With the death of John McCain, the senior senator from Maine, Susan Collins now ranks thirteenth in seniority in Congress’s more prestigious and deliberative body. Among Republicans, only Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby, James Inhofe, and Pat Roberts are more senior. Unsurprisingly, those senators hold positions of great responsibility. Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader. Richard Shelby controls the spending as chair of the Appropriations Committee. Orrin Hatch controls tax law as chair on Finance, while Chuck Grassley oversees the courts as the head of the Judiciary Committee. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas sets agricultural policy and James Inhofe is now the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Strangely, however, Susan Collins is only allowed to chair the Special Committee on Aging, a toothless body that rarely meets and has no authority to draft legislation. Her only real power comes from her seat on Appropriations where she is allowed to chair the spending of the subcommittee of least interest to conservatives: Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.
To drive home the point, here are the other Republican chairmen of full committees and their seniority ranking:
- Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs: Mike Crapo of Idaho (17th in seniority)
- Budget: Mike Enzi of Wyoming: (15th in seniority)
- Commerce, Science, and Transportation: Roy Blunt of Missouri (50th in seniority)
- Energy and Natural Resources: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (22nd in seniority)
- Environment and Public Works: John Barrasso of Wyoming (39th in seniority)
- Foreign Relations: Bob Corker of Tennessee (34th in seniority)
- Health, Education, Labor and Pensions: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (24th in seniority)
- Banking: Mike Crapo of Idaho (17th in seniority) (24th in seniority)
- Rules and Administration: Roy Blunt of Missouri (50th in seniority)
- Small Business and Entrepreneurship: James Risch of Idaho (44th in seniority)
- Veterans’ Affairs: Johnny Isakson of Georgia (28th in seniority)
- Intelligence: Richard Burr of North Carolina (26th in seniority)
- Indian Affairs: John Hoeven of North Dakota (55th in seniority)
- Ethics: Johnny Isakson of Georgia (28th in seniority)
My point here is that Susan Collins has been in the Senate for a very long time and yet she has acquired shockingly little power or influence. You can shift the blame for that to her colleagues if you want. Maybe she’s a victim of sexism. Perhaps she just serves too blue of a state, although Donald Trump did pull one electoral vote out of Maine. It’s likely that she is not trusted on hard votes and/or is being punished for past transgressions, however minor. But whatever obstacles have been placed in her way, she clearly has not overcome them. She has not figured out how to force her Republican colleagues to respect her.
That’s why I have no tolerance for her remarks on the passing of Senator John McCain: “The lions are gone,” Ms. Collins said. “The lions of the Senate are gone. It is very sad.”
This would be an appropriate comment from a newly elected or appointed senator like Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana (96th in seniority) or Democrat Tina Smith of Minnesota (98th). It’s not an appropriate comment from someone who has been serving in the Senate longer than all but twelve senators and who now ranks seventh in her caucus. Collins praised McCain for his belief in the “Senate’s role in checks and balances” and “asserting the Senate’s constitutional role.” She said McCain “truly was a giant in the Senate, a towering figure and someone who really made a difference…” But why is she incapable of serving these purposes? Why is she not a towering figure?
As James Fallows points out in The Atlantic, the Senate is currently comprised of 50 Republicans and 49 members of the Democratic caucus (which includes two independents). On any issue, Sen. Collins has the potential to extract concessions from her own side because they will have no majority without her vote unless they can peel off a Democrat, and that’s becoming a less and less frequent event. Even before McCain’s demise, however, she only needed to find one Republican to join her to exert the same kind of influence. If she wants better committee assignments or a more consequential set of gavels, she could play hardball and threaten to bolt to the Democrats. But she doesn’t do these things and therefore is easily shunted to the corner where she can talk about aging and the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs without bothering the men who do serious business.
The only visible influence she has is the press’s persistent interest in her because they think (almost always incorrectly) that she’s a threat to use her influence. She gets them to pay attention by raising the prospect that she might stop the Republicans from doing things she officially disagrees with, but she almost always backs down in the end without getting anything tangible to show for it. The “pro-choice” senator’s next fold will be a vote for Brett Kavanaugh to serve a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court where he will fulfill the conservative movement’s decades-long goal of eviscerating or overruling the Roe and Casey abortion rights decisions. She has the power right now to protect choice which is presumably what the “pro-” in “pro-choice” is supposed to mean. When the Arizona governor appoints McCain’s replacement, she needs to find one colleague to join her—someone like the ostensibly pro-choice Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. If she can’t accomplish that, she can at least keep her promise to take the pro-choice position on Kavanaugh, but she almost certainly won’t. And, so, where she could be extremely influential, she gets no consultation and no say in the choice of a Supreme Court Justice because her threats are not credible. A political hack like Kavanaugh will get her stamp of approval even though his nomination flies in the face of the kind of “lion of the Senate” consensus building for which she too generously credits McCain.
Susan Collins could be that lion, or lioness if you prefer, but instead she’s a lamb. We can only hope that she finds more to emulate from McCain in his death than she did during his life.