Tom is a member of the following committees:
- Committee on Appropriations
- Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration
- Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
- Subcommittee on Interior, Environment (Ranking)
- Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs
- Subcommittee on Defense
- Committee on Foreign Relations
- Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs
- Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy
- Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy
- Subcommittee on International Development and Foreign Assistance, Economic Affairs, International Environmental Protection, and Peace Corps (Ranking)
- Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
- Space, Science, and Competitiveness
- Communications, Technology, and the Internet Subcommittee
- Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security
- Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security
- Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security
“This is just one of those days when you want to throw up your hands and say, ‘What in the world are we doing?’ ” Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, said.
“It’s unconscionable,” Carl Levin, the senior Democratic senator from Michigan, said. “The obstructionism has become mindless.”
The Senators were in the Capitol, sunk into armchairs before the marble fireplace in the press lounge, which is directly behind the Senate chamber. It was four-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. McCaskill, in a matching maroon jacket and top, looked exasperated; Levin glowered over his spectacles.
“Also, it’s a dumb rule in itself,” McCaskill said. “It’s time we started looking at some of these rules.”
She was referring to Senate Rule XXVI, Paragraph 5, which requires unanimous consent for committees and subcommittees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon while the Senate is in session. Both Levin and McCaskill had scheduled hearings that day for two-thirty. Typically, it wouldn’t be difficult to get colleagues to waive the rule; a general and an admiral had flown halfway around the world to appear before Levin’s Armed Services Committee, and McCaskill’s Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight of the Homeland Security Committee was investigating the training of Afghan police. But this was March 24th, the day after President Barack Obama signed the health-care-reform bill, in a victory ceremony at the White House; it was also the day that the Senate was to vote on a reconciliation bill for health-care reform, approved by the House three nights earlier, which would retroactively remove the new law’s most embarrassing sweetheart deals and complete the yearlong process of passing universal health care. Republicans, who had fought the bill as a bloc, were in no mood to make things easy.
So, four hours earlier, when Levin went to the Senate floor and asked for consent to hold his hearing, Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and a member of Levin’s committee, had refused. “I have no personal objection to continuing,” Burr said. But, he added, “there is objection on our side of the aisle. Therefore, I would have to object.”
Burr had to object on behalf of his party because he was the only Republican in the chamber when Levin spoke. In general, when senators give speeches on the floor, their colleagues aren’t around, and the two or three who might be present aren’t listening. They’re joking with aides, or e-mailing Twitter ideas to their press secretaries, or getting their first look at a speech they’re about to give before the eight unmanned cameras that provide a live feed to C-SPAN2. The presiding officer of the Senate—freshmen of the majority party take rotating, hour-long shifts intended to introduce them to the ways of the institution—sits in his chair on the dais, scanning his BlackBerry or reading a Times article about the Senate. Michael Bennet, a freshman Democrat from Colorado, said, “Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?”
Between speeches, there are quorum calls, time killers in which a Senate clerk calls the roll at the rate of one name every few minutes. The press gallery, above the dais, is typically deserted, as journalists prefer to hunker down in the press lounge, surfing the Web for analysis of current Senate negotiations; television screens alert them if something of interest actually happens in the chamber. The only people who pay attention to a speech are the Senate stenographers. On this afternoon, two portly bald men in suits stood facing the speaker from a few feet away, tapping at the transcription machines, which resembled nineteenth-century cash registers, slung around their necks. The Senate chamber is an intimate room where men and women go to talk to themselves for the record.
Like many other aspects of senatorial procedure, Rule XXVI, Paragraph 5 is a relic from the days when senators had to hover around their desks to know what was happening on the floor during the main afternoon debate. (The desks, some built as long ago as 1819, are mahogany, and their lids lift up, like those in an old schoolhouse; the desks of the Majority and Minority Leader are still equipped with brass spittoons.) In the press lounge, McCaskill said, with light sarcasm, “Somebody told me the rule is to make sure people pay attention to what’s happening on the floor during debate and not be distracted by committee work. Clearly, it’s an old rule.”
