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The Last Great Senate

Did the Senate really used to be a grand institution? Ira Shapiro argues that it was – and not that long ago.

By Kevin Hartnett / February 15, 2012

The Last Great Senate By Ira Shapiro Perseus Publishing 512 pp

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In a 2010 cover story for The Atlantic James Fallows posed the question, “Is America going to hell?”  His answer was a tentative, “yes,” and the chief reason he gave for his pessimism was that “Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional and may even be beyond repair.” This applies doubly, he said, for the filibuster-riven, special interest-plagued United States Senate.

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It is in this grim context that Ira Shapiro offers his new book The Last Great Senate, a first-hand, blow-by-blow account of the personalities and issues that animated the Senate during the Carter administration. 

Shapiro calls this era out for attention for two reasons. First, he knows it well, having served as a high-ranking Senate staffer during those years. Second, in his view the late-1970s were the Senate’s high watermark as a governing body (at least in modern times) and serve as a reminder of just how far the “the world’s greatest deliberative body” has fallen since then. He writes in pointed contrast with how the Senate operates today:

“This was how the Senate worked in the era when it was still great. Issues were taken on the merits, and faced, no matter how tough they were. Nominees got judged on their merits, irrespective of partisan politics. The national interest dictated the result.”Would Google hire you? 10 test questions to find out

To make his point Shapiro dives deep into the policy debates that dominated the country during the last day before the Age of Reagan and the full-blown conservative ascent. He intricately recounts the legislative process that turned control of the Panama Canal over to Panama, led to official recognition of China, produced America’s first comprehensive energy policy (and initiated the ethanol boondoggle), and reformed Senate rules to curtail filibusters (with the unintended consequence of actually making filibusters more potent by allowing the minority party to filibuster the motion to proceed, as the GOP has done with historic frequency since 2008).  

All but the staunchest C-SPAN devotees will be tempted to skim over some of the intricacies of the legislative process that Shapiro recounts: the committee testimony, cloak room conversations, vote counting, etc. But even so, there is something surprisingly thrilling about it all. Following a successful push to bailout New York City as it verged on bankruptcy, Shapiro writes, “Looking back on major historical moments, it often seems as though their outcome was inevitable. Yet, in fact, at crucial moments, the outcomes are usually very uncertain.”  By delving into the legislative minutiae Shapiro attempts to find the pivot points in history – to suggest that this bit of testimony or that floor speech or some backroom conversation coming at just the right time shaped policy outcomes and determined the course of future events.

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