Tracking the Decline of the U.S. Senate

By Josh Kurtz

Lots of people think fondly of their former workplaces. Ira Shapiro wrote a book about his.

Shapiro, best known in Maryland for his well-run but unsuccessful 2002 bid for Congress against political heavyweights Chris Van Hollen and Mark Shriver, wrote a book 5 ½ years ago called, “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.” The book details the Senate’s achievements and leaders in the 1960’s and ‘70s – a period that roughly overlaps with Shapiro’s time as a staffer there.

Now Shapiro is back with a sequel of sorts, with the thought-provoking and depressing title, “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?” It’s due to be released later this month.

IraShapiro

Ira Shapiro

The Senate, he lamented in an interview, was “the place where things used to be worked out.” Now it is as dysfunctional as any institution in American politics.

Shapiro is a Democrat who served as a high-ranking trade official in the Clinton administration before his unsuccessful bid for Congress. But he argues that there is plenty of blame to go around for the decline of the Senate.

It started in 1980, when the Reagan presidential landslide gave Republicans a 12-seat pickup in the Senate – and control of the chamber for the first time since the mid-1950’s. That election swept out several Democratic statesmen, including Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin; George McGovern of South Dakota; Warren Magnuson of Washington; Frank Church of Idaho; John Culver of Iowa; and Birch Bayh of Indiana.

But even with its newfound GOP majority, Shapiro said, the Senate operated in a collegial, bipartisan fashion, led first by Howard Baker of Tennessee – who went on to become White House chief of staff during part of Reagan’s second term – then Bob Dole of Kansas.

Democrats took back the Senate in 1986 – and that majority lasted until 1994, when Republicans won back both chambers of Congress. The transformation in the House, which had been in Democratic hands for 40 years, was profound – and had a major impact on the Senate as well.

With the Republican victory, Newt Gingrich, once a bomb-throwing back-bencher from Georgia, found himself thrust into the role of speaker of the House. And he did not drop his provocative ways. In addition to waging war on President Clinton, he also goaded Dole, calling him, at one point, “the tax collector for the welfare state.”

As a consequence, Shapiro said, as Dole was gearing up to run for president for a third time in 1996, he moved himself – and the Senate – to the right.

In 1996, even with the U.S. at peace and the economy starting to gel, 14 senators decided to retire, taking vast institutional memory and a sense of decorum with them.

“The explanations they gave for leaving then sounded like they could have been given today,” Shapiro said.

Even though Gingrich only served as speaker for four years, his combative ways remade Congress, and seven of the House members who were elected in the Republican wave of 1994 eventually moved on to the Senate, bringing some of Gingrich’s sharp-elbowed tactics to the upper chamber. About 40 one-time Republican House members who were elected from the time Gingrich joined the House, in 1978, to now have since served in the Senate. (Sean Theriault, a University of Texas political scientist, wrote about this phenomenon in a 2013 book called “The Gingrich Senate: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress”).

In the early days of the George W. Bush presidency, when control of the Senate was closely divided and swung between Republicans and Democrats, a measure of bipartisanship still prevailed, Shapiro noted. Several Democrats supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. The No Child Left Behind education law was a bipartisan effort.

But in 2004, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) stunned his colleagues and broke with precedent, actively campaigned against Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Republicans and their affiliated groups spent vast amounts of money on the race, raising the partisan temperature considerably. Daschle lost to former Rep. John Thune (R) by 1 point – and Democrats selected Nevada Sen. Harry Reid as their next leader.

When Shapiro examines the decline of the Senate, he saves his harshest criticism for Reid and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who became Republican leader after Frist retired in 2006. He calls them “similar people.”

Both are partisan brawlers and wily tacticians, Shapiro observed, but neither was rooted in policy or seemed to care much about the institution of the Senate or its historic role. Reid called Bush a liar and other names, and after President Obama took office, McConnell said his top priority would be denying the new president a second term.

“There was no way of predicting how awful it would be” under Reid and McConnell, Shapiro said. “It degenerated into this leader-driven Senate, resulting in tribal politics.”

Under McConnell, Republicans resisted Obama’s attempts to stimulate the flagging economy, opposed health care reform, and became increasingly beholden to industry donors like the Koch brothers, Shapiro continued. Because Republicans resisted so many of Obama’s appointments, Reid changed Senate rules so that most presidential nominations could go through on majority-only votes.

And then Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died – and McConnell blocked Obama from nominating a replacement for almost a year. This year, to pave the way for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, McConnell changed Senate rules again.

“He makes Lyndon Johnson look like a piker,” Shapiro observed.

Obama, who spent four years in the Senate before being elected president, “could have been more effective” dealing with his former colleagues Shapiro conceded. “But I don’t know if it would have mattered.”

And now Trump, an erratic political novice, is president. “Polarized Senate meets insurgent president,” Shapiro said. “The Senate is diminished at precisely the moment it needs to be at its best.”

So can the Senate be saved?

Shapiro, who continues to do some legal and consulting work — he has his own firm and is also affiliated with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s firm — thought carefully.

“I believe there are plenty of talented people in the Senate, in both parties,” he said. “There’s no reason the work couldn’t be done.”

Shapiro pointed out that the Senate was at a fairly low point in 1963, stymied by partisan and regional rivalries. But JFK’s assassination galvanized the institution, he said, along with “the imperative of civil rights.”

“It doesn’t take much for senators to change their behavior,” Shapiro said. “In the 1960’s, it took a crisis. Today we’re in a crisis.”

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