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‘The Last Great Senate’: When the U.S. Senate worked

I’m impressed with St. Louis University Law Prof. Joel Goldstein’s review of “The Last Great Senate” by Ira Shapiro.

I suppose we always have to guard against the sentimentality of Golden Age-ism and the belief that things were better when we were young.

But I’m impressed with St. Louis University Law Prof. Joel Goldstein’s review of “The Last Great Senate” by Ira Shapiro. Shapiro worked on the staff of several senators — of both parties, mind you — in the late 1970s. In his book, Shapiro argues that as recently as the ’70s, senators kept partisanship and and their own political ambitions into a more reasonable balance with such old virtues as fair compromise and the national interest.

From Goldstein’s excellent review of “Last Great Senate” on the History News Network site:

“Shapiro depicts a Senate consisting of able public servants from both major parties who legislated on a bipartisan basis to serve the national interest. Howard Baker, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Byrd, Frank Church, Bob Dole, Tom Eagleton, Barry Goldwater, Ernest Hollings, Henry Jackson, Jacob Javits, Edward M. Kennedy, Russell Long, Warren Magnuson, George McGovern, Charles Mathias, Edmund S. Muskie, Gaylord Nelson, James Pearson, and Abe Ribicoff were among its principal figures. Joe Biden, Bill Bradley, John Danforth, Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Paul Sarbanes, and Alan Simpson were promising newcomers.

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“Many had national ambitions and talents worthy of those aspirations. Yet they routinely sought to identify and advance the national interest rather than personal ambitions or partisan agendas. Thus, Shapiro writes of Republican Baker helping Carter win ratification of the Panama Canal treaties even though those agreements were wildly unpopular with the Republican base to which Baker would have to appeal when he sought his party’s presidential nomination. Or Church leading that particular fight even though his staff had told him his role might cost him his seat.  Or Eagleton giving the decisive speech urging the expulsion of fellow liberal Harrison Williams, who had been caught in the Abscam sting operation, even though a Republican governor of New Jersey would appoint his successor.  Or Lugar, then one of the more conservative members of the Senate, crafting the compromise that led to the bailout to save New York City. Or Bayh who accepted a treacherous assignment to chair the investigation into Billy Carter’s connections to Libya when Bayh faced a tough re-election race. 

“The Senate of 1977-1981 advanced important legislation.  It approved the Panama Canal treaties and passed important measures—the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, loan guarantees to New York City, the Chrysler bailout, establishment of Inspector Generals in executive departments, deregulating energy, authorizing arms sales to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, conserving Alaska land, and so on.

“Controversial measures passed or failed on a bipartisan basis.  The 53 senators who supported loan guarantees to New York City included 35 Democrats and 18 Republicans, and 53 votes, not 60, were generally enough to act. Successful filibusters were rare, and when they occurred they were sustained by a bipartisan group, as occurred with Hatch’s filibuster to kill labor law reform.”

It should be noted that bipartisanship was a lot more imaginable in that Senate, because the two parties were much less ideologically coherent. New York’s Jacob Javits was a raging liberal who happened to be a Republican. In today’s world, he would have to be a Democrat or move pretty far to the right to be acceptable to the Republican base. There were still southern Democrats who were among the most conservative members of the Senate on many issues. In theory, it should be a good thing when parties become more coherent and party labels actually mean something. In practice, recent experience tells us, it can be stifling in an era of divided government.