I respect them but they're certainly repeating themselves a lot . . .
-Vice President Mondale, March 2, 1978.
THE day began as it always does, with a prayer. The Reverend Edward L. R. Elson, chaplain of the U. S. Senate, quoted from Psalms, then asked that "nothing be left undone which can be done this day and may nothing be badly done."
This is the way and the wish of the chaplain, who must, by nature, be an optimist. Dr. Elson has to know that the Senate will leave much undone and that some of what it does will be badly done. Pray for them, anyway.
So it did not begin as a remarkable day. The Senate went into session at nine o'clock on March 1, earlier than is its custom, to continue a tedious and rambling debate on the Panama Canal treaties.
But first, a thought: This canal issue is more symbol than substance. It has little to do with the price of corn or kids in Harlem without jobs. The debate is not much of a debate. Most of the 100 minds that populate the Senate were made up before it began. All 100 senators know this. As a consequence, few of them attend, or even take part in the debate.
After the prayer, Quentin N. Burdick, a gentle and tousled senator from North Dakota, took his place as the acting president for the morning. Presiding is thought to be an honor, but it also is a drudge duty rotated among the senators, who often have better things to do at 9 a.m. of a Wednesday.
The better things they had to do that March 1 included attending twenty different subcommittee meetings that were being held around the Senate office complex. Senators were flitting between one meeting and another, because the schedules always overlap. Others were meeting with visitors from their home states, others talking business with their staffs.
So there were few senators on the floor when the day started taking a remarkable turn at ten o'clock. At that hour, Tom McIntyre, a doughty Yankee from New Hampshire, asked to address the nearly empty chamber.
"Mr. President," he announced, "despite the threats of political reprisal from the radical right, I intend to vote to ratify the proposed Panama Canal treaties."
Then with eloquence and force, McIntyre went on to deliver a political statement that someday ought to find a place in an anthology of courage and wisdom. He spoke of an ominous atmosphere of retribution in his home state. He warned that the nation's bully radical right was whipping up a fever of emotion over the canal issue that would have dire consequences unless faced down by people of moderation.
McIntyre noted, too, that as a candidate for reelection this year, his stand could have fatal consequences. But, he said, "I am confident that reason and commitment rooted in reality will prevail over extremism in the pursuit of illusion . . . but if that does not occur in time to save the treaties - or those of us who support them - then I, for one, will go home to Laconia, New Hampshire, sad to leave this office but content in heart that I voted in what I truly believed were the best interests of my country."
In another day, perhaps, in that same forum Tom McIntyre's speech might have been the first shot in a great national debate over political extremism. Senators might have spoken at length in response. Editorialists and commentators might have used it as the basis for joining a debate, for exposing and defusing a potential peril.
But it did not happen. Only a handful of senators were there, largely by chance, and their response was warm but brief. Robert C. Byrd, the majority leader, put McIntyre's statement "among the two or three speeches I have heard in thirty'two years in public office that have had a genuine impact on my thinking." Several others praised McIntyre. Still others, darlings of the same radical right he was denouncing, suggested defensively that McIntyre had slandered the great mass of decent American conservatives.
And that was it. McIntyre got a favorable editorial response in most New Hampshire newspapers. He was interviewed on television. His speech was excerpted in The Washington Post. Then Tom McIntyre and his message retired back into semi-obscurity.
More thoughtful members of the Senate lament that. They wish their system would change, but they are envslaved by it: They don't go to the floor because no one else does, because other matters call; if they go to the floor, the phone calls and messages and problems pile up in their offices. If they stay at their desks, the machine age will save them - a tiny radio squawk box brings floor debate to them, live.
"The Senate has lost its character as a debating forum. The Panama Canal debate provides an example. These seldom are more than four or five people on the floor," said Senator Howard Baker Jr., the minority leader from Tennessee. "That character was gone by the time I came in 1967. The attitude is: Why orate to an empty chamber? I think it would be simple to regain - insist that members be present and loosen the rules so that more people can get into the debate."
Now at his desk, amid political photos and his seashell collection, McIntyre talks about the Senate and his speech. It went through ten drafts before he made it final. He wanted it just so. For McIntyre, a moderate Democrat in a state where moderation is shouted down, the only problem was toning it down - he feared being too strident.
