Gov. Pete du Pont of Delaware refuses to run for the Senate in 1984, though he must leave office then and seems to be the only Republican with a chance to beat incumbent Joseph Biden. Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, when President Reagan asked him personally to run for the seat being vacated by Howard Baker, gave a one-word reply: "No." Gov. Dick Lamm of Colorado, a highly popular Democrat who has been governor nine years, refuses to run against Sen. Bill Armstrong. Gov. Richard Riley of South Carolina declines to take on 82-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond. In Mississippi, outgoing Gov. William Winter seems disinclined to run for the Senate; he is said to be looking forward to becoming chancellor of Ole Miss.
Most of these governors would probably win if they ran. Why are they uninterested in serving in the Senate?
One reason is that it is not an easy life. Most senators do not have safe seats these days, and they have to return to their home states constantly. Far more important, the work is just not that interesting anymore.
To understand why, you have to understand what kind of work the Senate is best suited for. By the 1970s it had become a place where political entrepreneurs used the luxury of six-year terms to develop programs that they thought would improve government and provide them with political identity. Senators oversaw the gestation, birth, nurturing and maturing of any number of governmental programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the congressional budget process. In the process, their identification with such issues helped make them unbeatable even in years when their party was in trouble. Dozens of careers--and government programs--were built.
The 1980 election put an end to much of this political entrepreneurialism, and not only because some of its leading practitioners were defeated. The Democrats, by losing control of the Senate, lost most of the staffers who understood in detail the complicated apparatus of government programs they helped to create. Many Democratic senators, used to relying on staff, have been hobbling around ever since. Their disunity on major budget and tax issues is some evidence of their shell shock. More telling is the lack of initiative of the sort that used to be so common.
As for the Republicans, most simply are not political entrepreneurs at all. Most of those elected in recent years want to cut government, not build it; and lately they have been frustrated in making cuts. Most evidently do not understand how the six-year term gives a senator the chance to establish a long-term record, even on budget-cutting issues. Some attempts to stake out issues have been embarrassingly ham-handed: remember John East's hearings on when life begins. The Republican Senate's work product has nonetheless been respectable, because of brilliant leadership on the big budget and tax issues from Majority Leader Howard Baker, Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole, Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, and a few others. But that may or may not help Republican senators when they come up for reelection. In the meantime, most haven't found much interesting work to do.
That's true despite--or because of--the fact that each senator serves on many committees and subcommittees. This tends to force senators to spend all day winging it. No one can physically attend all scheduled hearings, much less master the subject matter. So the senator walks in hurriedly, glances over the papers his staff has prepared, reads his statement or question, and rushes off to something else. Some people find this kind of work congenial, and some have good enough instincts to make useful contributions off the top of their heads. But many people who pride themselves on being well prepared and knowing in depth what they are talking about find the way things work in the Senate galling.
The Senate's rules and procedures also conspire to make things difficult for people used to achieving things. Although it is theoretically easier to stop a filibuster than it was in the 1960s, the techniques developed by the late James Allen and perfected most recently by Howard Metzenbaum allow a single senator to tie up things for days and, at the end of a session, singlehandedly decide what will pass and what will not. Even Metzenbaum admits the result is a little wacky. Of course, any legislature is inefficient, and the Senate has a long and arguably useful tradition of giving weight to minority views. But it doesn't make sense to let one senator stop 99 from doing what they want. Some remedies are reasonably obvious, though in practice they are difficult to achieve. Senators need to revise their rules so that less of their time is wasted; they need to revise their committee structure so they can learn issues in depth.
The rest of us, in the meantime, might pay a little less attention to the Senate and more to the House, which grapples more seriously with more important issues. It was not always so: two decades ago, the House was often paralyzed because its rules and procedures gave too much power to a few elderly committee chairmen who were effectively accountable to no one. Over several years, the House, led by the likes of Richard Bolling and the late Phillip Burton, changed its rules and procedures so that now it provides a suitable forum for men and women of talent. Decisions get made, and talented members can have an impact.
The Senate, no matter how firmly entrenched its rules seem, can do the same. If senators doubt the need for change, they might ask why some of the nation's most talented governors seem uninterested in serving in the Senate.