The central working theory of American government today is that the system is dysfunctional, ineffectual and increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Americans. “Broken” has become both a favored description and a general-purpose diagnosis of all the ills that afflict our government and politics. The theory of brokenness is so universal that it shapes and frames every debate about how we choose our leaders, govern ourselves and resolve our differences. The consensus is that we no longer do any of these things well and, in all likelihood, we do them worse than ever.
Ira Shapiro’s new book, “The Last Great Senate,” buys into the dysfunction argument to present us with an extended and lovingly rendered reminder that the U.S. Senate, like the American system of governance itself, was once something great but that its time of greatness has passed.
The book is a tour-de-force meditation on the kind of high-powered policymaking and intricate legislative needlepoint that once seemed to define the Senate’s work. For example, Shapiro describes the contentious 1978 debate over how the United States would officially recognize the People’s Republic of China while keeping its pledge to protect Taiwan. The end of that debate was a triumph for President Jimmy Carter and a badge of honor for the Senate, but Shapiro concludes despairingly: “Of course, it was a different time. This was how the Senate worked in the era when it was still great.”
Shapiro was a high-ranking Democratic aide in the Senate he memorializes, in the four years from January 1977 to January 1981. His biases are declared and obvious, but he more than adequately manages to make his case, which is that once upon a time — not even all that long ago — the Senate was a place of inspiration and high accomplishment, peopled by giants, statesmen and icons, men so formidable that they deserved to be described as “tall trees.” “Issues were taken on the merits, and faced, no matter how tough they were,” he recalls. “Nominees got judged on their merits, irrespective of partisan politics. The national interest dictated the result. It was the last great Senate, and it would not last much longer.” Some of this is nostalgia, clearly, but that is what the Senate does to people.
In part because of its unique constitutional role and mythical place in our history, the Senate has also become the hood ornament on the national broken-government argument. Senate staffers wearily recite tales of their frustration, andsenators don’t just leave the Senate anymore: Retirements are announced with great fanfare. Each voluntary leave-taking, and some of the involuntary ones as well, can be read as a repudiation of what the institution has become.
The most recent of these is the retirement of Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who “surprised” Washington by announcing that she would not seek reelection this fall. In an op-ed in The Washington Post headlined “Why I am leaving the Senate,” Snowe laid out the indictment: “Some people were surprised by my conclusion, yet I have spoken on the floor of the Senate for years about the dysfunction and political polarization in the institution. Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.”