"I've been giving this speech for years. I lost in 1954 when I ran for the House - lost by 397 votes - because I straddled the fence on McCarthyism . . . I said McCarthy was trying to do good, but I didn't like his tactics. I waffled."
McIntyre learned a lesson from that.He was elected to the Senate in 1962, speaking out when the issues required it. But the Senate, even in that relatively short time, has changed rather drastically as an institution and it worries McIntyre.
"The Senate is a different creature than it was when I came here fifteen, sixteen years ago. The average senator works a great deal harder than anyone thinks. You are left with no time to go to the floor," he said. "But sitting here, the awe is gone. My shoulders are not bent and rounded - I don't wear a toga."
What McIntyre really is talking about is the complexity of life in these modern United States. That complexity is quickly changing the nature of the legislative process, changing the nature of a senator's job and - there is unanimity here - it likely will get worse before it gets better.
One must look at McIntyre's mail to understand another facet of this. On his desk is a letter - it came with a Nathan Hale stamp, no less. The author writes that he and 200 million Americans hope that the senator from New Hampshire and all the rest are assassinated if the canal treaties are ratified.
Fifteen years ago, perhaps, that kind of mail was just as common. But at the same time, the speech that McIntyre gave to a Senate in absentia might have made more of an impression. The place is different now and sometimes it seems as though no one has time to listen.
The real question is whether institutions of self-government can survive . . . because they are being overtaken by the rapidity of complex issues.
-Senator Adlai E. Stevenson
Ascant fourteen years ago, Joseph S. Clark, a liberal senator from Pennsylvania, wrote a tough book about Congress. He called it the "sapless branch" - a part of the government controlled by a clique of Southern political lords who had rendered it lifeless.
The Senate of which Clark was so critical would not be so recognizable to him today. It has changed immensely, made some brave efforts to lift itself into the last half of the century, spread power among the many, tried to cope with the need to know more and respond with wisdom to the questions it is asked. Jerked about by Vietnam and then by Watergate, the Senate - much like the House - is more independent and no longer so willing to take a president at his word.
The once-vaunted Southern power brokers are on their way out. A year ago, Southerners controlled the five major Senate committees. Next year, it will be down to two: Russell B. Long (Louisiana) on Finance and John C. Stennis (Mississippi) on Armed Services. James O. Eastland (Mississippi) is retiring from Judiciary and John Sparkman (Alabama) is leaving Foreign Relations. The fifth, John L. McClellan (Arkansas), Appropriations chairman, died last year.
So change is coming in quick waves. The 1976 election brought eighteen new faces to the Senate, some bright, some not so bright, full of opinions and eager to latch on to the strings that make things work. That group and the 1974 class - eleven more freshmen - have raised enough hell over the ways of the sapless branch that they've been given more subcommittee chairmanships and staff help to begin to make a difference. No longer does a freshman in the Senate sit quietly and listen before speaking. That, if anything, makes the Senate more difficult to parse because 100 voices are talking at once and 100 bodies are bumping and shoving for position. Clearly, the time when a Lyndon Johnson, as majority leader, could cram an idea down the Senate's throat is gone. And true, of late there have been none of the probing Senate inquiries that made the Ervins, Fulbrights, McGoverns and McClellans household names.
The rap is put on the majority leader, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, and his GOP counterpart, Howard Baker Jr., that they don't provide the kind of leadership that an institution in trouble must have. In fact, the Senate seems to be running - procedurally, at least - more smoothly than it has in a decade. The Byrd-Baker hands-off approach appears almost custom-built for the times: Just keep the train on the tracks while ninety-eight firemen stoke the boilers.
One of the architects of change is Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who found himself frustrated to distraction by the Senate's disarray after his election in 1974. He ordered a study that provided the seed for reorganization and streamlining recommended by a citizens' commission in 1976. The commission - known as the Culver Commission - was set up by a resolution introduced by Senator John Culver (D-Iowa), another of the newcomers who was frustrated. Some of those recommendations were carried out by a subcommittee headed by Senator Adlai E. Stevenson (D-Ill.), revamping committees, redistributing committee work, cutting some of the duplication and giving every majority senator the chairmanship of at least one subcommittee.
