The Extinguished Senator
Are good Illinoisans wasted in the Senate?
Among my private preoccupations is the U.S. Senate. What is it good for? How might it be made useful? The body—undemocratic by design—was misconceived by the founders and rendered even more suspect by reformers. My files bulge with clippings describing different ways that a deliberative upper chamber might to filled and the duties in might perform. No chance of anything better replacing it, alas.
In the 25 years that have passed since this piece was published, Springfield's Dick Durbin has become one of the Senate's most senior members. Under current rules, however, seniority ain't what it used to be. Durbin is a good man and a conscientious public servant, but it is hard to not think of his as a career wasted.
Candidates can hardly wait to replace retiring Paul Simon as Illinois's delegate to the U.S. Senate. Pat Quinn wants to get on C-SPAN to talk about his new scheme to downsize Congress, Dick Durbin wants to serve a district whose boundaries can't be redrawn by Republicans, and Bob Kustra figures that a place he'd heard described as a talking shop would offer opportunities to a talk show host.
No one, in fact, seems to want to be elected an Illinois senator in order to be a senator. Prestige may cling to the Senate like dust on the mantel, but power has shifted elsewhere. Last year Gov. Jim Edgar told the Chicago Sun-Times that becoming a U.S. senator would be a step up—if he were governor of a state like South Dakota.
Which prompts the question: What is a United States senator for? Are not most of the tasks set for it by the founders now performed by other branches? Has not the Senate been rendered moot by reform or social change? Are not its members priests of ancient and arcane rituals as alien to our age as Druidism or liberalism?
Running against an old fuddy-duddy
Certainly the institution is in a low estate. Even the people who want to serve in it don't seem to think much of the place. When Carol Moseley-Braun ran for her Senate seat in 1992, she dismissed the Senate as "traditionalist," a "throwback," stuck in a "business-as-usual mode." In short, she ran not against her opponent but against the Senate, and the Senate lost. As a newcomer, Moseley-Braun perhaps did not realize that such complaints are a throwback to a tradition nearly as old as the Senate itself. It has been damned variously for its ambition, its slowness, its garrulity, as well as its irrelevance.
The Senate is a bit of a fuddy-duddy. It was meant to be. The founders bade the House to act, and the Senate—designed as a "council of revision," in one scholar's phrase—to react. And because they change office only every six years, senators strike most generations as out of sync with fast-changing political trends. Certainly Illinois's two liberal Democrat senators look as out of place next to its Republican governor and General Assembly as bell-bottoms on a business suit.
A typical House member campaigns constantly back home, and so is as hard to avoid as potato salad at a company picnic. A typical senator spends only 80 days a year on average back home. Yet, the Senate's historic aloofness from the grubby business of constituent service is betrayed in the language. When one sits down to "write my congressman," it is a House member whose name goes on the envelope. Voters tend to see senators through the lens of statewide or even national news media. Senators are one of "them," the Beltway decision-makers who traffic in issues rather than service.
And Illinois senators are not among the Beltway biggies. The phrase "the distinguished senator from Illinois" has been more polite than descriptive since the days of Everett Dirksen and Paul Douglas, who represented Illinois with distinction during the 1950s and '60s. Then, the Illinois men—one the high-minded outsider, the other the quintessential insider, each an eloquent spokesman for a distinct agenda—commanded national attention.
And since then? Alan Dixon was a self-described "state man," one of that faction that Senate experts, using a different lexicon, describe as the "provincials"; not only did he not make History forget Clay, he gave it no reason to remember Dixon. Adiai Stevenson III appreciated the Senate's importance as a forum, but said little from it that anyone wanted to hear. Charles Percy was enhanced more by being named chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee than his chairmanship enhanced the committee.
Voters, including voters in Illinois, are widely assumed to be uninterested in issues. Certainly Alan Dixon catered to those Illinoisans for whom good government means the orderly division of spoils. Paul Douglas opposed the tradition of using "mutual accommodations" to increase appropriations for members' pet projects; these days "liberal," when applied to a senator, means generous with the taxpayers' money—the National Taxpayers Union added up the costs of new spending programs proposed in the first half of the 103rd Congress and found that Illinois's two senators were the most generous of all the state delegations.
