The Senate’s Old Guard valued honor, and we see little of it today


This is how strange contemporary Washington has become: In the Senate — the less combative branch of congressional Republicanism — John McCain, the self-proclaimed maverick who once nearly was invited to join a Democratic national ticket, and Susan Collins, the Maine moderate who often sides with Democrats — are regarded, and sometimes disparaged, as the Republican Old Guard.

This does not mean that the GOP has drifted leftward. On the contrary. It means that all the assumptions once brought to bear on congressional Republicans are out of date. Dead. Relegated to the deep, dark past.

This spring, these two occasional renegades found themselves in the role of Old Guardians by virtue of their longevity (Mr. McCain has been on Capitol Hill for 30 years, Ms. Collins nearly as long, if her years as a congressional aide are counted) and guardians of party tradition by virtue of their temperament (which is to say accommodating, though they delight in being unpredictable in whom they might accommodate).

But these days, an accommodating temperament and longevity are passé, so these two onetime rebels found themselves at the ramparts over discussions about (and this is the remarkable thing) whether discussions should even be held over debt limit and budget issues. It is probably not necessary to add that yet another budget crisis looms.

For 10 weeks — about the length of an American general election campaign — Senate budget talks with the House have been stalled. Actually, they haven’t begun, and as a result the vital appropriations process is in peril — a potent symbol of government dysfunction. At war are two absolutes: the necessity to address budget questions, and the refusal to engage those questions without preconditions.

Increasingly, the nation sits helplessly by while two parallel range wars are conducted on Capitol Hill. The first is the usual one, drearily familiar though it may be, that pits Democrats (basically interchangeable with liberals) against Republicans (basically interchangeable with conservatives).

But the second is more interesting, and maybe more consequential. It pits veteran Republicans, reared in a Senate where comity ruled and intransigence was regarded as bad manners, against newly minted Republican senators, who regard the upper house as a torture chamber where principles go to die.

The result is a drastic change in two of the most important institutions in American civic life: the Republican Party (which in both houses of Congress provided a far higher rate of support than the Democrats for the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the Senate (where the American filibuster was invented, and then twisted to a form that would be unrecognizable to its onetime masters).

For many years, political scientists and political commentators regarded the Senate as if it were invulnerable to outside influences, exempt from time, existing in a world of its own and, more to the point, of its own making. This circumstance prevailed for decades, even into recent memory.

But that no longer is the case. The first breezes of change came with television. Public-affairs programming on cable television and the faux drama and high-fever rhetoric it rewarded transformed politics, the Senate especially.

This new ethos reinforced a broader culture of confrontation. It devalued the sense of reason that the Senate, a product of the 18th-century Enlightenment and its celebration of reason, once symbolized.

“Now it’s all or nothing, compromise is a four-letter word, it’s what plays on the cable shows each night rather than the sweep of time [that matters],” said Kenneth Duberstein, who once worked for one of the giants of the old Senate, Republican Jacob Javits of New York.

But it’s not only the contemplative streak of the Senate that has been jeopardized. If there were one characteristic beyond the ruminative quality of the Senate that the Old Guard cultivated and revered — reflected in its tone and tempo — it was this: honor.

Some lawmakers of the old temperament complain that the current Senate pressed for a budget but now refuses to go to conference with the House to hammer one out.

That sense of resistance — dishonor, some of the Old Guard would say — is not the way things used to work in the old days.

But then again, in the old days, things used to work.

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

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