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The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis

By Ira Shapiro
Public Affairs, 2012

“It was a different time,” Ira Shapiro writes in The Last Great Senate about the upper chamber of Congress in the late Seventies:

This was how the Senate worked in the era when it was still great. Issues were taken on the merits, and faced, no matter how tough they were. Nominees got judged on their merits, irrespective of partisan politics. The national interest dictated the result. It was the last great Senate, and it would not last much longer.

This sounds a little too good to be true, and it is, but put that aside for a moment, because we must first come to grips with the term “great.” Like any word conveying a normative judgment, great is a relative term. So the question it immediately suggests is: great compared to what?

America’s schoolchildren are taught that the Founding Fathers designed a system of checks and balances to becalm the government they were creating. And just as each branch of state would guard against the excesses of the others, each house of the new bicameral legislature was designed to compensate for the deficiencies of the other. “The use of the Senate,” as James Madison put it in the constitutional debates of 1787, “is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” Many who supported the creation of the Senate had the England’s patrician House of Lords in mind, but Madison reached back further, to Rome, and compared the popularly elected House to the Roman tribunate, which demonstrated that

The more the representatives of the people … were multiplied, the more they partook of the infirmities of their constituents, the more liable they became to be divided among themselves, either from their own indiscretions of the artifices of the opposite faction, and of course the less capable of fulfilling their trust.

To offset this, to cool the hot tempers of the House by putting “legislation into the senatorial saucer” (Washington’s words to Jefferson), senators would be elected by their state legislatures and sit for six-year terms (in the House it is two years). The new Senate, according to Madison, was designed to do two things: “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”

Madison could have chosen a better analogy. If the House of Representatives can be likened to the tribunes, then the analogue of the American Senate would be the Roman one, an institution so corrupt that, as historian Ronald Syme describes it, “Party-denominations prevailed entirely, and in the end success or failure became the only criterion of wisdom and of patriotism. In the service of faction the fairest of pleas and the noblest of principles were assiduously enlisted.” Through the Senate the wealthy wielded “an influence beyond all relation to their number” and invariably “stood for the existing order.”

Comparisons between the United States and ancient Rome are endless and often useless, but for most of its lifespan the American Senate has been astonishingly successful in braking reform and safeguarding the prerogatives of those who benefit from the status quo. The Roman analogy suggests reasons the Founders didn’t clearly anticipate: that corruption and factionalism have been at least as important as indirect elections (made direct after 1913) and six-year terms.

Bribery was legal in Congress until 1853, and after they were outlawed, bribes became “consulting fees,” a perk that legislators enjoyed well into the twentieth century. From Reconstruction to the Johnson administration, the Senate, excepting a few brief, bright moments, was dominated by an accord between pro-business Republicans and Southern segregationists. In the few cases when the Senate chanced a big leap forward, it was in the face of crisis or in capitulation to evolving national feeling – the Great Depression and the women’s suffrage movement, for instance.

But “the Senate of the 1960’s and 1970’s stands as an extraordinary exception,” writes Shapiro, a former congressional staffer and Clinton Administration official. The evidence for this is overwhelming, and Shapiro rattles off an impressive list:

That Senate overcame our country’s legacy of racism by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It attacked the premises of the Vietnam War … and ultimately, on a bipartisan basis, cut off funding for the war. The Senate battled President Richard Nixon’s efforts to turn the Supreme Court to the right, defeating two of his nominees in two years. Through its memorable televised hearing, the Senate made Watergate understandable to the nation and called Nixon to account. It conducted an extraordinary investigation into the abuses of our nation’s intelligence agencies. And the Senate spearheaded new environmental and consumer protections and expanded food stamp and nutrition programs, as well as civil rights for minorities and women.

“What made that Senate great?” Shapiro asks. There are many reasons, but he starts with the Second World War. He believes that “the experience that many members of the Great Senate shared by serving in World War II profoundly influenced their lives and shaped their public service.” This is undoubtedly true, but Shapiro, who can become too enamored of his subjects and too focused on personality, thinks the war meant that senators “who had fought at Normandy or Iwo Jima or the Battle of the Bulge weren’t frightened by the need to cast a hard vote now and then.” But by this reasoning, the Civil War, a far bloodier conflict for the United States, should have turned the Senate into a choir of angels. Instead the post-bellum Senate ended Reconstruction and paved the way for Jim Crow. World War II was different because the country was unified and secure in its moral case, and because the federal direction of the war effort and the socially transformative effects of the GI Bill convinced most of the country that government could be a force for good.

The Great Senate was also, Shapiro notes, a magnet for talented, ambitious staffers inspired by the Kennedy presidency, many of whom would go on to become congressmen and women themselves. But most of all,

It was the concept of the Senate that [everyone involved] shared… The Senate was an institution that the nation counted on to take collective action. Understanding that brought about a commitment to passionate, but not unlimited, debate; tolerance of opposing views; principled compromise; and senators’ willingness to end debate, and vote up or down, even if it sometimes meant losing.

This is what is most shocking to observers of the current Senate. “They used to talk to each other—that’s my most vivid recollection,” Michael Janeway, a former Senate staff member, told the New Yorker’s George Packer recently. The liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans who began to take over in the late 50s inherited the clubby, respectful atmosphere of the old Senate just as the social change begun after the war (a factor Shapiro consistently underrates) gave them sanction to legislate epochal change in the way the country treated women, minorities, the elderly, and the way the country waged war and gathered intelligence.

