Believe It Or Not, US Senate Was Once Where the Action Was, and Where the People’s Business Was Accomplished

To my high school friend Bruce Johnson: How TRULY WEIRD young people today would think our interest in and obsession as teenagers in the US Senate was, competing to see who could name the most senators and reading the Congressional Record, and going to Washington to sit in on Senate debates, as a form of entertainment, for crying out loud. My teenage son already thinks I’m a weird, nerdy guy. If I confessed this, his suspicion would be confirmed.

Even I, in retrospect, find our teenage interest in the Senate rather amazing, given how far it has fallen in public esteem. In contemporary times, the Senate seems to accomplish almost nothing, to be a place of hyper-partisanship and soporific speeches, a nursing home for cranky windbags like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid. I don’t have much affection or fascination for either one of these bland characters. I got bored and extremely frustrated with Congress as a reporter covering health care 1988-94, when I drowned in speeches, words and papers that went nowhere, nada, accomplished nothing.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is set to open in March 2015, with the idea of rekindling public interest in the Senate as “the greatest deliberative body in the world,” as it was once called. Good luck with that! It seems that cultural as well as procedural changes make the task extremely daunting.

In sharp contrast, the Senate from about 1958 to about 1980 was filled with heroes doing heroic things — ending American apartheid by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring racial discrimination in housing rentals and sales, protecting consumers and passing consumer rights legislation, passing the Clean Air Act, cleaning up rivers, regulating pollution, reforming immigration so that it’s a family-based system rather than a racist system, tackling great big issues like poverty and hunger in the richest country in the world, halting the Vietnam War when the president wouldn’t, and then, investigating and finding the truth, in the most bipartisan fashion, about a powerful president’s deceit, and bringing him down, forcing Nixon to resign.

I first visited the Senate during the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when my mother tried to pigeon-hole Senators Ervin and Jordan, to tell them to vote for the CRA. Citizens could just walk into the Capitol, see the faces of our representatives and pigeon-hole them. My mother, sister and I almost literally ran into Republican minority leader Everett Dirkson, who was charming, as he explained his support for the Civl Rights Act. Next I remember going in 1970, and watched a dramatic hearing where Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy had a verbal boxing match over consumer rights with consumer advocates Ralph Nader and Nicholas Johnson. Back again later to watch debates over the McGovern-Hatfield amendment to end the war in Vietnam, and to attend the Watergate hearings that were instrumental in determing “what the president knew and when did he know it,” in the famous words of Howard Baker, Republican senator from Tennessee. The Senate was where the action was, political theater at its best.

In a college political science class, I read a book called “The Dance of Legislation,” by Eric Redman, which traced the drafting and passing of a single piece of relatively uncontroversial health legislation, with all the maneuvering, frustrations and triumphs involved over the year it took to pass the bill into law. It read like a suspense novel, but it described an institution and a process that ultimately worked pretty well and served the American people. I was so inspired I wanted to observe, and possibly even participate in the process up close.

Then, when I became a journalist and got my own chance to cover and hang out in Congress in the 1980s and 1990s, I was deeply disappointed. I will tell some of those stories on this blog later. But suffice to say, the book “Running in Place,” by James Miller, a former aide to Baker in the 1980s, summed it up well. He described the Senate as “bloated, overburdened, and increasingly polarized,” in which members were mainly self-serving publicity seekers, who spent far too much of their time raising money for, and focusing on, re-election.  And that was 30 years ago. As everyone knows, the process has gotten much worse.

Perhaps the opening of the Edward Kennedy Institute will be an opportunity for national discussion on what has ruined the Senate, how to reform it, and if it can actually become, once again, “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”

It could certainly teach or model to the nation how to have debates respectfully, without being rancorous. I can remember when the Senate chamber was actually a place of persuasion. But with the TV cameras present today, if any Democrat or any Republican admitted to being persuaded by a better argument from the opposition party, he would be ridiculed and cast out of his political party.

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