Joel K. Goldstein: Review of Ira Shapiro's "The Last Great Senate" (Public Affairs, 2012)





Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at the Saint Louis University School of Law.  He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution and other works about the presidency, vice presidency and constitutional law.

These are terrible times for the United States Congress. In six separate polls during January, 2012, its approval ranged from 11 to 13 percent, with disapproval ratings of 79 to 86 percent.  Fidel Castro, Hugh Chavez and the prospect of America becoming communist have comparable recent approval scores. Richard M. Nixon was about twice as popular during Watergate.  Congress’ recent conduct has produced these embarrassing scores and expectations for the near future are low.

It wasn’t always this way, especially not with respect to the United States Senate. That’s the message of Ira Shapiro’s fascinating new book, The Last Great Senate (Public Affairs, 2012), which portrays the Senate from the early 1960s to 1981 with particular focus on its last four years during the Carter presidency (1977 to 1981). Shapiro draws on insights (and anecdotes) from his dozen years as a staffer to senators of both parties to produce this inside, yet scholarly, account.

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, Lugar, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Paul Sarbanes, and Alan Simpson were promising newcomers.

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.

Senators felt strong institutional loyalty and they operated in a culture which encouraged collaborative behavior. Most recognized compromise as a virtuous way to advance the nation’s interest. Senators often modeled fair and civil discourse. In September 1979, Danforth expressed concern that his party’s “incessant drumbeat of criticism” impaired Carter’s ability to do his job. When Gary Hart faced a tough re-election campaign, Goldwater went to Colorado and gave an interview in which he praised the Democrat’s integrity.

Such conduct is unimaginable today, with partisan advantage dictating much political behavior. What has gone wrong? Shapiro contends that the turning point came in the 1980 election which “shattered the Great Senate.” It replaced the likes of Bayh, Church, Javits, Magnuson, McGovern and Nelson with a group whose most distinguished and able member was Dan Quayle. Shapiro argues that “today’s fractured and ineffective Senate is the product of the continuous, relentless movement of the Republican Party further and further to the right” compounded by its intense partisanship and a willingness to “obstruct the legislative process and the operation of government by whatever means possible.”

To be sure, Shapiro’s last, great Senate included many very formidable political figures whose public service shines in comparison to their contemporary successors. Yet they operated in a political culture which encouraged good behavior. Re-election campaigns cost modest, not staggering, sums of money and occupied part of one year, not most of six. Senators could accordingly devote most of their terms to being senators, not dialing for dollars or pandering to powerful interests. In a world which still included moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, ideological orthodoxy was not required to prevent a primary challenge. The middle of the road was a safe place for partisans on both sides to meet, and the Senate’s culture beckoned them there to find, rather than obstruct, bipartisan solutions.

Recapturing those glory years will surely require attention to systemic problems such as the polarization of our politics, the distortions of constant campaigning, the demands of a continuous news cycle, and the corrosive influence of money in politics. It also will require able public servants, like those in Shapiro’s last great Senate, who are committed to recreating a healthier political culture to advance the national interest. And, perhaps most of all,  it will depend upon a citizenry which not only wants better performance from Congress, but is sufficiently informed and sophisticated to reward good political behavior.

The Last Great Senate provides an alluring account of a functional Senate. Citizens might profitably read it to appreciate that ideal, and then send their copy to their senators to suggest models for better behavior. Those might be first steps to shaping the next great Senate.


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