The Last Great Senate focuses on the Carter years but devotes much time to the fifteen years before and the biographies of the most important Senators. Though his book clearly inspired by the institutional decay of the last few decades, Shapiro suggests little in the way of reform: “this book is, first and foremost, my effort to recapture and celebrate the accomplishments of the great senators and the Great Senate of the 1960’s and 1970’s,” and in that he succeeds.

The Senate depends on unanimous consent for its most mundane functions, and that consent is used most often to waive rules and hasten proceedings – to give floor privileges to staff members, impose limits on debate, or skip the reading of amendments. There are few checks on this feature, but tradition has long dictated that this consent be given, and furthermore that bills and nominees with substantial support be given a vote on the floor. Filibusters and holds (by which a single Senator can stop a nominee from being voted out of committee) were extremely rare. With this in mind, some of the practices in Shapiro’s Great Senate seem less strange.

In the 1970s New York City was near bankruptcy. It won three years of federal loans in 1975 but came back for more in May 1978, arguing that despite its austerity measures, the city needed another loan to shore itself up. William Proxmire, a fiscally-conservative Democrat and chair of the Banking Committee, was strongly opposed. “A committee chairman,” Shapiro writes, “could kill legislation that he opposed, simply by inaction.” But propriety demanded that Proxmire give New York’s advocates a chance to make their case, and he allowed the committee to debate and ultimately approve the legislation for a vote by the full Senate. “In those relatively rare cases when the committee overcomes a chairman’s opposition, the chairman would usually ask another committee member to manage the bill.” But Proxmire decided to manage it on the floor himself, to see that the will of his committee was carried through.

A dozen such difficult bills reached the Senate – a Senate ethics code, the Alaska Wilderness Bill, deregulation of the airline industry, the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Energy Department, the “Superfund” toxic cleanup program – and after contentious debate on the floor and bargaining behind closed doors, the party leaders allowed the majority to exercise its will. In a narrow sense, Shapiro is right: there were simply better people in the Senate back then, serious intellectuals and principled public servants like George McGovern, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Frank Church, and Gaylord Nelson – names many still recognize today.

Shapiro knew and worked with many of the senators of this era, and the most enjoyable parts of his book are the character sketches he deploys whenever he introduces one of them. My favorite is Tom Eagleton, who Shapiro describes as

a whirling dervish of activity: chain smoking, racing from meeting to meeting, tearing articles out of newspapers and magazines, dashing off irreverent notes to staff members and friends, sometimes on note paper with the heading “Dear Fuckface.”

He was known for his sense of humor and comic timing… He took great joy in retelling the story of the time when Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, came to his office. Rickover had dressed him down, turned smartly, and walked into the closet. Years later, Eagleton would act out all the parts, his body shaking with gales of laughter.

But The Last Great Senate is also a chronicle of the Great Senate’s unraveling. Perhaps the signal instance was the near failure of the Panama Canal treaties, which would turn the waterway over to Panama, a country effectively divided in two by American sovereignty over the passage. The treaties looked likely to pass but nearly didn’t after a mindlessly jingoistic media campaign caught fire with the American public. The Senate, and the country it represented, had changed.

By the late seventies new right-wing think tanks were churning out tracts on supply-side economics, aggressive foreign intervention and socially conservative causes for politicians and pundits to use in drafting laws and writing newspaper columns. Vast mailing networks, religious organizations and well-funded political action committees applied relentless pressure on Congress and the White House. The giants of the Senate were beginning their exodus, and in their place stood younger, more ideological politicians, many from the House. The filibuster, or the threat of it, was becoming more common. During a debate over President Carter’s ambitious proposed energy legislation, two young senators repeatedly threatened to filibuster the bill unless it was watered down. Russell Long, who had been in the Senate since 1948, was so exasperated by this unprecedented maneuvering that he cried out in the chamber: “If the other side wants to be a poor loser, I’ll be a poor loser. I have as much capability as the average senator to engage in a filibuster.”

The energy bill that finally passed was tame, and in retrospect, the Senate of the Carter years failed almost as often as it succeeded. It couldn’t pass legislation to create a consumer protection agency, or publicly finance elections, or reform union practices, or generate adequate economic stimulus, and it failed to ratify the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. Shapiro justly celebrates the ability of an increasingly fractured Senate to find compromise and produce legislation that addressed the important issues of the day, but in truth, the institution he’s chronicling is already in decline. It is no longer great.

There’s no use talking about the Senate as though it’s a creature unaffected by the environment that nourishes it, a trap Shapiro sometimes falls into, and blame for its deterioration cannot rest wholly or even mostly with the men and women who people it: they change as the country changes. Conservative backlash over the social and political movements of the 1960’s sharpened the lines between the two parties, ideologically and geographically: the Republican party of today is an increasingly circumscribed entity, divorced from the West Coast and its roots in the North. Legislators more and more depend on the resources of lobbyists and interest groups to supply them with arguments and legislation. The proliferation of technology forces everyone with political ambition to wade into the shallows of television, and the need to constantly grovel for the obscene amounts of money necessary to run a congressional campaign and buy political allies has turned the Senate into what George Packer aptly called “The Empty Chamber.” Congressmen and women have little time to get to know their fellows; instead they talk past one another over the airwaves, and now over the Internet, for the sake of political gain.

Shapiro concedes the need to reform the Senate’s arcane procedural rules, which can tie up business indefinitely, though he argues against completely abolishing the filibuster. He thinks “what is most urgently needed is for senators to act like senators, not partisan operatives.” But if history is any predictor, the Senate isn’t going to take up the cause of its own reform. America’s senators will have to be forced – by crisis or public anger – to act in the best interests of their country.

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Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.