There is a temptation to ask so-what, but in an institution that has changed very little in its procedures since it came into being in 1789, that is cataclysmic change. One of the problems is putting together the pieces that by "a process of accretion," as Culver has called it, grew at radom - more personnel, new equipment and technology, more services, more support agencies cranking our paper and studies. The Culver Commission offered all manner of criticism and proposals for easing the Senate's growing pains, couched in a tone that seemed to suggest that a legislative body could be run like a Fortune 500 corporation. Such are the times.
Yet even with the change, there is something amiss in the Senate. Meet a Bumpers or a Stevenson, men who worry about these things, in their shirtsleeves after hours and you will catch a sense of the frustration.
Part of it comes from the rules that still guide the Senate - debate, for example, is unlimited and one senator is king through the power of the filibuster. One senator's objections can stop consideration of a bill in its tracks. Roll-call votes, still conducted by voice response, last year consumed a month of eight-hour work days.
But the problem goes beyond that. It is the human side of the equation, where, as Bumpers describes it, "We continue to deal here with the politics of the problem, rather than with the problem. The job becomes an end in itself - public relations, cosmetics, how much pork you can take home, how many grants you can get for your state. We are all trying to make a record to run on."
Bumpers again: "We all have pretty colossal egos or we wouldn't be here. But it is important to me to do things that are gratifying. When I was governor of Arkansas, I went home gratified more than I have from this office . . . The truth is that this is not an efficient organization. The leadership qualities are not what I expected they would be - the Senate has no more Hubert Humphreys."
It was late in the afternoon as Bumpers talked. Two of his closest staff assistants had come into the room quietly. They listened, almost grimly it seemed, to things they hadn't before heard with such precision from a member of the world's greatest deliberative body, as the Senate is sometimes called by aphorists and the misinformed.
"The complexity of our society has caused people to become more and more frustrated. This is vented toward government or the problem-solver," Bumpers said. "The more complex the problem, the more time required for a solution. But the amount of time we have here has gone in the other direction. We have less and less time to deal with the problems."
"I am really pessimistic about where we are headed. I think the next ten years will tell the tale of the future of our system. Look at the Panama Canal. On a scale of 1 to 50, it would have to be a 50 as far as it is an issue of importance to the nation. But there is a hostility, a volatility of the fringe issues. Vituperation. I'm not crying or bemoaning my fate, but I think the question is whether the present trend is irreversible. I'm going to work to try to turn it around."
A look at Bumpers' latest newsletter to constituents provides eloquent witness to the complexity of his own life. He made at least twenty-eight trips back to Arkansas during 1977, meeting with and speaking to Arkansas at seventy-two public events. He reported it "common" to receive as many as 2,000 identical postcards from constituents during a two- or three-day period. He urged them to send "reasonable, heartfelt" letters rather than preprinted forms if they want to make an impact. "Congress Productive Last Year, But Should Have Been More So," said the banner on his newsletter.
You would have had to be a lad growing up in Central Illinois in the late 1940s, feeling the warmth of his late father's desire to serve, to understand what now grinds away to Adlai Stevenson. His great-grandfather was vice president and his father became the reform governor of Illinois, then twice the Democratic presidential nominee. Running for public office was as natural to a Stevenson as getting out of bed. Young Stevenson, inheritor of the "duty and honor" of seeking office that his father felt in 1948, was a state official, then elected to the Senate in 1970.
As the man who guided the committee reorganization to approval - he won some and lost some on that - Stevenson is a tad defensive about suggestions that a spreading of the power might lead to a proliferation of staff and the growth of new minifiefdoms among younger senators. He is worried more about atmosphere and attitude and the system itself.
"It is almost impossible to communicate with the public. And then you can't act because the institutions are out of touch with the public. I don't think the Congress has acted without pressure, either from the president or the public. The process doesn't seem to work. We are hearing about ERA, abortion, the Panama Canal - and not on issues of whether we survive. I just wonder if the Senate is equal to the demands of government in the late twentieth century," he said.
"What is eating at us is that we are spinning our wheels here . . . More and more of the best people are dropping out. It is getting harder than ever to get anyone with sense to run for office."
