Yearning for the Senate of yesteryear


WASHINGTON — What if they had a Senate race and nobody ran?

Not as fanciful as you think. It’s only April, and already seven Senators have announced that they won’t run again in elections that are still 18 months away.

Almost certainly, more will join them. Last year, 10 senators shied away from running.

Hardly anyone wants to be in the world’s most exclusive club — it’s actually called that, though many describe it as the cave of winds — anymore. Especially the men and women who are in it now.

Of all the institutions in American life, the Senate once seemed the sturdiest. Fortified with rules written by Thomas Jefferson, it is animated by an 18th century Enlightenment outlook. Protected by a generous sense of tenure, it had charm and stability, and seemed impervious to change.

All that was true and may be true again. But it is not true now.

Senators from another time regard their years in the chamber as among the richest, most rewarding in their lives. Yet these days, the Senate is a wretched place.

There’s the partisanship, which always existed but in the past was much more muted. There’s the lack of comity, a favorite Senate word when there actually was some. There’s the lack of a sense of accomplishment, mostly because the Senate doesn’t accomplish much anymore.

Consider two similarly situated sessions of Congress, the second session of the 112th that just was completed, and the second session of the 106th in 2000 — both the final years of a Congress meeting as an election loomed.

The Senate in the second session of the 106th Congress sent 131 laws onto the books, according to the Congressional Record. The most recent Senate’s second session logged 42.

“By that time, most of the senators, those staying and those retiring, regarded the Senate as a bad joke — polarized, paralyzed, and dysfunctional,” says Ira Shapiro, a Washington lawyer whose book The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis, looks with nostalgia to a different chamber in a different age.

The situation is so bad — there is so little to do in the Senate — that lawmakers who once were members of the House now often cross the Capitol to pass the time with their former colleagues. Just two months ago, GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, 69, whose two terms in the Senate followed four in the House, stunned Washington by announcing he would not seek another term.

Mr. Chambliss was just the sort of lawmaker who in another era might have been counted on for a long career. His service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and his chairmanship of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Subcommittee, along with his status as ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, set him up to become that committee’s chairman in a GOP Senate.

Instead, he decided to leave.

There are some hopeful signs. There is more evidence of serious work on important legislation, such as immigration reform, than the Senate has seen in years.

But lawmakers still feel profound frustration. They don’t feel they are surrounded by what former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado called “large-scale figures.”

He listed colleagues by last name only, knowing he served at a time when Senate surnames sufficed: “Mansfield, Humphrey, [Philip] Hart, Muskie, Nelson, Church, Mathias, Javits, Case, Stennis, Goldwater, and many others,” he recounted. “All gone. All gone.”

All gone, and with them, something special in American life.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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