The Republicans had turned this old rule into a new means of obstruction. There would be no hearings that afternoon; the general and the admiral would have to come back another day. Like investment bankers on Wall Street, senators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.
Around five o’clock, the chamber began to fill, as the reconciliation bill came up for a vote; there were twenty-three amendments pending, all from Republicans, and perhaps many more to come. Ordinarily, debate and voting on an amendment might take two legislative days, but under the rules of the reconciliation bill the senators were to dispatch the amendments one after another, as in a hot-dog-eating contest, with a minute of debate for each side. The goal was to finish the bill by the end of the evening, so that senators wouldn’t miss a day of their spring recess—apparently, the only thing worse than a government takeover of the health-care system. The usual longueurs of the Senate, where forty minutes can tick away on the antique clock above the rear double doors without a word’s being spoken, were about to yield to a frenzy. Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, from Nevada, had predicted that the process, known as Vote-O-Rama, would go past two in the morning, and had warned senators to stay close to the chamber.
Max Baucus, of Montana, the manager of the bill for the Democrats, rose and said, “This is the first time in recent memory that a reconciliation bill has all the amendments on one side only. These are clearly amendments designed to kill the reconciliation and, therefore, kill health-care reform. So I very much hope that all of these amendments are defeated.”
Tall, gaunt Judd Gregg, of New Hampshire, the bill’s Republican manager, took the floor. “The position on the other side of the aisle is: no amendments allowed, even if they are good,” he said. Indignation rouged his cheeks, and his voice rose half an octave. “Obviously, they presume the Republican Party is an inconvenience. The democratic process is an inconvenience. It also appears, considering the opposition to this out in America, that the American people are an inconvenience.”
The Senate chamber is laid out in four concentric semicircles, with adjacent desks almost touching on the crowded Democratic side, and the desks of the much smaller Republican minority spaced loosely apart. The design is meant to emphasize the senators’ unity. But Baucus and Gregg avoided eye contact across the six feet of aisle that now divides the chamber into two constantly warring factions. Senators are required, by custom, to speak of one another in the third person, directing their anger and sarcasm through whichever poor freshman happens to be the presiding officer at the moment. Rule XIX, Paragraphs 2 and 3—one of the original rules drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s “Manual of Parliamentary Practice”—bars senators from imputing unworthy conduct or motives to another senator, and from insulting any senator’s state. But there is no rule against finger-wagging, and Baucus wagged his at Gregg while shouting at Al Franken, of Minnesota, who had started a shift in the presiding officer’s chair: “Mr. President, make no mistake, the intent of every single one of the amendments offered on the other side of the aisle is to kill health-care reform. . . . A senator on the other side of the aisle stood up and said that this is hopefully the President’s Waterloo. They want to kill health-care reform!”
The voice of Stuart Smalley filled the chamber: “The time of the senator has expired.”
For the next nine hours, the chamber became the stage of a theatrical whose ending, like almost everything that happens on the Senate floor, was known in advance to all. The Republican goal in Vote-O-Rama was to embarrass the Democrats while appearing to suggest useful changes; the Democratic goal was to prevent any change to the bill, so that it wouldn’t have to return to the House, where it might be voted down. Several of the Republican amendments had been designed to make Democrats look hypocritical, by forcing them to vote against policies that the Party typically supports. One amendment, for example, declared that the health-care bill could not be linked to a tax hike on individuals making less than two hundred thousand dollars a year. Other amendments were more nakedly partisan, and outlandish. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, proposed an amendment that repealed the entire law. Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican obstetrician from Oklahoma, introduced an amendment to insure that veterans diagnosed with mental illness would not be denied the right to own firearms, and another to prevent “convicted child molesters, rapists, and sex offenders” from buying erectile-dysfunction drugs with taxpayer funds. Coburn got through the minute he was allotted to explain his Viagra amendment without cracking a smile. “This is not a game amendment,” he insisted. “It actually saves money.”
