Senate Safe For Democracy

Senate facilities workers make up beds on Capitol Hill as the Senate prepares for what was expected to be an all-night floor debate (later averted by a compromise) over judicial filibusters, Washington, D.C., 5-23-05
This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer. A longer version appeared in The Washington Post.

The Radical Centrists who narrowly averted the Senate Missile Crisis and made the Capitol safe for democracy again deserve a massive Standing O. They proved compromise is possible even when tempers, rhetoric and common sense have boiled over. They bucked their party leaders and plucked power from their PAC-stained mitts. They stiffed the interest groups on the sanctimonious left and righteous right. They did what they voters wanted them to do – grow up.

But – and I'm sorry to have to say this – the statecraft shown tonight is unlikely to apply to other pending legislation – to bills becoming laws.

Nominations are different: different politics, different vote counting, different parliamentary procedures. The filibuster non-buster deal was all about NOT getting 50 votes; it was about ensuring there could not be the votes needed for both filibusters of judicial nominees and for a change of the Senate rules. Passing bills is about getting more than 50 votes. That's a different story.

The reason tonight's truly commendable accomplishment will not soon lead to a new spirit of pragmatism on real issues – Medicare or tax reform, for example – is the same reason the Senate got into such a partisan pickle over judges and filibusters: a long degradation of the culture of the U.S. Senate.

The change has left the Senate less able to produce legislation on major issues, less able to compromise, less reflective of public opinion (ironically, since these people are obsessed with polls), and less able to produce leaders for both the institution itself and the whole nation. The filibuster fiasco displays a Senate preoccupied with issues that are simply not high priorities for voters but that are important to interests on the left and right.

One casualty of the Senate's post-1989 cantankerous culture was Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who was ousted from his job as majority leader in 2002 for making a crack that implied sympathy for the segregation in the old South. "The club is dead," Lott said, a year after his fall. "I'm not sure when it died, but the club is dead."

There are plenty of reasons not to mourn the passing of that club. A white male bastion, it tolerated segregation for far too long, was enamored of its pork barrel, and let its entrenched members linger well into undignified dotage. But the club had its merits. It facilitated compromise, character, competence and the occasional act of conscience, thus presenting a serious counterweight to White House power.

If I had to etch a date on the tombstone of The Senate Club it would be March 9, 1989, the day the Senate rejected, with a 53-47 vote, former four-term Texas senator John Tower to be secretary of defense under the first President Bush. This was only the ninth time in history that a Cabinet-level nominee had been rejected.

The Senate's clubby comity had already been strained by the bitter battle over Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court and by the Iran-contra affair. But the long debate over Tower's misadventures with women and defense contractors and, most of all, his drinking was, if you will, a tippling point.

In 1991, the Senate confirmation struggle over Clarence Thomas made the Battle of Bork seem like a "Mork and Mindy" rerun, though he was eventually, and bitterly, confirmed. Also that year, the Senate Ethics Committee held extraordinary, trial-like public hearings for five senators -- the Keating Five -- accused of violating ethics rules. Later came the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Then last year, Majority Leader Bill Frist broke long tradition by going to South Dakota to campaign against Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

Is this all, in the grand sweep of history, merely a phase? Last summer, after Vice President Cheney told Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont what to do with himself in language unsuitable for a family Web site, a slew of stories decried the end of civility in politics. (I think I wrote some of them!) But just about every generation thinks it is witnessing a decline in civility and good manners. Certainly, the indignity Leahy suffered paled in comparison to the crippling caning Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner endured on the Senate floor in 1856 at the hands of an irate Southern congressman. Certainly, today's incivilities seem silly compared with the poisonous antics that got Joseph McCarthy condemned for "conduct unbecoming a senator."

The filibuster flap is emblematic of deeper and, sadly, more enduring and consequential cultural changes. Several trends both illustrate and explain this conduct unbecoming of the Senate.

Legislative Paralysis. Last May, when the Senate was tied up in its usual election-year inertia, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia said to The Washington Post's Senate correspondent, "Have we lost the will to legislate?" Well, yes, sir, it seems that way.