By this reckoning, the U.S. Senate is in trouble. It is easy to write that the Senate is an assembly of 100 pork barrelers, handing themselves $57,500 salaries and a bushel of perquisites that give them a lordly, clubby status insulated by six-year terms, unwilling to deal with issues crucial to the future of the nation. Too easy.
We have converted ourselves into bureaucrats. We are elected bureaucrats . . .
Howard Baker, the minority leader
When the Senate was created almost 200 years ago, the idea behind it was simple. It would be a small chamber, two members appointed by each state legislature, only indirectly responsive to the people. It would provide a sort of conservative balance to the popularly elected House through longer terms that overlapped. Senators were not chosed by popular election until 1913; by then the Senate had acquired a reputation as an exclusive club for the wealthy, aloof from the unwashed and occasionally cosmic in its wisdom.
But things change and, while the Senate retains a certain air of clubbiness, it is a far cry from its former self. It has become a bureaucracy, tangled in the same red tape that strangles bureaucracies everywhere.
When Len William came to Washington twenty-three years ago to work for William Fulbright, who was then a senator from Arkansas, it was a different world and the U. S. Senate was a long distance from the reality of today. Fulbright is gone, but like many who came for only a taste and then made a meal of it, Williams is still around the Senate. He is general counsel for the Democratic Policy Study Committee, which puts him in close contact with the business of the Senate and its ways.
He took time out for coffee one recent day and looked back. "It used to be a two-day trip to little Rock," Williams said. "It was a major task to go back. It was a major task for a consituent to come here. Now, it's two hours by jet . . . I think, as a result, we're losing sight of the real concept of what a senator is. He's become something we didn't intend him to be - 'my man in Washington.'"
Increasingly, the senator is a broker for constituents' needs, troubleshooter for their problems, intermediary with the executive branch and seeker of access to the Treasury for states and cities on the prowl for federal money. And being, above all, a politician, he can do no less or fears he dare not.
If the root of the problem could be traced, it most likely would lead back to the advent of the toll-free long-distance telephones - putting a senator within easy dialing range of a voter with a problem. Then when jet airplanes and reasonable fares turned the country into Lilliput, all hell broke loose. Constituents now pour into Washington and go instantly to tug at their senators' sleeves. Computers to answer the mail that comes in by the ton are the frosting on this cake of chaos.
The telephone experience is instructive. In the beginning, each state's two senators shared a toll-free line - that is, a line for which individual calls were not charged. That was such a boon to communications that each senator then got his own line. Then each got two lines. Then their telephone service areas were extended from regional lines to cover the whole nation. "Human nature has never been suspended around here. If they have one of anything, they soon want two," explained a staffer at the Rules Committee, which deals with telephone matters.
"The job of the senator is in transition," said Howard Baker. "The complexity of the job, the time demands sap your energy from other things. I don't know where it is going. In a way, the Senate has moved toward the House - senators are now handling constituent matters that they didn't used to get into."
Actually, much of that work is handled by a senator's staff. The personal senatorial touch is vanishing. Only occasionally does a senator know a piece of legislation from top to bottom. An aide drafts his amendments. He rarely writes his own speech. He communicates through press releases. Much of the outgoing mail is a form response, typed and signed by machines. There is not enough time.
The Senate deals with more and more legislation and more and more constituents matters each year. To do this, it needs people and money and space. Ten years ago the Senate had 3,700 employees; today, 6,000. Senate operations this year - excluding mail and expenses shared with the House - will cost more than $166 million. A third major office building is being built on Capitol Hill to house the Senate's growing army. One committee alone, Government Affairs, already requires sixty-eight rooms and a $4.4 million budget. Judiciary needs only sixty rooms but it will spend $5.5 million this year.
How did this happen? The explosion of a range of new issues in the last fifteen years has put new pressures on the Senate to be expertly informed: environment, energy, job safety, equal rights, Great Society programs, other social thrusts. But as the Senate creates more programs for the nation, it creates more problems for itself. A senator cannot know all things, so he hires specialists - and soon becomes their captive. Their knowledge is his power. And the Senate institution grows, adding a budget office here and a technology office there, just to be able to cope with the all-knowing executive branch. More people, more paper, more questions, fewer answers.
Demands on time, demands for answers, demands for help, demands for space to work in, demands for machines to process paper, demands for people to service them and keep them running are the new way of life. The system feeds on itself.
