Senate 'Club' Loses Its Art of Compromise
Tradition of fellowship replaced by individualism
WASHINGTON — WHEN the Senate Ethics Committee voted to expel Bob Packwood, it sent a clear message that the old-boy traditions of the Senate no longer apply. But in its haste to enhance the institution's public image, the committee may have hastened the end of one custom many believe is worth keeping: the art of compromise.
By all accounts, Senator Packwood was a relic of an older, more clubbish, style of statecraft. In his resignation speech, he mentioned "friendships beyond count," and told a warm anecdote about Sen. Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat. Mr. Packwood's ties to Democrats made him a crucial cog in the legislative machine. As chairman of the Finance Committee, he had a knack for ironing out compromises - a skill majority leader Bob Dole will miss this month as the committee considers welfare, medicare, and tax reforms.
Ironically, by making a bipartisan decision to preserve the integrity of the Senate, the Ethics Committee last week further weakened the institution's political center. Some experts predict Packwood's ouster for alleged sexual misdeeds will enhance the divisiveness, hostility, and gridlock that have become signatures of modern politics.
"The Senate has become a nasty and unfriendly place," says Eric Uslaner, a government professor at the University of Maryland a book about the decline of comity in Congress. "It has become a chamber of individuals, instead of a place where people once had a collective sense that they were in this together."
No more camaraderie
Ten or 20 years ago, he says, there was a feeling of camaraderie that extended across the aisle, even among "wildly different" personality types. Today, few senators form friendships with members of the other party.
The rancorous nature of the chamber was illustrated earlier this session, when Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) Oregon voted against the balanced-budget amendment, effectively killing the measure. Immediately, fellow Republicans began weighing his punishment. Although Senator Hatfield has always been a moderate, his party's veer to the right had suddenly left him exposed in the middle.
Hatfield's treatment, combined with Packwood's ouster, signal the difficult road ahead for moderates. As the Senate continues to fracture into two ideological camps, moderates like Packwood have fewer allies to come to their defense. To the hard-line members of their own parties, they are almost expendable.
"In the past, senators looked out for their own," Professor Uslaner says, noting that some sitting senators have been involved in conduct at least as egregious as Packwood's. But aside from a few good friends, he says, "no one went to the mat for Packwood. All the flowery speeches came after he resigned."
The result is a Senate that is more partisan and less capable of passing controversial legislation. The number of consensus builders like Packwood is shrinking, Uslaner notes, just as taboos about filibusters have vanished. Once a rarely used weapon, filibusters are now commonplace. Even the hint of such opposition forces a bill's sponsors to cobble together a 60-vote supermajority.
To many longtime members, the fellowship is sadly missed. On Friday, Robert Byrd, the veteran West Virginia Democrat, described the Senate as "more politically charged and ruthlessly partisan than I have witnessed in my lifetime." Likewise, in announcing his retirement last month, Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey denounced politics in Washington as "broken."
In a farewell letter to colleagues after his voluntary departure last year, Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma urged them to rekindle the abandoned tradition of holding regular bipartisan social events, including pot-luck dinners with spouses. In the past, he wrote, these rituals helped build "strong personal friendships across party lines that helped us work together."
The last attempt at reviving this spirit was a quality-of-life caucus chaired by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas. In recent years, it has been all but disbanded. By almost every measure, Uslaner says, the Senate is not as welcoming a place as it used to be.
The time demands and workload have increased, and the issues have grown more complex. When senators aren't in session, he notes, they have to worry about the pressures of fund-raising. Add the fact that on the floor, "people are mainly preoccupied with yelling at one another," and the job can be stressful to the point if impacting family life.
Old taboos have vanished. One of the unwritten rules of the Senate until the early 1980s, Uslaner says, was "that you can campaign for people in your party, but you don't campaign against an incumbent." Now, he notes, "everyone campaigns against everyone else."
"There are only 10 or 12 people left in the Senate who even care about making it run better," Uslaner says. "You really need to love the institution to do this. The easier route is to retire."
There are plenty of senators taking pensions. Packwood included, there could be 12 total retirements before next November, a record-setting exodus that could reshape the political landscape.