Washington — The United States Senate. The world's greatest deliberative body. Or should that be the world's greatest debilitated body? Just ask some senators. ``The United States Senate is not, by any reasonable calculation or evaluation, the greatest deliberative body on earth,'' says Thomas F. Eagleton, the retiring Democratic senator from Missouri. ``The Senate hit its peak in 1850 and has gone downhill ever since.''
Adds Hugh Scott of Pennsylania, a former Senate Republican leader, who retired in 1977: ``Is it an effective body? The answer to that question is certainly no.''
Every member has his or her gripe about the Senate - the relentless legislative and constituent demands, the late nights, the strains on family life. All have railed at one time or another against the individual grandstanding and institutional procrastination that frequently characterize Senate life. They gnash their teeth when routine bills are bogged down with irrelevant amendments.
Legislators make stabs at reform, but the old problems seem to persist.
Sometimes, members of Congress are a little more willing to speak their minds after they - or the voters - decide it is time for them to leave. Such was the case this week when Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, brought together four departing or retired colleagues in a Capitol Hill committee room to lecture a few hundred high schoolers and argue amongst themselves about what is wrong with the Senate and how best to bring it up to snuff.
Sen. Mack Mattingly of Georgia, one of the freshman Republicans swept into office by Ronald Reagan's coattails in 1980 and defeated in a bid for reelection earlier this month, described reform of the unwieldy federal budget process as paramount.
A two-year budget cycle would be ideal, he said, instead of the present annual budget cycle that leads to year-round, nonstop budget making.
Others look to procedural shortcomings as the root of the Senate's perceived flaws. For example, the filibuster - whereby a single senator can bring activity in the chamber to a halt by talking at great length on a subject - took it on the chin. Mr. Thurmond recalled filibustering a bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957. The technique is a mark of the Senate and, as Mr. Scott put it, ``an assurance that no voice will go unheard.''
Mr. Eagleton urged an overhaul of rules permitting an amendment on virtually any subject to virtually any bill. ``You can take anything out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as amendment to anything that's pending on the floor,'' he said. ``Even the St. Louis board of alderman doesn't permit that kind of shenanigan.''
Eagleton also fingered the inordinate cost of running a modern Senate campaign as a culprit for the Senate's problems, compelling members to spend too much time raising money, and compromising their independence.
``You're not getting money out of the Red Cross or the Little Sisters of the Poor,'' he said. ``They expect something for that money. And when you receive that money, you know those folks have an expectation.''