We'd like to make you think we're gods . . . We have the same percentage of lechers and monks here as the outside world.
-Senator James Abourezk
One must go down on the floor of the Senate to understand why its members feel so important and so vulnerable. The rectangular chamber, in use since 1859, is smaller and cozier than it appears from the galleries that surround it. The rostrum of the presiding officer seems nearer and more imposing to the members than one imagines from the public seats above. The tiny, scarred desks are mindful of a country school and they have been there for ages, lending a sense of tradition and continuity. The carpeted floor is soft underfoot. The flags up at the front actually produce a thrill. It is impressive. You begin to understand why 100 senators feel they are on display in a fishbowl, why if they don't take care of each other they fear no one else will, why they are defensive.
The most curious thing about the Senate, with all the blandishments and egostroking, might he that more of its members are not completely carried away with themselves. Of course, we are in an age of the political antihero, so it is part of the Senate chic these days for its members to take on an "Aw shucks, I'm just one of the common folks" pose.
Well, some of that is pose and some of it isn't. Spend some time around the Senate and the black-and-white stereotypes turn gray. You learn things, mostly that the Senate is a reasonable reflection of ourselves: Good, bad, bright, dumb, moody, mean, magnanimous, glib, purposeful, and all the rest.
One way to get a feeling for the Senate is to pick some names and go for a chat. Take "A" for James Abourezk (D-S.D.), the first of the 100, and "Z" for Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), the last. Both, it turns out, are mavericks who see their brethren in an interesting light.
Abourezk served one term in the House then was elected to the Senate in 1972. He plans to leave when his six-year term ends in January. Some say it is a graceful exit because he couldn't be reelected. But he says one term is enough. He has other fish to fry.
Abourezk doesn't think it takes much magic to be a U.S. senator. "The idea that you need experience to be effective in the Senate or the House is bull -. You can hire all the technical help you need here. Knowing how to get to the men's room is the only experience you need," he said.
Abourezk has thought about the Senate as a club and he sees it as not a bad idea, if only as a device for keeping a reasonable level of sanity about the place. "It appears to be club from the outside. But you have to make sure the other guy knows you're not attacking him personally. That's only fair," he said.
What Abourezk would do is change the rules. He thinks the Senate would be a better, more activist place if members were limited to one term and if committee chairmanships were limited to two years. "You would dilute the power of these chairmen. There would be a lot of retirements. And you would have a lot of tough people coming in here who would see public service as an end in itself and who wouldn't worry about being overly cautious," he added.
"These men are not evil. It is the system that makes them that way."
Zorinsky was a businessman and mayor of Omaha, elected to the Senate in 1976 as a Democrat after his Republican Party wouldn't back him. Zorinsky says what he thinks, comes close to being the classic antihero. A plaque on his desk says: "The Secrecy of My Job Prevents Me from Knowing What I Am Doing."
"To me, it's a job," he said. "I respect the institution. It's a good institution and I want to improve it . . . But I am still frustrated. I can't get answers." Zorinsky deplores the bureaucracy of the Senate and says it is "Nauseous" the way its costs have increased. He's also aware of an ominous side to the clubbiness of the place.
"There's a basic philosophy that you join an exclusive club when you come here. After I took my oath, the secretary of the Senate wanted to give me a diamond pin showing I was a senator. I turned it back. No one in Nebraska wants me to wear a diamond pin. Once you join an exclusive club you alienate the very people who sent you here," he said.
Zorinsky continued: "It is paramount to remember who sent you here and where you come from, but even that breaks down. I respect my colleagues and I want to help them. I see them every day and I don't see my constituents every day. So when a colleague says he needs your help, you are torn between wanting help a colleague and your constituents. You have to step back and look at it. It becomes very painful."
"Some of them came to me and asked me to vote for the pay raise because I was new and others were coming up for reelection and couldn't vote for it. That is a poor way to do the nation's business."
Zorinsky thinks he and other newcomers are a restless breed "who feel time is short." They want to do things - modernize the Senator, streamline government, hold down the costs, make life simpler.
"I'm cosponsoring a two-term limit for senators. And I plan to have an amendment cutting each state to one senator. I'll be the first to quit. Why is two the magic number for senators? Why not ask why?