The word "senate" originally described an assembly of elders valued for their wisdom and experience. As recently as the 1960s, the typical veteran senator was a respected government specialist in the policy realms encompassed by his committees. Today a senator tends to depend on staff, and thus has liberated himself from the need to know anything about policy at the federal level. Recent Illinois senators have graduated to the job after apprenticeships as Illinois secretary of state, lieutenant governor, and state treasurer. Percy had no government experience at all when elected; neither, if her critics are to be believed, did Carol Moseley-Braun after her tenure as Cook County recorder of deeds.
Not immune to political viruses
The two houses retain significantly different procedures, protocols and etiquette that derive from the Senate's peculiar constitutional role and the traditions that have evolved from it. For example, the Senate known to its admirers as the world's greatest deliberative body is known to its detractors as a talking shop. If the House response to crisis is to pass a bill, the Senate's is to schedule a hearing.
Unavoidably, the viruses that infect U.S. politics in general are sickening the Senate too. Eloquence thus used to be part of the senator's job description, but media schedules no longer allow expansive expression; Ev Dirksen—whose ghost can sometimes be heard in the empty chamber slowly making its way toward the end of a sentence the living senator began in 1963—would have starved on a diet of sound bites.
The proliferation since the early 1960s of lobbies and special interest groups has compelled senators to advocate when before they would deliberate. Sound-bite-itis and fat-cat influence have also compromised the Senate's traditions of independence. Obsessive media coverage complicates the Senate's review of appointments. The Economist may remain confident that most confirmation hearings are "polite and useful" affairs that force a president to think twice before stuffing his administration with big-money donors and third-rate hangers-on, but they are driving out of government first-rate people not eager to subject themselves to what have become inquisitions rather than inquiries. The celebrification of politics has not exactly enlarged the dignity of the calling; as Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times, it's hard to be a Henry Clay in a Congress that includes Sonny Bono.
Since 1913, senators have been elected by popular vote just like representatives, with the result that strong currents of public opinion can sweep members of both houses temporarily off their feet. Prodded by constituencies on the prudish Right, Sens. Robert Dole and Phil Gramm recently endorsed a redundant and constitutionally problematic ban on "indecency" on the Internet. It was left to a statesmanlike Newt Gingrich to urge his senior colleagues to desist, lest in their eagerness to please a few voters they risked hurting them all.
The founders conceived the Senate in part to protect established wealth against the importunings of the rabble. What they could not conceive was how established wealth would come to reside in the modern business corporation. Corporations generate the jobs and wealth on which the state's economy, and thus politicians' careers, depend. As powerful duchies within the commonwealth, they stand in much the same relation to the national government in the 1990s that the fledgling states—anxious about the former's power and vain about their own prerogatives—stood in the 1790s.
The conscientious senator will protect the interests of Illinois's corporate citizens accordingly. The House member works to unstick a Social Security check for a pensioner; the senator frees up $96 million loan guarantees for Russian gas production equipment like the one that Simon helped Peoria's Caterpillar company obtain. When Simon says he has Quaker Oats and Sara Lee for breakfast, he is referring to the guest list, not the menu.
Moseley-Braun makes Al the Pal Dixon look like Ebenezer Scrooge. Her exertions make clear that, when it comes to business at least, she will do business as usual. In interviews less than a year after taking office, Moseley-Braun listed as her top achievement killing proposed new taxes on Illinois futures traders, barge owners, and energy users; in April she engineered a $13 million tax exemption for a joint venture by the Tribune Co. and black entertainer Quincy Jones. Such exertions caused New Republic magazine to take her to task as a "pork-barrel pol."
For all that, senators remain a different sort of politician in crucial respects. For example, the founders set the term of office for senators at six years (originally it was proposed to be seven). This they deemed "sufficient to ensure their independency." The six-year term has not lessened senators' dependence on contributors; Simon has said that he based his decision to step down in part because he was discouraged by the time spent fund-raising. Senators may run less often than a congressman, but because they run statewide, they must run farther.
However, the six-year term does free senators from constant campaigning. A representative is compelled to pay attention to this week's popular panic, which will be followed by next week's quick fix. The lengthier tenure also ensures that even one-and two-termers see a lot of government. During recent budget negotiations, much of the opposition in the Senate to tax-cut proposals came from men who were present in the 1980s, when tax cuts unmatched by budget cuts added trillions to the U.S. deficit. Those cuts were supported in the House mainly by younger Republicans, most of them freshmen still young enough to believe in fairy tales. Even if Senate members are not superior to their House colleagues in wisdom, as the founders hoped, senators are at least potentially superior in government experience.
