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Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington

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As she’s speaking, I realize something about the Gang of Six. They came from Maine, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and New Mexico—all states with tiny populations. They probably have a better sense of retail politics, an instinct for the hands-on, gritty business of building consensus and getting things done. But more important, senators from small states generally spend less time fund-raising, which means they may even have time, as Snowe would say, to “actually legislate.”

The common rap on the Senate is that it’s a club. And once upon a time, that was certainly true, and some of the reasons for it were ugly. As Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, notes: “Old-timers say there was more comity back in their day. Well, yeah, because there were a lot more white guys running everything together.”

But truth be told, the Senate would function a hell of a lot better if it were a club—not in terms of exclusivity, of course, but sensibility. Clubs generate their own morale and sense of fealty. In the words of Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who’s now the third-longest-serving senator in the body, more people from his generational cohort “put the Senate first.”

The metaphor for today’s Senate isn’t a club, but an airport lounge. This isn’t only because senators are overscheduled. It’s because so few of them enter the institution with plans to spend a lifetime there. With an insatiable family of 24-hour news networks following their every move, new politicians now use the Senate as a launching pad for a higher form of celebrity—often the presidency—rather than view it as a place to master the art of policy-making and die with their boots on. (Think of the three main Democratic presidential contenders in 2008: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards had each barely been in the Senate before declaring their candidacies.)

The prestige of the Senate has also eroded. This may in part be the effect of C-Span and other forms of transparency, which have demystified the place. It may in part be a reflection of the times: Few of us stay in the same jobs our whole lives, even senators. (Tester, for instance, told me he’s always planned to return to his farm, and it’ll be much easier now: “Before I had this job, I couldn’t afford health care.”) But it’s also because of the giant wave of Republicans elected to Congress in 1994, who came of age during the Reagan era, believing government was the problem. They ran on a platform of term limits, which implicitly denigrated the value of public service, and they made a fetish of returning each weekend to their home states and not keeping their families in D.C. Now all senators are expected to lead a peripatetic life, despite the exhausting commutes this may require.

Consider Democrat Ron Wyden, who in a recent interview mentioned five town meetings he’d held in the eastern part of Oregon, all in one weekend. To make it back to D.C. on time, he had to drive from Hermiston, Oregon, to Pasco, Washington, and then take a small plane to Seattle in order to catch a red-eye to Dulles Airport. Now, no doubt the trip was valuable. But Wyden’s also an old-fashioned legislator, which by definition requires intensive interaction with colleagues. Three years ago, he and Bennett introduced a serious bi-partisan bill to reform health care; just a few weeks ago, he and Gregg introduced a tax-reform measure. These efforts require a certain level of comfort with colleagues. How can you develop that comfort if you’re never around?

“It’s much easier to write a bi-partisan bill with a friend,” says Pete Domenici, the retired Republican senator from New Mexico. “The problem is that it’s harder to develop friendly, lasting relationships in the Senate today.”

Much of today’s Senate is new—one third of the Democrats were elected or appointed in the last two cycles, for instance—which means that close relationships are bound to be rarer. But most veterans of the institution say the contemporary Senate conspires against them. Senators almost never have one another over to their homes anymore. The Senate dining room is usually empty, because members are triple-scheduled with meetings during lunchtime and fund-raisers at night. “And that really is a shame,” says Leahy, who remembers the days when senators would reach over one another to taste each other’s food. “Even if you’d been fighting like mad on the floor an hour before, you’d suddenly remember, ‘Say, your kid applied to Dartmouth—did he ever get in?’ ” Before the advent of C-Span, the Senate floor used to be a place where lawmakers mingled and engaged in genuine debate, and junior senators would race to get there, simply for the sake of hearing an eloquent speech. “Like Russell Long—he would occasionally have a drink before he made one,” says Cochran. “His voice would rise about an octave over normal, and you’d think, Oh, Russell’s getting wound up now.” He marvels at this idea for a moment. “People sat and really listened to someone like that. It was part of your Senate education.” Then he’s silent. We’re on the phone, and I realize he’s looking at his television set. “Of course, there’s no one on the floor now.”


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