Shining the Senate

''It is a place upon whose vitality and honor will at length rest the whole issue of the kind of society that we are to maintain.m'' This description of the US Senate may go too far, considering the other institutions on which the tone and fiber of American society also depend.

But imagine a Senate with vitality and honor gone. And what this would say about how the nation had declined.

It is to check today's signs of abuse and trivialization that the Senate is taking a reformer's look at itself.

Broad proposals for overhaul were offered last week in a study by two former senators - Republican James Pearson of Kansas and Democrat Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut - requested by the Senate leadership.

The idea is to improve the operation of the Senate under a huge modern-day workload, and the reputation of the Senate after repeated episodes of bitterness and obstructionism.

The very undertaking of the study is in keeping with the traditions of ''vitality and honor'' quoted at the beginning.

Those words are from a lasting work on the subject, ''Citadel,'' by long-time Washington journalist William S. White. As he saw, the strengths of and challenges to the institution are intertwined.

It has been called the world's most exclusive club. Yet it is a constitutional bastion of equal representation for the people of small states and large.

It has a powerful governmental role. Yet, as White says, ''this is a place so human that it is in a sense alien altogether to government.''

Whatever the reform in procedures, the human qualities of the members will be determining factors for the Senate's future. The members and the public will no doubt keep this in mind as attention is turned to specific Pearson-Ribicoff proposals on tightening committee structure, keeping bills free of nongermane amendments, and reducing delay without destroying the tradition of unlimited debate. More about these in this space later.

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