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A Theory About the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's campaign trip to South Dakota to defeat his Democratic counterpart brought to mind a question a friend asked me recently: Did I think there was a case to be made that something had fundamentally gone wrong with the U.S. Senate? (And, no, this has nothing to do with the extracurricular activities of young staffers, which have always involved what they will always involve.) This follows on several comments on this weblog about unbelievable comments by Senators such as Rick Santorum, a member of the majority party leadership who, a few months after equating committed gay relationships to "man-on-dog" sex declared that one of his colleagues "doesn't have the understanding of how government works" -- perhaps a mild insult in the blogosphere, but pretty much unheard of in the U.S. Senate as I know it. The more recent declaration by Senator Inhofe that he is "outraged by the outrage" at torture and abuse by U.S. personnel in Iraq shows that Santorum is not alone.

However, there is always peril in assuming there was a golden age of the Senate in which civility ruled and every man (and, if there is one notable positive change in the Senate, it is that the number of women has increased by more than 900% in a decade) was a statesman. As pointed out in comments here earlier, Joe McCarthy was a Senator, and so were many other mentally and morally compromised individuals. A recent obituary reminded me of Senator William Scott of Virginia, who in the 1970s topped a list of "Dumbest Senators" compiled by New Times magazine -- and the next day held a press conference to deny the charge. Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, while chronicling Lyndon Johnson's rise to dominate the institution, also shows that other figures who are considered titans of the 1950s Senate, such as Paul Douglas of Illinois or Herbert Lehman of New York, were most often pretty marginal gadflies in an institution dominated by less gifted or less honorable men.

But without romanticizing the quality of the actual Senators of the past

-- and if you want to lose any illusions about the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body," go even further back, to before direct election of Senators, and find an old copy of The Treason of the Senate by the muckraking journalist and novelist David Graham Phillips -- there is still something unbelievable that has occurred in the interaction between Senators, and in the general institutional culture. Frist's campaigning against Daschle is unprecedented for a good reason. The benefits of a Senate leader making campaign appearances in a state where he is barely known cannot possibly offset the cost in terms of a good working relationship on the mundane daily problems of managing the insitution, scheduling votes, or asking routine favors such as holding a vote for a Senator who is coming in on a delayed flight. And then there is the very real possibility that the Senate Republicans will attempt this year to declare that the Senate rules do not permit a filibuster on judicial nominations, or on any nominations, in order to deprive Democrats of the means of blocking the worst Bush judges. Since the Senate rules emphatically do not exempt judicial nominations from filibuster, this will require over-ruling the Senate Parliamentarian, or, more likely, firing the Senate Parliamentarian and replacing him with someone who will provide the rulings they wish.

If this seems outrageous to you, you should know that this would actually be the second time the Republicans have fired their own Parliamentarian because they didn't like his rulings. They call this "The Nuclear Option," but, if it happens, it is Nagasaki, not Hiroshima.

How did the institution come to this point? It's not because the Senators of today are lesser individuals than in the past, although that may be true also. Rather, I think, it is the way the Senate goes about its business that brings out the worst in those individuals, whereas there are things about the Senate in the past that brought out the best democratic and deliberative capacities of its members.

It took me a while to grasp that the Senate is not a rule-driven institution. It has rules, but they don't drive the process. They are more like a toolbox made up of procedures and tactics to be used for certain conditions at certain times. For example, when I worked in the Senate, cloture votes -- which would determine whether there were enough votes to end a filibuster -- were the main tool being used to drive the business of the Senate, although filibusters themselves were infrequent. There was a period when a tactic known as "filling the amendment tree" was used often to block an unwelcome amendment -- I remember when Senator Byrd did it in 1993 in an attempt to salvage Clinton's now-forgotten "stimulus package," most of my senior colleagues had never seen the tactic used, but by 1995, Senator Dole was filling the tree daily. At the same time, the rules that exist can be broken or bypassed at will: Senator Byrd once pointed out that every rule of the Senate could be waived by consent, except for the rules governing who is a Senator.

