Fortunately, Alexander, 80, has punctuated his 18 Senate years with some pungent thoughts about the place. Their essence is that it needs not better rules but better behavior: There is “less accommodation, respect and restraint” than when he arrived after serving as governor, president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary.
“It doesn’t take a genius,” he says, “to figure how to gum up the works in a body of 100, which works mostly by unanimous consent.” Soon Joe Biden will have about 1,200 nominees subject to the Senate’s advice and consent. If Republicans use the rules as obstructively as Democrats recently have done, the process will coagulate, permitting only half a dozen confirmations a week. This will make governance difficult while a pandemic spreads death and economic distress. And Senate paralysis will spread the virus of cynicism about national elections settling nothing.
Senators might like one another more if they socialized more with one another. But life on the Washington treadmill — members leaving home at 6 a.m. and returning home at 8 p.m. after fundraising events — makes spouses reluctant to live here. When Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, was majority leader (1977 to 1981 and 1987 to 1989), senators spent more time in Washington because he scheduled votes at 9 a.m. Mondays and 3 p.m. Fridays. When Baker became majority leader in 1981, he had similar practices. Knowing that trust is the coin of the Senate realm, Baker also made an offer that Byrd accepted: You can keep the spacious office you have had as majority leader. Also, I will not surprise you if you will not surprise me.
Senators might dislike one another less if they learned to live less with what Alexander calls, with distaste, “Internet democracy,” the dangerous ease and immediacy of pithy communications. Since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, it has had, he thinks, a political impact comparable to the arrival of radio in the 1920s and of television in the 1950s. “Lincoln,” Alexander says, “would write a hot letter, then put it in his desk drawer,” giving himself time for second thoughts about mailing it. Today’s president is not the only political person who, when he has hot thoughts, shares them instantly, to the detriment of the nation’s comity.
“It’s hard to get here,” Alexander says of the Senate. “It’s hard to stay here.” So, while here, senators should act. “But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments. Lately the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.”
If the Senate were in session more, and if more bills — imagine this: the 12 appropriations bills coming to the floor by, say, May 1 — were more open to amendments, and if fewer senators used unanimous-consent requirements to prevent votes on amendments, then job satisfaction would increase, as would trust across the aisle.
Alexander is, however, firmly opposed to ending “the Senate’s best-known tradition,” the filibuster, which he considers a bulwark against “the tyranny of the majority” and a means of forcing “broad agreements.” But the rules permitting filibusters permit abusive behavior. Therefore, they require the trinity of behaviors Alexander says have been diminishing — accommodation, respect and restraint.
So, two developments are desirable: The Senate’s leadership should loosen its grip restricting legislating opportunities for most senators. And a bipartisan group of, Alexander says, “15 or 20” senators must set the tone for more collegial behavior within the parameters of the Senate’s permissive rules.
Note the number 20. It, and the Pareto principle, are germane to the Senate.
The Italian polymath — economist, sociologist, engineer, political scientist, philosopher — Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) showed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of Italians. Soon the 80/20 ratio was being discerned here and there: Twenty percent of patients use 80 percent of health-care resources; 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of the crimes; 20 percent of beer drinkers drink 80 percent of the beer.
Probably 20 percent of legislators account for 80 percent of a legislature’s accomplishments. The Pareto principle is also called “the law of the vital few.” Alexander has been one of those.