The Wreck of the U.S. Senate

By Dick Meyer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Senate has managed to conduct the business of confirming or rejecting federal judges with relative efficiency and only occasional controversy for some 200 years. That the Senate is now going nuclear (to use its own vocabulary) over this legislative chore is a symptom of a rather serious illness in the upper body. Face it: Giving or withholding consent for judicial appointments is not akin to reversing global warming or ending world hunger. As overheated as the current standoff may be, it is a solvable problem and, worse, a problem of the Senate's own making. What has created the conditions -- and prevents a solution -- for this uber-partisan debacle is a degradation in the culture of the Senate that has grown acute since 1989.

The change has left the Senate less able to produce legislation on major issues, less able to compromise, less reflective of public opinion (ironically, since these people are obsessed with polls), and less able to produce leaders for both the institution itself and the whole nation. The current filibuster fiasco displays a Senate preoccupied -- no, paralyzed -- with issues that are simply not high priorities for voters but that are important to interests on the left and right. Meanwhile, the issues the majority of voters care most about -- such as securing the future of Medicare and Social Security, fixing the tax code, protecting private pensions and repairing health insurance -- are being punted.

One casualty of the Senate's post-1989 cantankerous culture was Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who was ousted from his job as majority leader in 2002 for making a crack that implied sympathy for the segregation in the old South. "The club is dead," Lott said, a year after his fall. "I'm not sure when it died, but the club is dead."

There are plenty of reasons not to mourn the passing of that club. A white male bastion, it tolerated segregation for far too long, was enamored of its pork barrel, and let its entrenched members linger well into undignified dotage. But the club had its merits. It facilitated compromise, character, competence and the occasional act of conscience, thus presenting a serious counterweight to White House power.

If I had to etch a date on the tombstone of The Senate Club it would be March 9, 1989, the day the Senate rejected, with a 53-47 vote, former four-term Texas senator John Tower to be secretary of defense under the first President Bush. This was only the ninth time in history that a Cabinet-level nominee had been rejected.

The Senate's clubby comity had already been strained by the bitter battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court and by the Iran-contra affair. But the long debate over Tower's misadventures with women and defense contractors and, most of all, his drinking was, if you will, a tippling point. Camaraderie became cat-fighting. That they did it to one of their own only made it worse.

Congressional cannibalism moved to the House. Two months after the Tower vote, the House Democratic whip, Tony Coelho, resigned under pressure over an inappropriate loan deal. Two weeks after that, House Speaker Jim Wright threw in the gavel because of ethics charges.

In 1991, the Senate confirmation struggle over Clarence Thomas made the Battle of Bork seem like a "Mork and Mindy" rerun, though he was eventually, and bitterly, confirmed. Also that year, the Senate Ethics Committee held extraordinary, trial-like public hearings for five senators -- the Keating Five -- accused of violating ethics rules. Later came the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Then last year, Majority Leader Bill Frist broke long tradition by going to South Dakota to campaign against Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

Is this all, in the grand sweep of history, merely a phase? Last summer, after Vice President Cheney told Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont what to do with himself in language unsuitable for a family newspaper, a slew of stories decried the end of civility in politics. But just about every generation thinks it is witnessing a decline in civility and good manners. Certainly, the indignity Leahy suffered paled in comparison to the crippling caning Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner endured on the Senate floor in 1856 at the hands of an irate Southern congressman. Certainly, today's incivilities seem silly compared with the poisonous antics that got Joseph McCarthy condemned for "conduct unbecoming a senator."

The filibuster flap is emblematic of deeper and, sadly, more enduring and consequential cultural changes. Several trends both illustrate and explain this conduct unbecoming of the Senate.

Legislative Paralysis . Last May, when the Senate was tied up in its usual election-year inertia, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia said to The Post's longtime Senate correspondent, Helen Dewar, "Have we lost the will to legislate?" Well, yes, sir, it seems that way.

Quick: Name a bill that has passed since 1989 that you have a prayer of remembering 10 years from now? The Family and Medical Leave Act? Welfare reform? Bush tax cuts? Yes, the votes on the Iraq wars were important, but they were merely permission slips for executive action.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company