That makes the Senate a kind of improvisational theater, rather than a formalized process, and while power is not distributed equally within it, every Senator has the power to initiate action (offer an amendment) or block action. Outside of the legislative process, many Senators also have the power to, for example, launch investigations (which is how John Kerry made his mark) and at any given time, a dozen or so are national figures who can shape the debate by appearing on Meet the Press, by helping to build outside organizations, or making visits to other states. (There's probably never been a Senator who understood this outside-in role as well as Hilary Clinton.) That engenders a kind of respect or acknowledgement of each colleague. My former boss, Senator Bradley, once said something in a campaign debate early on in the period when I worked for him: "You hold power, but you must never claim power." I didn't fully understand what he meant until a few years later -- it means that whatever power you have derives entirely from your ability to influence others, create coalitions, form alliances, be entrepreneurial, etc. No one in the Senate, not the Majority Leader, not the chair of the Finance or Appropriations Committees, holds even a fraction of the actual power of their counterparts in the House of Representatives, because the power they have, if they "claim" it without consent, is so easily undermined.

Combine these factors with four other facts: Senators generally expect that they will serve for a long time and so will their colleagues. But they don't expect their party's tenure in or out of power to last nearly as long; control of the Senate has changed five times since 1980, and most Senators have seen it change at least three times. Finally, because of the filibuster and other rules, nothing can generally be done without forming a bipartisan coalition. Senator Dole used to say every day, "you need 60 votes to do anything around here," which isn't quite true, but we'll get to that in a minute. Finally, party affiliations don't correspond exactly with ideology, so bipartisan coalitions will always be the rule and the Majority Leader does not control a reliable bloc.

You can't argue that the Senate is a good representative body, but within the boundaries of the institution, these factors can create the ideal conditions for deliberative democracy. Participants know that their interactions will be repeated, that their reputations in those interactions will matter, that they may not be in the same power relationship next time as today. When I worked in the Senate, I saw plenty of partisanship, but an intense, constant effort to put together the bipartisan coalitions that would be able to get something done. Sitting behind the dais of the Senate Finance Committee, one saw a group of Senators across both sides of the center part of the horseshoe-shaped table who respected one another, had learned to like each other, and were accustomed to working together to get something accomplished. One of the best examples, though it was unsuccessful, was the "centrists group" that formed after the failure of the Clinton health plan, around Senator John Chafee in particular, which met constantly over a period of weeks in 1994 in an effort to salvage something that could pass.

So what has gone wrong with the Senate: First, party affiliation is no longer on a different axis than ideology. The Republican Party is now the right-wing party, the Democrats the liberal party, with only a few outliers. That was not something that could be said in the Reagan era, when Phil Gramm was still a Democrat, or even ten years ago, when Richard Shelby of Alabama was a Democrat. The only such "Dixiecrat" today is the retiring Zell Miller of Georgia, a very strange case because he did not come from the same tradition, and his estrangement from the Democrats seems best explained as a matter of psychology or allergic reaction to Washington, as Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council has argued. And this means that the Majority Leader can usually command the votes of a majority without reaching out at all.

And some of the other conditions, such as the fact that every Senator can find a way to exercise some power, are no longer true either. That's because the majority of the important business of the Senate is now conducted through the process known as Reconciliation. Reconciliation is a provision of the budget rules under which Congress sets a budget, and then can put through a sweeping piece of legislation intended to bring spending programs in line with budget goals, that is, to "reconcile" the programs with the budget. Reconciliation gives Congress a way to force itself to make decisions about entitlement programs, where spending is determined not by how much Congress appropriates, but by the rules of the program, such as the age requirements of Social Security and Medicare, or the eligibility requirements and bank subsidy of the Guaranteed Student Loan program, as well as taxes and tax breaks. Reconciliation bills are governed by special rules that strictly limit the time for debate and prohibit almost all amendments.

Reconciliations used to be infrequent; the process was not used at all for several years after it was created in 1974, and there was one every two or three years between 1979 and 2001. Usually they were the results of long, tortured "budget summits," such as the one at Andrews Air Force Base in the first Bush administration or the balanced budget agreement reached in 1997, and thus leave everyone a little dissatisfied but knowing they did what had to be done. But when one party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, the process can be used as an exercise in unilateral power, if the party can hold together. Clinton could barely hold his party together in 1993, but did manage to get through Congress, using the reconciliation process, the sweeping budget bill of 1993. This bill not only raised taxes and cut spending; it also reduced taxes for the working poor and created various new programs, such as Empowerment Zones to encourage jobs in poor urban and rural areas, and the Direct Student Loan program, which also saved money. Because no Republicans would support the bill, they were completely cut out of the process, and as a result, much of what was in the bill did not get much public scrutiny, and in the end, the decisions were being made by must a half-dozen or so Senate and House chairmen. But at least that reconciliation lived up to the basic purpose for which the process was created -- improving fiscal discipline.

