Columns » Jay Barth

Can the U.S. Senate live up to its potential?

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I recently wandered back to "Master of the Senate," the third volume of Robert A. Caro's massive history of Lyndon Johnson. The book, on Johnson's years in the U.S. Senate, highlights the lingering power of the Senate to meet the challenges facing the country and to stand up to existential threats facing American democratic institutions. Considering the national political dynamics as the Trump era arrives, it's important to remind ourselves of the capability of the U.S. Senate — no matter its partisan composition — to live up to its potential at key moments in American history.

Caro's book focuses on Johnson's rise to power in national politics through the lens of the 1957 Civil Rights Act that he shepherded through the body that had fended off civil rights legislation for over three-quarters of a century. As longtime New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in a review of the book: "Wheedling, threatening, stroking large egos, explaining why his goal was essential for the country's good, [LBJ] ran an institution that had never before been run by anyone." While some historians dispute elements of the Johnson portrayed by Caro in his series (and in "Master of the Senate" in particular), undeniably satisfying — and most timely — is the first 100 or so pages of the 1,100-page tome. There, Caro contextualizes LBJ's rise to power by tracing the history of the U.S. Senate, emphasizing its distinctive power tracing back to the Founders (take a look at James Madison's The Federalist No. 62) and the moments of the institution's glory (its refusal to impeach Justice Samuel Chase simply for opinions with which Jeffersonians disagreed, Daniel Webster's soaring rhetoric against Southern colleagues' arguments for nullification and its resistance to Franklin Roosevelt's "court-packing" plan in 1937). Just as important, as Caro argues, such exceptionalism by the Senate is not inevitable: Across many decades an atrophied Senate also failed to use its great power to respond to the economic, social and foreign policy crises facing the nation. Johnson's activation of the Senate — mostly for his own ambitions — marks a moment of the Senate coming to life for the good of the nation.

Ira Shapiro's more recent book, "The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis," serves as something of an extension of Caro's thesis regarding the Senate's potential power for good. Shapiro argues that the Senate of the 1960s and 1970s overcame partisanship to extend the civil rights work begun with the meager 1957 legislation, to create the infrastructure for environmental regulation, and to shift the nation's decades-long policy on China. Even more important, the Senate stood up to the executive branch's overreach and criminality on Vietnam and Watergate, taking its duty of holding the executive accountable seriously on matters large and small. In more recent years, the Senate has retreated into inaction and partisan pettiness. (Shapiro dates it to the early 1980s when "gotcha" votes began being used in political campaigns, procedural rules began being used to stop the work of the body rather than getting things done for the American public, and long weekends away from Washington undermined the socializing that allowed problems to be solved across partisan divides).

The Trump era creates a new test for the Senate. As Caro writes, "... America's Founding Fathers had created the Senate ... to stand against the President and the people, to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority." Despite his electoral success across the majority of states, relatively few Republican senators owe their seats to Trump's popularity. Moreover, his disparagement of GOP leaders such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham means that they are further liberated from Trump and his agenda. In the lead-up to Trump's inauguration next week, there are both positive and negative signals about the Senate's playing its distinctive constitutional role. The assertiveness of senators from both parties during last week's initial hearings into the role of the Russian government in attempting to impact the 2016 elections and the responsible action by a significant chunk of senators to demand a replacement for the Affordable Care Act before "repeal" of Obamacare occurs provide great promise. On the other hand, the refusal of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (a poster child of the more petty partisan modern era of the Senate) to slow down hearings on Cabinet appointees until traditional ethics investigations are completed bodes ill.

For the future of democracy, America needs the Senate to be at its best in the months and years ahead.

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