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Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington

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Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

So far, obstruction is winning. The Monday before Vote-o-Rama, the Banking Committee declined a chance to form a bi-partisan deal to reform Wall Street, a decision that Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, called “a major strategic error.” Wall Street reform may still squeak through. But Kyl put the odds of passing legislation on climate change and immigration reform, Obama’s other top priorities, at “almost zero.” (This was before Obama gave the nod to offshore drilling, to be fair. But still.) I asked McCain how the bi-partisan agreement on immigration had fallen apart, seeing that he and Ted Kennedy had worked so hard on this issue. “The Democrats won’t accept a temporary legal-worker program!” he said, as he went to vote for the umpteenth time. “The unions are opposed!”

Which suggests that the two parties are more inclined to bicker at this point than get along, all at a moment of huge popular discontent. During Vote-o-Rama, even senators with histories of bi-partisanship were playing an enthusiastic role in the obstructionist theatrics. I asked Bob Bennett, a mild-mannered older Republican from Utah whose father had also served in the chamber, why that was the case. He was offering one of the more lurid amendments—a provision that would force the residents of D.C. to define marriage—but at least I understood why: He too is facing several challenges from the tea-party right back home. But how could he explain the participation in this cynical orgy by his nonvulnerable colleagues?

“Well, there are people who enjoy the game,” he said. “And people who enjoy the game get in the game.”

But the Senate is supposed to be above the game, I tell him, at least in the election off-season. Richard Russell, the legendary Democrat from Georgia, had a saying—

“I know,” he said. “My father used to quote it: ‘The Senate allows you two years as a statesman, two years as a politician, and two years as a demagogue.’ ” He gave me a wistful look right then, and proceeded to say exactly what I’d been thinking. “And that’s actually changed. You’re now a demagogue the full six years.”

In the opening pages of Master of the Senate, Robert Caro elegantly explains what the framers had originally designed the upper chamber of Congress to be. First, and most famously, the Senate was meant to check executive power; but second—and equally important—it was meant to hover above the populist rabble, or, in James Madison’s words, “to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” Let the House members be ambassadors of those transient impressions; the Senate’s job was to provide intellectual stability and continuity. That’s why the minimum age of a senator is older than that of a House member (30 versus 25), and one of the reasons the Senate is so much smaller: to guard against “intemperate and pernicious resolutions” of “factious leaders.” That’s why only one third of the Senate is up for reelection at a time, and why senators’ terms are longer than the president’s: to protect against “mutable policy,” to “hold their offices for a term sufficient to insure their independency.”

But if you look at the Senate of today, all of those structural differences pretty much amount to nothing. The Senate has capitulated entirely to popular sentiment, or (in Madison’s words again) “popular fluctuations.” Just look at that tea-party-inspired amendment spree, or the senators’ repeated declarations that health-care reform ought not to pass because polls showed that people were against it. The institution is plenty “factious” and “intemperate”: A number of Democrats I spoke to noted that they couldn’t remember a single Republican on the floor when Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, made his farewell speech, in 2004. And those six-year terms aren’t exactly providing much intellectual stability. How could they, when a contentious Senate race—Daschle’s, for instance—can cost upwards of $20 million, forcing senators to chase money hour to hour, month to month, year to year?

The Senate, in short, has become another House of Representatives. In fact, almost half of today’s Senate—49 percent—is made up of former House members (as opposed to 1993, say, when the number was 34). During health-care week, it was the House that tuned out the polls and the Senate that went into partisan overdrive—pouring forth talk-radio cant, shutting down government (right out of Newt’s playbook), and pinning as many amendments onto this donkey as was legislatively possible, all in an effort to beat back a bill that, like a common bill in the House, required just a bare majority vote.

This is a potential recipe for pandemonium. The same Senate rules that were designed to check populist passions can, when adopted by passionate populists, turn the place into a governing body of 100 autocrats. Today, the four GOP senators most renowned for holding up legislation—DeMint, Coburn, David Vitter, and Jim Bunning—all came from the House. Its folkways are very different. Members in the dominant party don’t have to reach across the aisle to pass legislation, because a simple majority can steamroll the opposition. The place is so big members seldom bother to get to know everyone. Toward the end of his career, Alan Simpson, the retired Republican senator from Wyoming with a renowned penchant for pungent epithets, remembers some of the freshman senators, former House members, being stunned when he mentioned that he’d had conversations with Ted Kennedy. “They’d say, ‘You talk to him?’ ” he says. “And I’d say, ‘I work with him. He’s never broken his word.’ And they’d look at me like I’d gone commie.”


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