Who's minding the Senate?

By , Pat M. Holt, formerly chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on public affairs from Washington.

Entirely too many senators are running for president, and this seriously interferes with the proper functioning of the Senate. This is a trend which has developed since World War II. Before that time, presidents typically came from state capitals where they had been governors (Wilson, Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt) or from the cabinet (Hoover). Of the 39 men who have been president, 22 had previously served in one or both houses of Congress at one time or another. But only three - Garfield in 1880, Harding in 1920, and Kennedy in 1960 - were elected to the White House while so serving. In addition, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon were elected vice-president while serving in the Senate, and Ford was appointed vice-president while serving in the House.

In the 32 years between Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, every president but Eisenhower came from Congress, and so did most of the major party nominees for both president and vice-president. This trend, if it was one, was interrupted, possibly reversed, by the elections of Carter and Reagan. But this seems not to have dampened congressional, especially senatorial, enthusiasm for the job.

There is something to be said for choosing presidents from the Senate. Senators at least know how the federal government works, a qualification not shared by either Carter or Reagan at the beginning of their administrations. Senators have at least a nodding acquaintance with foreign policy, the subject on which recent presidents have spent most of their time. If senators have served on a committee such as Foreign Relations or Armed Services, they know a good deal about foreign policy. These are advantages which governors generally lack. But they hardly seem sufficient to offset the disadvantages.

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Once a senator gets that presidential urge, he's no longer effective as a senator. This would not be so bad if it were limited to one or two senators. But the growth of presidential primaries and the example of Jimmy Carter have nourished hope in the breasts of long shots. The list reads almost like the membership roll of the Senate - Glenn, Cranston, Hart, Baker, Bumpers, Dole, Hollings (and in the House there are Udall and Kemp). All of these are not officially in the race, but all are thinking about it and so are some others.

Most are hardly household words. Their reliance on primaries means that they must establish name recognition, and that means that they must start the tedious part of campaigning - lunch and dinner speeches, visits to shopping centers, appearances on local talk shows, fund-raisers - sooner than otherwise. It is still more than a year before the Iowa caucuses, and candidates are already in the field.

That means they are not in the Senate where they belong. The Senate suffers as a result. Between senators running for president and those running for reelection, some committees are virtually immobilized. Out of 17 members of the Foreign Relations Committee, for example, nine are up for reelection (although one of these, Baker, is not running) and two - Glenn and Cranston - are running for president. The committee will not be able to do very much business which requires a quorum.

Thanks to the airplane, senators can campaign and still get back to the Senate to cast votes. But the Founding Fathers intended senators to do more than vote, especially on the basis of a whispered one-sentence staff briefing delivered as they arrive breathless in the chamber while a roll call is in progress. The founders intended senators to deliberate and senators still pridefully refer to the Senate as ''the world's greatest deliberative body.'' The fact that it is not is the fault of the senators themselves and at least partially the fault of those running for president.

As a practical matter, there is probably not very much which can be done about this. The most effective solution would be more self-restraint and political realism on the part of senators, but that is asking a great deal.

A resurgence of political parties would help. If party organizations played a larger role in selecting presidential nominees, the importance of primaries would decline and with it the temptation to launch long-shot candidacies. Warren Harding gave the smoke-filled room a bad name, but it would be worth trying again if it would save us from the lengthy campaigns we have had lately.

Finally, there are some countries, Colombia for one, with constitutional provisions that a person cannot be elected president if he has held another office within six months. This sometimes causes mass resignations six months before election day. It would have a profound, perhaps salutary, effect on American politics, but since two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote for it we are unlikely to have a chance to experiment with it.

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