Julian E. Zelizer: Running the Senate ain't easy





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, “Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security — From World War II to the War on Terrorism,” will be published by Basic Books in December.]

In recent months, many commentators have been critical of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). After Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, Reid failed to persuade Republicans who were unhappy with Iraq to join Democrats in legislating an end to the war. After 2008, Reid has had trouble finding common ground between left and center.

The health care debate has dragged on for much longer than the White House hoped. This week, Reid called for a public option just weeks after indicating that the legislation was unlikely to contain such a provision. He made this announcement before having secured the 60 votes that will be necessary to end a filibuster.

Critics lament that Reid is no Lyndon B. Johnson or Mike Mansfield, two Democrats who served as Senate majority leaders (Johnson from 1955 to 1961, and Mansfield from 1961 to 1976). Reid does not seem to have their legendary ability to find compromise within an institution that is notorious for ego-driven decision making. Johnson was able to famously cajole, intimidate and sometimes seduce his colleagues throughout the 1950s, making gradual progress on issues like civil rights. Mansfield was mild-mannered and unassuming, a stark contrast to Johnson but a politician who found ways to bring his party together through subtle persuasion.

But some of the criticism about Reid focuses too much on the man and not enough on the institution. The Senate is never an easy place to govern. During Johnson’s days as majority leader, liberals frequently complained about how much trouble he had controlling the Southern barons who dominated the major committees. When Johnson settled for a watered-down civil rights bill in 1957, many liberals expressed their deep frustration with his inability to move progressive legislation through the chamber.

Mansfield won more praise for helping to pass a much bigger legislative agenda, but he, too, came under fire by the early 1970s for having allowed Southerners to retain too much power and for failing to stop the war in Vietnam. Younger Democrats pushed for reforms in the 1970s to improve the Senate — efforts Mansfield supported. Reforms opened committee hearings to the public and weakened committee leaders. In 1975, liberals were able to lower the number of senators needed to end a filibuster from two-thirds (67) to three-fifths (60) of the chamber.

What reformers didn’t expect was that the Senate would become even more difficult to govern during the next few decades. The first change that made conditions worse was the rampant use of the filibuster. For most of the Senate’s history, filibusters had been reserved for a few high-profile issues such as civil rights. When dealing with most legislation, a Senate majority was sufficient for success...


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