So many senators snickered that the presiding officer banged his gavel for order.
“The amendment offered by the senator from Oklahoma makes a mockery of this Senate,” Baucus declared. “It is a crass political stunt aimed at making thirty-second commercials, not public policy.” Baucus asked for the yeas and nays, and a clerk called the roll at a ragged pace. “Mr. Coburn, Mr. Cochran, Ms. Collins.” Thirty-five-second pause. “Mr. Conrad, Mr. Corker.” Ten seconds. “Mr. Cornyn.” Senators pay no attention to the sound of their name; they cast votes when they’re so inclined—wandering in late, shuffling down the chamber’s gentle blue-carpeted steps to the swarm of colleagues milling about in the well, where the clerks sit at a table, and then holding a finger up or down. At one point, John McCain—now just one of a hundred senators and struggling to stay in office—spent half a minute waving stiff-armed, trying to catch the eye of a clerk so he could cast his vote. In the end, two Democrats—Evan Bayh, of Indiana, and Ben Nelson, of Nebraska—joined the Republicans in opposing Viagra for sex offenders. The amendment was defeated.
The carpeting in the chamber absorbs voices, and during the long night one of the few that rose above the muffled drone was that of Charles Schumer, who said to Gregg, “Get to work! Stop screwing around with health care!” Sporadically, a sharp cackle emanated from Al Franken, who wandered the chamber, looking for Republicans he could charm into laughing. Observed from the press gallery, the senators in their confined space began to resemble zoo animals—Levin a shambling brown bear, John Thune a loping gazelle, Jim Bunning a maddened grizzly. Each one displayed a limited set of behaviors: in conversations, John Kerry planted himself a few inches away, loomed, and clamped his hands down on a colleague’s shoulders. Joe Lieberman patted everyone on the back. It became clear which senators were loners (Russ Feingold, Daniel Akaka) and which were social (Blanche Lincoln, Lindsey Graham); which senators were important (Dick Durbin, Jon Kyl) and which were ignored (Bayh, Bunning).
Past midnight, Durbin slumped at his desk, one hand over his face, yawning painfully. Susan Collins was going through her mail. Twenty-three amendments had been voted down, and the Republicans were proposing a fresh batch. “Can we get some order?” Bunning growled, before he introduced a proposal to let senior citizens opt out of parts of Medicare. It was the only amendment that any Republicans joined the Democrats to defeat.
Harry Reid controls the Senate’s schedule, but Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who is the Minority Leader, can object. Since nearly everything in the Senate depends on unanimous consent, the main business of the place is a continuous negotiation between these two supremely unsentimental men. That night, they played a game of chicken: McConnell, unsmiling, his eyes riveted ahead, held out the prospect of dozens more amendments; Reid, a former boxer, was hunched and mumbling, playing rope-a-dope, vowing to fend off amendments all night. The two leaders left the chamber to confer privately about how to proceed. Inside, the atmosphere of a slumber party set in. Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, her hand across her heart, sang a sentimental duet with Robert Menendez, of New Jersey. Exhaustion momentarily eased the partisan divide. Claire McCaskill sat down beside Tom Coburn, held up an erect finger in his face, as if casting her Viagra vote, then let it go limp. Coburn could be heard to joke, “The longest it lasted was thirty seconds.”
At two-forty-five in the morning, Reid suddenly declared the Senate adjourned. The Senate parliamentarian had just found two small violations of the reconciliation rules, meaning that in the morning, despite the Democrats’ efforts, the bill would go back to the House for another vote. At the bang of the gavel, the senators fled. In the parking lot, on the Capitol’s northeast side, McCaskill climbed into her S.U.V. Levin, in a cramped sedan, was chauffeured off into the empty streets. On a marble ledge near the exit, Arlen Specter sat alone, a ghost in a brown suit, staring straight ahead, as if waiting for someone to take him away.