Bush/DeLay have taken full advantage of the power of reconciliation and pushed through both their giant tax cuts under this process, along with much else. That means that much of the Senate, most Republicans as well as all Democrats are essentially passive bystanders to a process that reverses the normal rules of the Senate. And then, on bills that are not pushed through the reconciliation process, a different tactic is used: the Republicans push through the Senate a bill that they have no intention of fighting for in conference, and then they force the votes on the conference report. So, for example, the Republicans had the Senate pass an energy bill last year that was the same bill that had been passed by the Democrats when they controlled the body. Democrats had voted for it before, so they felt they had to again; Republicans voted for it on the explicit assurance that it would come back from conference in different form. Which it did, of course, the lobbyists and conferees having quietly written the "compromise" as they wished. A conference report can be filibustered but it cannot be amended, and with just a day to go before the end of the congressional session, a filibuster was equivalent to a "no" vote. So the Senate never got an opportunity to deal with anything on the energy bill other than to vote yes or no on a bill they had seen only hours earlier.

When most of the Senate's business is done under these conditions, the problem is that Senators get no opportunity to be Senators. They never learn to form bipartisan coalitions. They never learn to compromise. They don't get to figure out creative ways to at least get a vote on their pet idea. The majority of them are pawns, in the same way that the majority of House members of both parties are pawns, biding their time. The only mystery is why Senators put up with this.

And with so much of the Senate's business closed off to normal debate, there is increasingly just one area where Senators get to exercise some of their rights: nominations. But with all the focus of the Senate on nominations, matters only get worse, because nominations are, always, an ugly scene. You can block them, you can research the hell out of them, you can harass them in committees, you can create a media firestorm, but that's all. You can't amend a nomination or find a compromise or offer an alternative. If the president does not seek the "advice and consent" of minority-party Senators, and makes hugely controversial nominations, then the ugly dimension of the Senate gets far worse, and that's what we're seeing today.

The good news is that the Senate is an adaptable institution, and the current climate was created by deliberate choices by Senator Frist, who, like the president, seems to think he's some kind of CEO. Those choices can be undone, and probably will be.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 20, 2004 | Permalink


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Were the senators , prior to the time they were elected, superior to the present elected ones? Not trying to make a point, just curious.

Posted by: old ari | May 24, 2004 7:30:22 AM

If the Republican Senators objected to this partisanship and being sidelined, they would not support Frist. It is therefore clear that they have chosen this process over a more bipartisan approach.

I'm not sure what the Democrats can do about it, but I think we have to assume that the present wave of Republican politicians really don't value bipartisanship or compromise. I suppose if we could get a hold of one of the major houses or the presidency we could force them to engage in a better deliberative process. However, the only real solution for this is to really target them electorally and hope we can defeat them for control of the Senate. Maybe if we did a good job with the Senate we can convince some of their more moderate Senators to jump ship. I really, really don't see what Collins and Snowe and Chaffee get in return for sticking with the Party.

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 24, 2004 11:27:01 AM

One might think that an article twisting Santorum's words into equating homosexual and bestial relationships when his actual quote did nothing of the sort is also a partisan attack.

Here's the actual quotation, should you readers care to read it. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2003/04/22/national1737EDT0668.DTL&type=printable

Posted by: GE | May 24, 2004 3:38:09 PM

As a reader, I was interested in reading the actual quote GE thoughtfully provides. I even had enough time to cut and paste the few sentences at issue:

[Santorum speaking]"Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality. . ."(my emphasis)

Now, it is a bit difficult to parse this jumble, not the least because Santorum is speaking here, and we lack the clues that normally help us decipher speech. But it seems to me there are two interpretations possible.

1) Santorum means to differentiate homosexuality from pedophilia and beastiality, presumably on the grounds that it is not as bad, while claiming that it is similarly excluded from the definition of marriage.

This interpretation gets Santorum somewhat off the hook, but it doesn't scan as well as the alternative interpretation, i.e.:

2) Santorum means to point out that homosexualiity isn't the only form of devience excluded from traditional marriage, as pedophilia and beastiality are also forbidden.

