House-Senate Rivalry Takes Shape in GOP Era
WERE James Madison here today, Rep. John Dingell might exchange a few words with him over one of the Founding Father's favorite institutions. The Senate, the Michigan Democrat once said, ''has the rules of monkey island at the San Francisco Zoo.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island might be similarly inclined to tweak Madison's ear about the House. Its rules of limited debate yield sloppy legislation, he says, especially now.
In the grand scheme of American democracy, the House and Senate sometimes seem like two fugitives chained together and pulling in different directions. They operate at different speeds, with different passions, under different principles. One moves with the mood of the people, the other is the ''conscience'' of the nation. Yet they can achieve little without each other.
In recent years, political scientists say the two chambers have been increasingly indistinguishable. No longer. As Congress churns through the Republican agenda, the unique designs of the House and Senate -- and the 200-year-old rivalry between them -- are becoming clearer. Listen to how the members tell it.
''Someone once said to me that in the Senate, when you are on the floor, it's like being in a living room,'' says Rep. David Dreier (R) of California. In the House, ''the floor is like a great arena.''
Mr. Dreier says he is sometimes prodded by friends and colleagues to run for the Senate, but he resists: ''The action-packed nature of the House is more intriguing than 45-minute [Senate] quorum calls.''
Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, the self-appointed custodian of senatorial traditions, relishes the inefficiency of the upper body, where there is time to weigh the lessons of 13th century England against the consequences of modern legislation.
''The Senate is the central pillar of our constitutional system,'' says the elder statesman of the Democratic Party.
Members of one chamber often show little knowledge or appreciation of how the other operates. House majority leader Richard Armey (R) of Texas recently referred to the proceedings of the Senate, where one person can hold up legislation indefinitely, as ''bizarre maneuverings.''
A change in party rule may also shape views on bicameralism. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts never had much use for the Senate while Democrats held the majority. ''Well, I've got to say I'm a lot more grateful for the Senate these days,'' he says, ''The House has become so disfunctionally hyperkinetic...''
Though Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona may have had his frustrations with the House during 40 years of Democratic rule, now he's got a pique with the Senate. The upper house has already defeated the balanced-budget amendment, and is now threatening to sink his top cause, the line-item veto. ''The House sent me exactly what I wanted,'' he says of the line-item veto bill. ''I'm deeply disappointed that we can't get it together on this side. The Republicans will suffer for this.''
One of the best ways to gauge the differences between the chambers is to watch House members who transfer to the Senate. Many express frustration at the slow place and lack of debate. Some never really settle in. House members have been ''moving up'' to the Senate throughout history, but scholars and senators say recent converts have brought with them some of the combative habits of the House.
In his book, ''House and Senate,'' Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, observes different levels of partisanship in the House and Senate, largely a function of the size difference. The House tends to be more divisive. The Senate is a more intimate setting, where members tend to know each other better. Members who clash on the floor usually find ways to smooth things over afterward. But the recent battle over the balanced-budget amendment brought unusual partisan bickering. Republicans launched a quick attack against Senate Democrats who voted against the amendment, as well as Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, the lone GOP dissenter.
Senior senators and students of Congress attribute this conduct in large part to the recent transfer of young, ideological House members to the Senate who may have brought the more contentious norms of the lower house with them.
Since 1989, 14 conservative Republicans have crossed over to the Senate. Many were close allies of now House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his aggressive style. These young senators led the charge to punish Senator Hatfield.
''There is a decline of civility in the Senate,'' Mr. Baker says. ''There has been a distillation of the most conservative House members into the Senate. They have well-defined philosophical agendas. They are less respectful of the proprieties and curiosities of the institution.''
Sen. Thad Cochran, a more senior Republican member from Mississippi who served in the House in the 1970s, agrees. ''The House in recent years has become even more aggressively partisan and mean-spirited,'' he says. Those coming over from the House have ''brought with them their experiences.''
Senator Byrd blames the harsh conduct on an ignorance of history. ''There is mindset that if you debate a bill for three days or a week its a filibuster,'' he says. ''The level of knowledge of what the Constitution is all about is at a new low.''
But over time, Mr. Cochran argues, the Senate forces its members to adapt or leave.
John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., agrees. He now sees the House and Senate performing the roles the framers intended. ''Somewhere, James Madison is smiling,'' he says.