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.

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    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.

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:

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“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.

Shapiro’s reading of why events unfolded the way they did in the late-1970s relies heavily on the personalities of the Senators involved; he implies that the Senate worked better 30 years ago because it boasted better senators. “The Last Senate” is full of sketches of the leading senators of the era. These include lions like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Ed Muskie, Warren Magnuson, and Jacob Javits; emerged leaders like Bob Dole, Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, and Ted Kennedy; and new arrivals like Joe Biden and Jesse Helms.

Shapiro reveres these men and heaps praise upon them. Senators are described by turns as “near-brilliant,” “valiant,” “fair-minded” and “handsome.” When the revised Panama Canal treaty flounders due to the Carter administration’s diplomatic bungling, Shapiro writes, “The senators would have to devise a solution” as if they were white knights riding to the nation’s rescue.

The biggest limitation of “The Last Great Senate” is that it overstates the agency of the Senate and its constitutive members when it comes to directing historical events.

At one point Shapiro praises the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for “working in the best tradition of the Senate, delving deeply into important and emotional issues, educating the public and itself.” He seems to suggest that if only today’s senators were less inclined to demagogue than we’d get more done. 
There’s certainly some truth to that, but it also strikes me as describing a world in which the tail wags the dog. George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M, has written, “Presidents cannot reliably persuade the public to support their policies” and “are unlikely to change public opinion.” And given that it’s a monumental task to shape public opinion from the bully pulpit, it would seem well nigh impossible to do the same from the well of the Senate.

The one cultural current that Shapiro does touch on is the mushrooming of ideological conservatism, which hangs over the book like a dread shadow. He gestures towards the anti-tax, anti-government ideology that grew in earnest in the Republican Party following the passing of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 and he describes Jesse Helms’ election to the Senate in 1972 as an event that crystallized the importance of social issues (and particularly opposition to abortion) to the GOP. 

He also argues that Helms’ arrival in the Senate ushered in the slash-and-burn political tactics that are so unfortunately familiar to Senate watchers today. “He quickly began making the Senate consider one controversial amendment after another,” Shapiro writes. “He virtually never won, but winning was not the point. He wanted to force senators to make controversial votes, making them vulnerable to attack at home, and he wanted to disrupt the Senate’s bipartisan comity.”

There is no mistaking that the Senate operated differently 30 years ago than it did today and Shapiro persuasively shows that most of that change has been for the worse. As a result, his book begs the questions: Is the root of that change in our leaders or is it in us? And can it be reversed?

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.net.

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