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The Decline of the Senate

I worked in the U.S. Senate from 1990 to 1997 -- not long ago. But sometimes I feel like I might as well be a hundred years old, talking about some forgotten Golden Age -- "back in my day" -- and muttering about the greatness of Senator Douglas or Dirksen or Mansfield.

This interview from the Manchester Union-Leader of Senator Rick Santorum is one of those things that made me feel my experience in government is hopelessly out of date. Speaking of Senator John Edwards, Santorum said

"The basic perception in the Republican caucus was that this guy is just an empty suit, that he just simply doesn't understand," Santorum continued. "My feeling is that he's a nice guy, he makes a very nice appearance, but I don't think he has the understanding, and the depth of understanding, of how government works and how these kinds of things affects the everyday person. I think the people in New Hampshire will probably figure that one out."

Now, back in my day (six years ago), the idea that a U.S. Senator would give an interview in which he called another elected member of the Senate an "empty suit," and accuse him of not being smart enough to understand how government works -- well, it just wouldn't happen. (But then, this is the same Senator who six months ago compared same-sex relationships to "man-dog," and seemed obsessed with the latter.) Senators are not even permitted to refer to each other by name on the Senate floor, to discourage personal attacks. There's no need for all the vacuous, over-the-top pseudo-bipartisan flattery -- "My dear friend, the Senator from North Carolina," when referring to Jesse Helms, and so forth -- but the Senate depends on a basic level of cordiality and respect to the others who've also been elected by the people of their state. Everyone in that body knows that no party or temporary majority can rule the Senate single-handedly, and the colleague you disagree with fiercely today might be the one you need to form an alliance with tomorrow. Or they should know that.

The Senate can be a great institution. It's not without its flaws, and of course, its very makeup is undemocratic. But the fact that any member can introduce any amendment at almost any time, or speak on any subject as long as he can hold the floor, makes it one of the most open, loose and non-hierarchical legislative bodies in the world. Ideas that the President and majority party don't want to entertain, like raising the minimum wage, can be introduced by a single Senator, who can force a vote. But that openness depends on the respect and decorum, even if it's sometimes phony, that the institution had developed over two centuries. And which has been lost in a few years.

Santorum is the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership of the Senate. Just as he says here that he is representing the views of "the Republican caucus," he speaks for his party. And as long as his party keeps him in its leadership, it bears responsibility for what's been done to the institutions of our democracy.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 15, 2004 | Permalink


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» O Tempora! O Mores! from Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004)
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Reading your post I can remember sitting in on the British Parliament while studying abroad and listening to some very mundane, but none the less, heated debate on Northern Farm subsidies or whatnot and I was shocked by the manner in which the discussion both very aggressive and very sincere, almost heartfelt. Even on the chat shows and political interview programs the MP's were always open about their feelings and seemed to carefully choose their words whenever speaking. I won't pretend that things never got ugly but I will say this: Even when Ken Livingston broke rank and he and Tony Blair were warring over the Mayor of London I never once heard anyone say anything as ridiculous as what Rick Santorum said about John Edwards and I can't imagine that if said, it would have gone unchecked.

Posted by: ARON | Jan 15, 2004 7:16:04 PM

Worse yet, Santorum will probably become the #1 GOP Senate leader if Frist, as expected, declines an '06 re-election bid so he can run for president in '08 as an "outsider." Since Santorum is a Karl Rove favorite, his rise will be even more likely if Bush gets a second term.

Posted by: penalcolony | Jan 16, 2004 7:00:25 AM

Having attended a number of hearings in which Senator Edwards took a major role in questioning Administration empty suits, I was quite impressed with both his intellegence and his command of the issues. I haven't read much of your Blog, but having been in Washington for 20 years and (although I'm not a lobbyist) having sat through many hearings, it is more the exception than the rule for Senators to actually be able to get beyond the script and ask an intellegent follow-up question.

Whether it was his training as a trial attorney, his intellegence, or his interest in and feel for the subject (OSHA issues), he put on an impressive performance that would have made me proud to have him as my Senator, and not unhappy about having him as President.

As for Senator Santorum, don't get me started.....

Posted by: Jordan Barab | Jan 16, 2004 11:58:59 AM

I don't see how a supporter of George W. Bush has the right to accuse *anyone* of being an empty suit.

Posted by: Bill Camarda | Jan 16, 2004 5:16:01 PM

Pride cometh before the fall. As the GOP gets more confident in their power they are opening up more and more opportunities to commit the scandel that will bring them down. The only thing that is certain is change...and one wonders what the GOP thinks will be their role when they (someday) are not the party in power.

Posted by: Rich | Jan 16, 2004 6:07:12 PM

...what the GOP thinks will be their role when they (someday) are not the party in power.

The GOP are fairly close to attaining their goal of making such a reversal impossible.

How long did the PRI run Mexico? 70 years?

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jan 17, 2004 1:10:35 PM

Excellent point, Davis. What we're seeing in the US today, I fear, is the imposition of an effective one-party state, at the federal level. It won't be a 'one legal party' state, but a state where only one party can control the government. The other party, under unusual circumstances, can hold at most one fraction. Right now, the Democratic Party *might* be able to control the Senate, and *might* be able to get the Presidency. I'd place the odds against both. Meanwhile, the House is under solid GOP control, with extra re-districtings strengthening it, while the SC is at 2 Democrats: 4 Republicans: 3 guys who think that the GOP is too left-wing.

In the 'private' sector, the mainstream mass media gives Bush around a 90% pass, while hammering at Dems for everything, down to what clothes their wives wear. Of course, the lucrative media licenses and favorable treatment by the FCC for large, right-wing media conglomerates will have nothing to do with this.

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Sorry, that was me, coming over from Brad DeLong's page.

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