The Senate reconvened at 9:45 A.M. Around two in the afternoon, the members gathered for the final vote, and the Democrats were giddy. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, and Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, even exchanged a hug. “Everyone’s tired,” Reid declared before the final vote. “This legislative fight is one for the record books.” He was so fatigued that he initially voted the wrong way. Lindsey Graham came in late, delaying the tally by ten minutes. “Way to go, Lindsey, way to stretch it out,” Sam Brownback told him. A few Republicans lingered and took in the moment, like players on the losing team at the end of the World Series. After a year of work, health-care reform had passed, 56–43, and for a moment the chamber’s Tweeting pygmies had become legislative giants.
The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual—there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.”
Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “You would really need a good hour or two of extensive exchange among folks that really know the issue,” he said. Instead, a senator typically gives “a prepared speech that’s already been vetted through the staff. Then another guy gets up and gives a speech on a completely different subject.” From time to time, senators of the same party carry on a colloquy—“I would be interested in the distinguished senator from Iowa’s view of the other side’s Medicare Advantage plan”—that has been scripted in advance by aides.
While senators are in Washington, their days are scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals: staff meetings, interviews, visits from lobbyists and home-state groups, caucus lunches, committee hearings, briefing books, floor votes, fund-raisers. Each senator sits on three or four committees and even more subcommittees, most of which meet during the same morning hours, which helps explain why committee tables are often nearly empty, and why senators drifting into a hearing can barely sustain a coherent line of questioning. All this activity is crammed into a three-day week, for it’s an unwritten rule of the modern Senate that votes are almost never scheduled for Mondays or Fridays, which allows senators to spend four days away from the capital. Senators now, unlike those of several decades ago, often keep their families in their home states, where they return most weekends, even if it’s to Alaska or Idaho—a concession to endless fund-raising, and to the populist anti-Washington mood of recent years. (When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, in 1995, he told new Republican members not to move their families to the capital.) Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader, said, “When we scheduled votes, the only day where we could be absolutely certain we had all one hundred senators there was Wednesday afternoon.”
Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. In addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party (in the Democrats’ case, from a three-story town house across Constitution Avenue from the Senate office buildings, since they’re barred from using their own offices to raise money). Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”
In June, 2009, top aides to Max Baucus, whose Finance Committee was negotiating the health-care-reform bill, took time to meet with two health-care lobbyists, who themselves were former Baucus aides. (Baucus received more than a million dollars from the industry for his 2008 reëlection campaign.) That month, according to Common Cause, industry groups were spending $1.4 million a day to lobby members of Congress. Udall, speaking of the corrosive effect of fund-raising and lobbying, said, “People know it in their heart—they know this place is dominated by special interests. The over-all bills are not nearly as bold because of the influence of money.”
Daschle sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: “Sometimes, you’re dialling for dollars, you get the call, you’ve got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what’s on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader—you double check—but, just to make triple sure, there’s a little sheet of paper on the clerk’s table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you’ve got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, ‘Why did you vote that way?’—you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don’t have a clue.”
Aides, at the elbows of senators as they shuttle between their offices and the Capitol, have proliferated over the past few decades, and they play a crucial role. Lamar Alexander, who has an office of fifty people, pointed out that staff members, who are younger and often more ideological than their bosses, and less dependent on institutional relationships, tend to push senators toward extremes. Often, aides are the main actors behind proposed legislation—writing bills, negotiating the details—while the senator is relegated to repeating talking points on Fox or MSNBC.
One day in his office, Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies—Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today—all of which emphasize insider conflict. The senators, who like to complain about the trivializing effect of the “24/7 media,” provide no end of fodder for it. The news of the day was what Udall called a “dust-up” between Scott Brown, the freshman Massachusetts Republican, and a staffer for Jim DeMint, the arch-conservative from South Carolina; the staffer had Tweeted that Brown was voting too often with the Democrats, leading Brown to confront DeMint on the Senate floor over this supposed breach of protocol. Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”
Both Alexander and Gregg said that the Senate had been further polarized by the rising number of senators—now nearly fifty—who come from the House, rather than from governorships or other positions where bipartisan coöperation is still permissible. “A lot of senators don’t understand the history or tradition of the institution,” Gregg said. “Substantive, thoughtful, moderate discussion is pushed aside.”
Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party. Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator. (Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”) When I asked Chris Dodd how well he knew, for example, Jim DeMint, Dodd said, “Not at all. Whereas Jesse Helms and I knew each other pretty well.” He repeated something that Jon Kyl, the Republican whip, from Arizona, had recently said to him: “There’s no trust.” Dodd, whose father was a senator, went on, “That’s really all there is—this place really operates on that. I don’t think anyone would argue with that conclusion. And if that’s missing . . . ”
There remains a veneer—badly chipped—of comity. On the floor, senators still refer to members of the opposing party as “friends.” Gregg described Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, as “one of my best friends in the Senate,” and both Gregg and Alexander ticked off examples of little-known legislation that they are currently working on with Democrats; Alexander and Ben Cardin, of Maryland, have introduced a bill to ban mountaintop-removal coal mining. Udall noted that he had become friendly with John McCain when they went on a congressional tour of Iraq. But opportunities to bond are rare. On the first floor of the Capitol, there is a private dining room for senators, the “inner sanctum,” where Republicans and Democrats used to have lunch (at separate tables, but in the same room). In the seventies, old bulls such as James Eastland, Hubert Humphrey, and Jacob Javits held court there; later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan did. “You learned, and also you found out what was going on,” Dodd said, adding, “It’s awfully difficult to say crappy things about someone that you just had lunch with.” These days, the inner sanctum is nearly always empty. Senators eat lunch in their respective caucus rooms with members of their party, or else “downtown,” which means asking donors for money over steak and potatoes at the Monocle or Charlie Palmer. The tradition of the “caucus lunch” was instituted by Republicans in the fifties, when they lost their majority; Democrats, after losing theirs in 1980, followed suit. Caucus lunches work members on both sides into a state of pep-rally fervor. During one recent Republican lunch, Jim Bunning referred to Harry Reid as an idiot. “At least he had the courtesy to do it behind closed doors,” Alexander joked, adding, “We spend most of our time in team meetings deciding what we’re going to do to each other.”
In 2007, Alexander and Lieberman started a series of bipartisan Tuesday breakfasts. “They kind of dwindled off during the health-care debate,” Alexander said. Udall has tried to revive the Wednesday inner-sanctum lunch. For the first few months, only Democrats attended. Then, one Wednesday in May, Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, showed up, joking nervously about being a turncoat; to protect her reputation, her presence was kept secret.
These efforts at resurrecting dead customs are as self-conscious and, probably, as doomed as the get-togethers of lovers who try to stay friends after a breakup. Ira Shapiro, a Washington lawyer and a former aide to Senator Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, put it this way: “Why would they want to have lunch together when they hate each other?”
The upper chamber of Congress was a constitutional compromise between popular sovereignty and state sovereignty. The Senate was designed, as part of the separation of powers, to check the impulses of the House and the popular will. For some Federalists, it also had an aristocratic purpose: to collect knowledge and experience, and to guard against a levelling spirit that might overtake the majority. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Senate, in 1832, he was deeply impressed by the quality of its members: “They represent only the lofty thoughts [of the nation] and the generous instincts animating it, not the petty passions.” But he also recognized that “a minority of the nation dominating the Senate could completely paralyze the will of the majority represented in the other house, and that is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government.” As long as the Senate continued to be composed of America’s most talented statesmen, Tocqueville implied, it would restrain its own anti-democratic potential.
