A Barrel Full of Senators

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, February 4, 2007

One of the most underrated attractions in Washington is the United States Senate. It's as nifty as the zoo and a more dependably good show. A lion or a gorilla will often be in a dimwitted torpor, as though unaware of the requirements of being an animal in an entertainment venue, but a U.S. senator will always be striding about, holding hearings, bloviating mightily and fulfilling his or her constitutional requirement to be at all times senatorial.

Which is to say, verbose, self-aware, prepared to exercise any and all senatorial prerogatives and conscious of being part of an elite group that styles itself the "upper body." Congress is the first branch of government (Article I of the Constitution), and the Senate clearly views itself as the primary congressional chamber, the adults in the great Romper Room of government. The House of Representatives? A mob. Rabble. Scum.

A senator is not a god, but does a pretty good impression of one. All senators look good: They're groomed like putting greens. Some appear particularly senatorial, such as John Warner of Virginia, who looks as though he comes with the building. When he retires, he will ascend to a pedestal in an alcove.

It is often said that every senator, when looking in the mirror in the morning, sees someone who should be president of the United States. But that's not true. Some would settle for chief justice.

The senatorial speaking style is civil, polite and pompous -- full of formalities that are as quaint as the spittoons that still can be found in the Senate chamber. A senator will refer to "my friend, the gentleman from Montana," and then calmly explain that the gentleman from Montana is a goose-stepping fascist.

But senators can be rough on administration officials who come to the Hill. The other day, I went to a hearing at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified about the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq and then invade Iran and keep moving until we'd conquered all the territory to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The senators were not pleased. The hearing lasted as long as a professional football game but was more brutal. The senators beat her as though she were a mangy cur that had limped from a dark alley. They told her that the administration has mired us in the most incompetently managed war since the Trojan. The Republicans were as upset as the Democrats, and the senators not running for president were as outraged as those who were.

At the end, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said that if the administration attacked Iran, he'd personally see to it that there was "a constitutional confrontation." Which probably sounded far more dramatic to Biden than to anyone listening.

Then everyone strode purposefully somewhere else. No vote was taken, no resolution introduced. The cynic might well have argued that it was all pointless bluster. But the hearing led the papers and the nightly news. Senators command megaphones. A Senate hearing might have an element of theater, but it is theater that gets reviewed.

In practice, the Senate is the chamber of negation and nullity. This is where people are empowered to say no, to block, halt, delay, nix and bury. The slogan of the Senate is "I Don't Think So." They take their spiritual cues from Webster, Clay, Calhoun and Sumner, antediluvian senators who, scowling, unamused, survey the proceedings from portraits mounted outside the Senate chamber. These old senators do not look like a fun bunch. They wear expressions that say, "I would no sooner crack a smile than light my hair on fire."

The basic senatorial move, akin to a golfer's swing or a basketball player's jump shot, is the filibuster. Any senator can stop a bill or block a judicial nomination simply by yammering on the Senate floor, endlessly, even if it means reading and rereading the menu from a Chinese restaurant. By custom, the mere threat of a filibuster is treated as one. It's like having nuclear weapons: To achieve deterrence, you only have to raise the prospect of Mutual Verbal Destruction.

Of course, the Senate can vote to cut off a filibuster, but that takes a supermajority of 60 votes. Impeachment of a president requires a super-mega-majority of 67 votes, which is why everyone knew that Bill Clinton's impeachment would end with an acquittal and that the entire hideous Monica Lewinsky scandal would result in nothing more than parents being forced to explain oral sex to their children.

The Constitution is premised on the self-evident truth that, unfettered, the government will become tyrannical. Congress is set up in such a way as to make it hard for any of these people to do anything. Gridlock isn't the problem, but the constitutional cure. Thus, at the end of a typical day in the Senate, not a lot will have been accomplished, but we'll remain a free people, and Webster, Clay, Calhoun and Sumner will not be forced to come down off the wall and slap folks around.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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