up to President-elect Trump.

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  2. So given the Democratic Party’s minority status in the House and Senate, how do you think they will react to his legislation propositions given that millions of Americans supported him? I believe that the Democratic Party (in a previous article that I read about the party needing to grow) must reduce its rhetoric in order to accept disgruntled moderates/Republicans if Trump is an ineffective president.

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    1. I’m not sure… While millions of Americans did support Trump, he doesn’t really have a mandate (regardless of which definition you use) as he lost the popular vote, so I think it’ll be fairly easy for Democrats to argue against whatever policies he proposes.

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