Robert A. Caro, in “Master of the Senate,” the third volume of his life of Lyndon Johnson, argues that after the Civil War the Senate was captured by wealthy and sectional interests, ending a more high-minded age when Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun engaged in brilliant debate. Aside from spasms of legislation at the start of the Presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, Caro writes, the Senate remained controlled by an alliance of Southern racists and Republican corporate shills, and was “the dam against which the waves of social reform dashed themselves in vain—the chief obstructive force in the federal government.” By the fifties, the Senate had become far more conservative than the public. And not just conservative: William S. White, in his 1956 book “Citadel,” called the Senate “to a most peculiar degree, a Southern Institution . . . growing at the heart of this ostensibly national assembly” and “the only place in the country where the South did not lose the war.”
By mid-century, it had become a journalistic cliché to call the Senate broken. Otto Preminger’s 1962 film “Advise and Consent,” based on the novel by Allen Drury, is about the Senate of that period, and it presents Democrats and Republicans as equally amoral, calculating, and power-hungry. But the institution, as depicted by Preminger, still works, in its way: though the deals stink, they get cut. The senators know their colleagues and the rules; they back-stab one another in the lunchroom, then drink cocktails and play cards on Saturday nights. There are no lobbyists, no fund-raisers, no media, no constituents—only senators’ intricate relations with one another. The Senate is its own world.
In a memoir, Johnson’s longtime aide Harry McPherson recalls learning that the Senate’s “famous ‘club’ atmosphere is based on the members’ mutual acceptance of responsibility and concentration on the tasks at hand. . . . They thrust hard at one another in debate over serious matters,” but, he writes, “understanding and accommodation in the ordinary course of the Senate day was essential to sanity.” Johnson, the most powerful Majority Leader in history, bent the Senate to his will and forced it to become more efficient. He saw his colleagues as either “whales”—the heavyweight chairmen who negotiated legislation—or “minnows,” the followers who went along with the brokered deals. And when, in 1958, a formidable new class of liberal Democrats entered the Senate—including Edmund Muskie, Eugene McCarthy, and Philip Hart—the legislative machinery began to produce reform. Michael Janeway, the author of “The Fall of the House of Roosevelt,” worked as a summer staff member between 1958 and 1962. “They used to talk to each other—that’s my most vivid recollection,” he said. “If Wayne Morse talked of constitutional law on the floor, the Southerners would come in to hear him. The same with Hubert Humphrey on farm policy. My strongest impression was of it being a deliberative body, drawing each other out—sometimes pedantically.” Senators who ran for office in order to work on foreign policy, social welfare, or urbanization had to win credibility with the whales. “But if you wanted to do something there was a mechanism by which you could do it,” Janeway said.
In the sixties and seventies, Southern-conservative control was broken by a coalition of left-of-center Democrats and moderate Republicans. Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian, who started working there in 1976, described the Senate of those decades as “a bipartisan liberal institution.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written largely out of the office of the Republican Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen. Every major initiative—voting rights, open housing, environmental law, campaign reform—enjoyed bipartisan support. In the rare event of a filibuster, the motion to end debate was often filed jointly by leaders of both parties. When Medicare—that government takeover of health care for the elderly—was passed, in 1965, it won 70–24.
The Senate’s momentum nurtured superb talent: William Fulbright, Everett Dirksen, Henry Jackson, Frank Church, Howard Baker. In 1969, George McGovern chaired a select committee on hunger that actually held bipartisan “field hearings” in poor regions, calling witnesses in migrant labor camps, and then, with Bob Dole’s indispensable support, greatly expanded the food-stamp program. The intensity of senatorial purpose in those years must strike today’s legislators as profoundly humbling. After Joe Biden came to the Senate, in 1973, Hubert Humphrey took him aside and said, “You have to pick an issue that becomes yours. That’s how you attract your colleagues to follow you, Joe. That’s how you demonstrate your bona fides. Don’t be a gadfly.” Humphrey’s career advice: “You should become Mr. Housing. Housing is the future.”