This second interpretation allows us to understand why Santorum says that he doesn't want to "pick on" homosexuality in particular. If he wanted to distinguish between homosexuality and the other practices in terms of their relative nastiness, he would have said "It's not as bad as that", or something to that effect. Instead he contrasts these other things, along with homosexuality, to the 'just one thing' that 'proper' marriage is, i.e. between man and woman, and none of the other things, e.g. homosexual, pedophilic or beastial relationships.

Either way, there's nothing bloody obvious about any of it, and Santorum, who is offered multiple opportunities to clarify his position by the shocked AP reportrer, never states that homosexuality is to be distinguished from the other two things he mentions. So I think the accusation is unmerited.

Posted by: epist | May 24, 2004 6:06:25 PM

"the number of women [in the Senate] has increased by more than 900% in a decade", eh? How much more? 901%? 933%? 1300%? Why not simply say "more than tenfold"?

I know, it's not as urgent an issue as the preservation of honor among thieves; still it bugs and puzzles me to see anyone go to the trouble of specifying a hundred times more precision than could ever be required.

Posted by: Anton Sherwood | May 24, 2004 11:49:13 PM

In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality.

Even though I bet that Santorum would like to limit his idea of society to "the West", most native North American groups had some gender category for what were essentially homosexual people. Some even had ceremonies that were centered around these individuals.

I also find the link about Zell Miller very interesting. Unfortunate and somewhat maddening, but interesting nonetheless.

Posted by: mattH | May 26, 2004 3:22:41 AM

Great piece. I have linked to it from FromTheRoots.org, and added Decembrist to the blog roll. Please feel free to create an account and cross-post pieces about the Senate.

Posted by: Seth | May 26, 2004 7:30:37 PM

Senates tend to be like a swimming pools. Most of the noise comes from the shallow end...

Posted by: Jozef | May 30, 2004 12:42:20 AM

Senates tend to be like swimming pools. Most of the noise comes from the shallow end...

Posted by: Jozef | May 30, 2004 12:43:10 AM

"It is one thing."

This sentence (from the article about Santorum's statement in the comments above) appears to relate to marriage. He is saying that marriage is "not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be" and not homosexuality.

He doesn't equate bestiality and pedophilia with homosexuality, but he groups them together as "not marriage." Its not as bad in this context, but I still disagree with him (regarding homosexuality, not man-on-dog, etc).

Of course, this is all true only if the link provided has an accurate rendering of Senator Santorum's words. I would love to hear the audio tape myself.

Posted by: Bolo | Jun 1, 2004 10:08:37 PM

Note: The link provided is accurate.

Posted by: Bolo | Jun 1, 2004 10:10:41 PM

You know, after re-reading the quote... it really sounds like he's equating homosexuality with bestiality. I don't know... I guess it has to do with how you view the man.

Posted by: Bolo | Jun 2, 2004 9:43:06 PM


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Christian Conservatives who have voted for George Bush should return to the Democratic Party because it follows Jesus' teachings and the Republicans do not. The Democratic Party has always stood for the working man or common man while the Republicans have been aligned with big business. Christians should read Mark 10: 17-22. In it a rich man asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell what he had and give to the poor and come and follow him. The man was very sad. Jesus said, "How hardly shall they that are rich enter the kingdom of heaven". The Democratic Party has continually tried to raise the minimum wage whereas the Republicans have prevented this even though there has been no raise for ten years. When George Bush was Governor of Texas he prevented the raising of the minimum wage even though it was only about $3.50 an hour at that time. If people can have no concern for those at the bottom of the economic ladder how can they claim to be followers of Jesus? Republican Christians have tried to demonize Democrats on the subjects of abortion and homosexuality but the fact is that most Democrats are opposed to indiscriminate use of abortions and they are supportive of the traditional family of a man and a woman. Christians should come back to the Democratic Party, the Party of the Common Man. Remember, Jesus said "Blessed are the poor" and not, "Blessed are the rich". You should read my book, "It's Religious Fundamentalism, Stupid" which points out the dangers of Christian Fundamentalism and how we can progress beyond it. It is available from any book store or from Amazon.com. Also see my Website: members.aol.com/johnmaxmorell which is titled, "The Society Of The Universal Man" and suggests that we each are the perfect man, or woman ever though we do not know it.

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