The central working theory of American government today is that the system is dysfunctional, ineffectual and increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Americans. “Broken” has become both a favored description and a general-purpose diagnosis of all the ills that afflict our government and politics. The theory of brokenness is so universal that it shapes and frames every debate about how we choose our leaders, govern ourselves and resolve our differences. The consensus is that we no longer do any of these things well and, in all likelihood, we do them worse than ever.
Ira Shapiro’s new book, “The Last Great Senate,” buys into the dysfunction argument to present us with an extended and lovingly rendered reminder that the U.S. Senate, like the American system of governance itself, was once something great but that its time of greatness has passed.
The book is a tour-de-force meditation on the kind of high-powered policymaking and intricate legislative needlepoint that once seemed to define the Senate’s work. For example, Shapiro describes the contentious 1978 debate over how the United States would officially recognize the People’s Republic of China while keeping its pledge to protect Taiwan. The end of that debate was a triumph for President Jimmy Carter and a badge of honor for the Senate, but Shapiro concludes despairingly: “Of course, it was a different time. This was how the Senate worked in the era when it was still great.”
Shapiro was a high-ranking Democratic aide in the Senate he memorializes, in the four years from January 1977 to January 1981. His biases are declared and obvious, but he more than adequately manages to make his case, which is that once upon a time — not even all that long ago — the Senate was a place of inspiration and high accomplishment, peopled by giants, statesmen and icons, men so formidable that they deserved to be described as “tall trees.” “Issues were taken on the merits, and faced, no matter how tough they were,” he recalls. “Nominees got judged on their merits, irrespective of partisan politics. The national interest dictated the result. It was the last great Senate, and it would not last much longer.” Some of this is nostalgia, clearly, but that is what the Senate does to people.
In part because of its unique constitutional role and mythical place in our history, the Senate has also become the hood ornament on the national broken-government argument. Senate staffers wearily recite tales of their frustration, andsenators don’t just leave the Senate anymore: Retirements are announced with great fanfare. Each voluntary leave-taking, and some of the involuntary ones as well, can be read as a repudiation of what the institution has become.
The most recent of these is the retirement of Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who “surprised” Washington by announcing that she would not seek reelection this fall. In an op-ed in The Washington Post headlined “Why I am leaving the Senate,” Snowe laid out the indictment: “Some people were surprised by my conclusion, yet I have spoken on the floor of the Senate for years about the dysfunction and political polarization in the institution. Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.”
Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh offered his own lamentation on leaving two years earlier in an op-ed in the New York Times — a despairing explanation that begins Shapiro’s prologue.
But some of the Senate’s problems, today and throughout history, are rooted in what the founding fathers envisioned. Frustration and failure were in the cards from the very beginning. The Senate, from its earliest imaginings, was such a noble idea, so aspirational about human nature, that it almost bordered on fantasy. The founders contemplated a collection of not just statesmen but people of boundless prudence and sturdy morals who would serve as beacons for the new nation. The Senate was going to be different from the House, and the difference was explained by the “senatorial trust,” which Madison lays out in Federalist 62 as requiring a “great extent of information and stability of character.”
So the potential for disappointment was high from the start. If it feels worse today, that is because the ancient myths that endure about the role of the Senate are even more removed from reality than they were in 1789. Senators are politicians with the most monumental political ambitions, and they operate in a political environment that reflects how much the country has changed — in some ways, not for the better. The fault is not in the Senate but in the country itself. The culprits are familiar: voter apathy, cable news, cultural and political partisanship, money, the rise of political media consultants, etc.
But the Senate has no peer in our constitutional framework at producing nostalgia junkies and historical romanticists. Look no further than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Shapiro is as guilty of this as anyone, but it is a minor infraction. The charm of the book is that he understands and is devoted to the old myths and warmly recounts a period in history when the institution was still trying to live up those myths, and when the country went along by revering the Senate and its members.
Shapiro is an ardent researcher and a more than able writer, but it is his obvious love for the Senate that gives the book its personality. He manages to make Senate debates about energy policy and tax rebates seem interesting, in part because he explains who felt ambushed, betrayed and left hung out to dry. When those moments come together, the story can take on a certain drama. The names alone are supposed to be exciting: Scoop Jackson, Ed Muskie, Frank Church, Mike Mansfield, Ted Kennedy, Jacob Javits, Howard Baker, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Byrd, Tom Eagleton, Mac Mathias, George McGovern.
The period celebrated in the book is the presidency of Carter, even though that single term is regarded as a dark time for Democrats. But Shapiro, himself a Democrat, anchors his narrative in the idea that this was the last time partisanship and ideological rigidity did not reign supreme. This was the Senate that saved New York City from bankruptcy, established relations with China, negotiated treaties to hand over the Panama Canal to Panama and instituted a precedent-setting level of government oversight with the establishment of inspectors general in every federal agency. This is the Senate that debated the Camp David deal between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, raising the prospect of a lasting peace in the Middle East — a huge problem met by huge men intent on finding solutions.
Shapiro dates the beginning of today’s dysfunction to what came next, the Reagan revolution, which articulated and presaged a rightward shift in the country. “Neither party has ever had a monopoly on fine senators,” he writes in his epilogue. “But, overall, today’s fractured and ineffective Senate is the product of the continuous, relentless movement of the Republican party to the right, accompanied by a fierce determination to defeat their Democratic opponents and an increased willingness by some to frustrate and obstruct the legislative process and the operation of government by whatever means possible.”
This observation will strike a partisan chord, and Shapiro will have to live with the consequences, but he writes about a time just before the creation of this modern political world, and the real pleasure of the book is the way it takes us back to an era without the current madness.
THE LAST GREAT SENATE
Courage and Statesmanship
in Times of Crisis
By Ira Shapiro
PublicAffairs. 475 pp. $34.99