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Chris Dodd, the Senate's happy warrior

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, August 9, 2010

When it comes to the role and functioning of the U.S. Senate, my rather dyspeptic views could not be more at odds with those of Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year.

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I've reached the point where I'd abolish the Senate if I could. It is more profoundly undemocratic than it was when the Founders created it and less genuinely deliberative -- problems compounded by a Republican minority's strategy of delay and obstruction.

Dodd, on the other hand, is a second-generation senator (his father, Tom, served from 1959 to 1971) who reveres the institution. He recently earned a lot of scolding on progressive blogs by defending some of its odd habits and criticizing efforts to reform the filibuster.

"What's the point of having a Senate? If the vote margins are the same as in the House, you might as well close the doors," he told reporters. "Those ideas are normally being promoted by people who haven't been here in the minority and don't understand how the rules, if intelligently used, can help protect against the tyranny of the majority."

When I sat down with Dodd last week at the Capitol to talk about his 36 years in Congress, he didn't change my attitude toward the world's longest-winded legislative body. But he reminded me of something missing in our public life: an ebullient joy about what democratic politics can accomplish.

Far better are the happy warriors than the sour politicians who whine about the indignities democracy inflicts upon the high-minded. Along with his late friend Ted Kennedy, Dodd has always been one of the happiest warriors of them all. Both could savor victory and muster humor to stave off the pain of defeat.

"Liberals are only happy when we're agonizing," Dodd says, disarmingly including himself in the category he's criticizing. "But if you're preaching gloom and doom, you're making it easy for the other side. They're preaching gloom and doom, too." Democrats, he says, make a mistake by complaining constantly about Republican obstruction. "Mitch McConnell is very smart politically," Dodd says, referring to the Senate Republican leader, "but we're giving him credit for what he didn't achieve. . . . In the midst of it all, there have been some remarkable successes. . . . We're arguing against ourselves when we say we can't get anything done." And then he ticks off his party's many accomplishments, including the health-care bill, the financial reform bill he championed and a slew of other measures (on employment discrimination, children's health care, an expansion of national service, student loan reform) that have been largely forgotten.

The Democrats' original sin in this Congress, Dodd believes, was the failure -- meaning the Senate Finance Committee's failure -- to deliver a health-care bill to the Senate floor during the summer of 2009 in pursuit of what he called the "pipe dream" of substantial Republican support. "We lost all that ground, all of that momentum," he says. "We gave them all this time to define the bill."

In any event, he argues, bipartisanship is vastly overrated. "There's nothing wrong with partisanship," Dodd thunders. "A little more civility would be a good thing, but it was partisanship that created this place." In the early decades of the republic, Congress "was a brawl." Partisanship simply reflects the reality of disagreement in a free society.

But a healthy partisanship does not preclude those from opposite parties treating each other like fellow human beings. And here, he says, all the institutions that brought members together across party lines have deteriorated.

"We've stripped out the socialization," he says. "Members don't know each other, and there's very little respect for each other." And fundraising has become a time-eating obsession. "We have created as much of a barrier to running for public office as when some of those restrictions applied relating to gender, race and property. You've got people now raising money to run in 2014." As for the filibuster, his solution is simple: "When you filibuster, you filibuster." Make the Senate stay in session, require senators to keep talking and thereby raise the price of obstruction.

Dodd may be too sentimental about the old Senate. But he's right that politics could use a little more joy and that his party needs to be a lot less glum. The happiness quotient in the Senate will definitely drop when Dodd leaves, and that really is depressing.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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