Many senators are so impatient for the rectification of the world's ills that they have not taken time to notice that the Senate itself needs some attention. However, Dan Quayle has noticed, and has some proposals, to which I add this one: Rearrange the furniture on the Senate floor.
Quayle is in the fifth year of what will be, if God is willing and Indiana is wise, many terms in the Senate. A lissome young Republican of 37, he looks 27, and during his 1980 campaign he was accused -- yes, accused -- of looking unfairly like Robert Redford. (When will the Federal Election Commission issue regulations to correct the unfairness of candidates' not looking equally splendid?)
Quayle has a number of ideas to improve two things: the conduct of business on the Senate floor, and the committee system in which most Senate business is done. He would reform the rules governing the Senate floor to make it more difficult -- it is now simple -- for one member to bring the Senate to a standstill by dilatory devices (frivolous amendments, filibusters, etc.). And he would reduce the size of committees and the number of subcommittees.
If the Senate is to be what it is pleased to be called -- "world's greatest deliberative body" -- it must be disposed to, and able to, deliberate. But deliberation takes time, and a certain rhythm of institutional life. Deliberative senators cannot live like dray horses in harness, driven by staff from one hearing to another. But for 30 years the number of senators has remained constant, as has the number of hours in the day. Neither number is apt to change soon. The number of committees and especially subcommittees has grown rapidly as senators have sought new opportunities to hire staff and make news.
When Jim Buckley left the Senate after one term representing New York (1971-76), he said the work load had doubled during his six years. One reason the load is so heavy is the proliferation of subcommittees. That has multiplied the burdens of the executive branch. When William Ruckelshaus first served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency 15 years ago, he had to report to 15 committees and subcommittees. When he returned to that job in 1983, the number was 44.
Quayle's ideas are sound, but not sufficient. The Senate should rearrange its desks and chairs, for Churchillian reasons.
When a German bomb destroyed the House of Commons, the chamber could have been rebuilt along various lines. But Churchill insisted that its traditional physical features be reproduced because they sustain particular political principles.
He wanted the chamber to be oblong, with benches on two sides, facing each other, rather than with individual seats arranged in a semicircle. And he was adamant that the chamber be only big enough to seat about two- thirds of the members. He warned against "semicircular assemblies with buildings that give to every member not only a seat to sit in, but often a desk to write at, with a lid to bang" -- a description of the U.S. Senate.
Churchill believed that the oblong shape was "a very potent factor in our political life" because it buttresses the rule of two durable and disciplined parties. Semicircular assemblies, he said, encourage loose assemblages of lesser groups in constantly shifting coalitions of weak principles. He said the semicircular assembly encourages "the group system" because it does nothing to encourage party identification, party discipline and clarity of principle. He said a strong two-party system, and a government capable of vigorous action, is nurtured by an oblong chamber. The physical fact of confrontation concentrates minds on the reality of two competing blocs, and the act of voting with the other side becomes more momentous.
Churchill thought a legislative chamber should be so small that it cannot contain all its members without overcrowding. Otherwise almost all debates will be conducted in the dispiriting, trivializing atmosphere of an almost empty chamber. He thought good legislative rhetoric should be conversational, not haranguing, and the conversational style requires a small space. Furthermore, on great occasions crowding gives a sense of urgency.
It will be said that Americans should not want the Senate to sit in a smaller chamber (with, say, 50 chairs -- 25 to a side) because party cohesion and conversational, cut-and-thrust rhetoric are not important to American goals. But perhaps they should be. And Churchill's theory -- call it architectural determinism, or the Seating Arrangement Theory of History -- is easier to ridicule than refute.