Merkley and the hounds

Jeff Merkley made headlines last April when he became the first U.S. senator to endorse Bernie Sanders for president. As April turned to May, it became apparent that the Oregon Democrat would be the only senator in Sanders’ corner. Hillary Clinton’s victory at the Democratic National Convention, and poll-fed confidence that Clinton would be elected president in November, led to speculation that Merkley might become an exile in his own caucus.

But in this year of confounded expectations, Merkley prepares to enter the 115th Congress in a stronger position than ever before. Merkley will become the chief deputy whip for the Democratic caucus in the Senate, succeeding retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. As deputy whip Merkley will be a member of the minority leadership team, with newly chosen Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at its head.

Merkley says that whips don’t really do much — it’s the opportunity to participate in the caucus leadership, which sets the agenda and plans strategy for the 48 Democratic senators, that really counts. But party whips can be important figures. The term was first used about 300 years ago in the British Parliament to describe the member responsible for keeping party members in line, from the “whippers-in” who keep the hounds focused on the quarry in a fox hunt. If Schumer needs an enforcer, he’ll call Merkley.

Oregon hasn’t had a senator of either party in a caucus leadership position for a century or more, though a number of Merkley’s predecessors — including Sens. Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield — held powerful committee chairmanships. On the House side, Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Oregon’s 2nd District, is a member of the Republican leadership team, currently serving as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats will remain in the minority in both chambers of Congress, but a minority in the Senate can block legislation and some presidential nominations through the exercise of the filibuster. A filibuster depends on maintaining party discipline, and it’s Merkley who will be counting the votes and keeping the members in line.

None of this would matter much to Merkley’s constituents or anyone else outside the Capitol if it weren’t for the fact that congressional minorities eventually become majorities. If that should occur, Merkley’s experience in Oregon provides some encouragement. In 2007, Merkley became the first Democratic speaker of the Oregon House in 16 years. He wielded his new powers in a decidedly non-partisan way, ensuring that Republicans were represented on committees and were allowed to introduce legislation. The result was a reduction in partisan rancor and recriminations of a kind that would be welcome at the national level.

For now, Merkley sounds more like a whip than a peacemaker. He is preparing for broad resistance to a Trump administration’s agenda. He says that Donald Trump, by virtue of losing the popular vote, lacks a mandate for leadership. He says that Schumer will practice a brand of consultative retail politics — “he works the phone more extensively than anyone I’ve seen in political life” — that will offer a visible contrast to the style of his predecessor, Harry Reid. Merkley sounds set to keep the hounds on the fox’s trail.