It comes as a shock to many Americans, including several Republicans elected recently to the Senate, that the Founding Fathers did not entirely trust the American people with a government. The founders assumed that a law will be unwise in proportion to its popularity, and vice versa. They thus installed a second chamber in Congress whose role is to temper the popular sentiments of the House, to (as James Madison put it famously) provide "more coolness, more system and more wisdom than the popular branch."
The good House member may be said to reflect his constituents' views while the good senator reflects on them. The successful one tries to do both. His detractors have said of Paul Simon that by supporting a balanced budget amendment he is like a drug addict calling for stiffer penalties for possession. But most of the voters who back Simon on the amendment also demand that he do the things that unbalanced the budget in the first place, such as vote for middle-class entitlements.
The House has the power to tax, the president the power to mobilize armies, the Supreme Court the power to void laws. The Senate has the power to say "No." The Senate is organized to dissent. This is accomplished by complete freedom of debate, which, coupled with Senate rules that permit it to entertain only one matter at a time, allow the solitary senator with something to say to hold up the whole house.
Unrestricted debate is institutionalized in the form of the filibuster. Americans of middle age will forever remember the Southerners who extemporized at length in the 1960s hoping to kill civil rights bills. Such episodes often showed senators at their worst, but may be said to have shown the Senate at its best, as a forum in which issues of great national moment may be aired.
The Senate these days is controlled less by its chairmen than in days past. Members are constrained less in their resort to Senate rules, which also no longer require "marathon blather" (to quote Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn) of the filibusterer; now, the mere threat to clog the calendar with words is enough to stop action on a bill.
The result is the increased use of the filibuster as a legislative tactic. Few would mind if the filibuster merely compromised federal budgets. But Democracy itself is widely seen to be at risk too. Senate rules in recent years have required a three-fifths vote of members to end a filibuster, raising the effective majority in that house to 60 votes. Recently, Dr. Henry Foster had the 51 Senate votes needed to confirm him as President Bill Clinton's U.S. surgeon general, but his supporters could not muster the 60 votes needed to end the filibuster mounted by Texan Phil Gramm and bring the matter to a vote by the full Senate.
Securing good government at the expense of Democracy offends today's populist pieties. Disgusted political scientists such as the Tribune's Zorn lamented that the modern filibuster violates the civil contract between government and governed under which the former was allowed to indulge in petty obstructionism as long as it provided amusing political theater in return. Such impatience is understandable, although it perhaps overlooks that majority rule is only a device of self-government, not its central principle.
Orders to slash government
The Senate has gone into eclipse before now. Its prominence in the public mind ebbs and flows with the times. Its treaty-making powers put it center stage when foreign policy dominates the national agenda, as it did during a League of Nations debate, or later during Vietnam. The Senate's extraordinary power to investigate the executive branch has made it a compelling presence when it has sought to expose villains both real (Watergate) and imagined (the McCarthy hearings). The Senate's review of Supreme Court nominations seldom produces high drama, but, beginning with Richard Nixon, presidents have asked the Senate to concur in several dubious appointments that produced low farce of a sort that contributed much to its present reputation.
As the summer of 1995 waned, the Senate Appropriations Committee began what is likely to be a lengthy process of "cleaning up"—the phrase comes from committee chairman Mark Hatfield—the 1996 budget bills submitted by the House. Among the litter to be swept out were dozens of ideologically inspired amendments attached by Republicans eager to make good on the party's Contract With America. Many of their provisions are at odds with mainstream opinion in such touchy areas as abortion and the environment.
The process probably will not win the headlines that hailed Newt's 100 Days, and partisans no doubt will hint darkly at secret deals when the negotiated budget is sent to the White House stripped of their pet amendments—further proof of the perfidy of Government. But observers who see government in terms of "us" rather than "them" may see what is going on in the Senate as proof of the larger genius of the system. The divisions in Congress reflect the divisions in the mind of a voting public still arguing with itself about the proper role of public and private responsibility. In the absence of a new consensus on social issues, Congress, like the voters, will be prey to impulses that, once indulged, may be later regretted.
The senators are no less politically astute than their colleagues in the House. But early reports suggested that senators were aware that many a voter sent his or her representative to Washington with instructions to slash "government" without thinking—perhaps without knowing—exactly what government does. Making a government is a messy process, and as long as democracies let the people do it, institutions like the Senate will have work to do. ●