The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today.” Church, McGovern, Javits, and Birch Bayh were gone. Ira Shapiro, the former aide, who is writing a book about the Senate of the sixties and seventies, said, “It was a huge loss of the most experienced, accomplished senators being replaced by neophytes. All of a sudden, in 1981, more than half the Senate had been there less than six years.” He added, “The shattering of the great Senate has long-term effects that keep showing up. It gets worse over time, but it just never gets restored. There was a phrase I heard from Helms and the younger ones: ‘Others didn’t want to make waves; I wanted to drain the swamp.’ ”
After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing. “So Damn Much Money,” a recent book by the Washington Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser, traces the spectacular rise of Washington lobbying to the same period. Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished. The institutionalist gave way to the free agent, who controlled his own fund-raising apparatus and media presence, and whose electoral base was a patchwork of single-issue groups. Members of both parties—Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat; Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican—took to regularly using the Senate’s rules to tie up business for narrowly ideological reasons. The number of filibusters shot up in the eighties and continued to rise in the following decades, as the parties kept alternating control of the Senate and escalating a procedural arms race, routinely blocking the confirmation of executive and judicial appointees. Democrats filibustered Republican nominees to the bench; then Republicans threatened to ban the filibuster in such cases—the so-called “nuclear option.” Older members were perturbed when, in 2004, the Republican Majority Leader, Bill Frist, went to South Dakota to campaign against the Democratic Minority Leader, Tom Daschle (who went on to lose). A few years earlier, such an action would have been unthinkable.
The weakened institution could no longer withstand pressures from outside its walls; as money and cameras rushed in, independent minds fell more and more in line with the partisans. Rough parity between the two parties meant that every election had the potential to make or break a majority, crushing the incentive to coöperate across the aisle. The Senate, no longer a fount of ideas, became a backwater of the U.S. government. During the Clinton years, the main action was between the White House and the Gingrich House of Representatives; during the Bush years, the Republican Senate majority abdicated the oversight role that could have placed a vital check on executive power.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the Senate has increasingly become populated by “ideologues and charlatans.” He went on, “When we do get good people who come in, they very quickly get ground up by the dynamic and the culture of the parties. And once you get there, look at what it takes to stay there.” He spoke of Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, who, nearing the end of his career, spent much of last year working closely with his friend Max Baucus on the health-care bill. Then, in August, Grassley went home and, faced with angry Republican voters and the prospect of a primary challenge from the right, started warning about “pulling the plug on Grandma.” Ornstein added that similar pressures had led John McCain to begin “altering his behavior and abandoning every issue, including campaign-finance reform.”
One morning in April, I visited Harry McPherson, the former L.B.J. aide, at the offices of the legal and lobbying firm D. L. A. Piper, in downtown Washington. McPherson, who is eighty, had on his desk the firm’s spiral-bound directory for the 111th Congress. I asked him who, in Johnsonian terms, were the whales of the current Senate. McPherson ran his finger down the list of senators. He did it again. “I’m trying here, looking for a remote descendant. Judas Priest, look at this.” He was stumped. “Well, I see some good people, I see some people who are going to get coalitions together over time.” He put the directory aside. “I’m just having the damnedest time.”
Down the hall from McPherson’s office was that of Mel Martinez, a former Republican senator from Florida; he was hired last year, two weeks after resigning his Senate seat without completing his first term. (He has since moved on to JPMorgan Chase.) William Cohen, the former Maine senator and Secretary of Defense, has an office downstairs. Tom Daschle works at D. L. A. Piper; his predecessor as Democratic leader, George Mitchell, was the firm’s chairman, until President Obama appointed him to be his Middle East envoy. One feature of the diminished U.S. senator is the ease with which he moves from legislating to lobbying. Between 1998 and 2004, half the senators who left office became lobbyists. In 2007, Trent Lott, a Republican leader in the Senate less than a year into his fourth term, abruptly resigned and formed a lobbying firm with former Senator John Breaux, just a few weeks before a new law took effect requiring a two-year waiting period between serving and lobbying.