Monday, October 12, 2009

The Lost Senate

David Rogers published a very interesting article on Politico last Friday, about the manner in which the U.S. Senate has changed over the past few decades.

I'm always skeptical of what I think of as the "good old days" view of history. It's clear that the Senate has changed, but I don't know that, on balance, that can be described as a loss. Rogers acknowledges that, during the period in question, the Senate has stopped upholding legal racial segregation, and its own membership has been opened up to ethnic minorities and to women, but his headline, and the general tone of his article, both indicate disapproval of most of the changes.

As I see it, this all relates to one of the most difficult questions in a representative democracy: to what degree should elected representatives act according to the opinions of their constituents, as opposed to what the representatives themselves think is right?

While some of the trends involve senators talking mainly to members of their own party, and former House members forming a clique separate from senators with other types of experience, a lot of the criticism involves senators spending more time in their home states, that formerly would have been spent in Washington with their Senate colleagues.

Both types of contact are important, and I think senators should strike a balance between the two. They're not automatons sent to vote according to results of public opinion polls in their states. But, if their only political conversations are with fellow senators, they'll lose contact with their constituents, which is not healthy for both the functioning of our democracy and their own reelection prospects.

Howard Baker is quoted as relating technological changes to the evolution of the Senate. While air conditioning has led to longer annual sessions, cheaper and easier air travel has prompted more members to leave town on (long) weekends. Television, which has covered Senate sessions since 1986, has affected the nature of Senate debate. One of the more subtle changes has involved the necessity for brighter lighting in the Senate Chamber, which some contend has had a significant effect on interpersonal relations among the members.

Rogers cites the number of states with one Democratic and one Republican senator, as an indicator of the degree of partisanship in the Senate. Currently, 12 states have such a split delegation, with 24 states being represented by two Democrats, and 14 others having two Republican senators. He compares those numbers to those of 30 years ago, when 27 states were split, with only 16 having two Democratic senators, and a mere seven being represented by two Republicans.

Rogers leaves the impression that there is a long-term trend in that direction. But let's go back further, to 1959, when Lyndon Johnson, as majority leader, ran the Senate in the heyday of the Senate as a Club. The numbers then were roughly comparable to the current situation: 15 split delegations, 25 with two Democrats, and 10 with two Republicans.

I suggest that 1979 was an anomaly, representing a point when northeastern states were in transition from Republican dominance to Democratic, and vice versa for the southeast. Rather than there being more red states and blue states than previously existed, the change involves switching formerly blue southern states to red, and red northern states to blue.

The major American parties are more ideologically aligned than they were in 1979 or 1959. I don't have a root cause in mind, that I can cite for that. But call it the Arlen Specter/Strom Thurmond effect, i.e., less conservative Republicans in the northeast switching to the Democratic Party, and conservative southerners becoming Republicans.

I can see how that makes it more difficult for senators to reach across party lines, and to compromise with those across the aisle.

Rogers offers a very plausible analysis of one of the most significant recent trends in the Senate, that being the increased use of the filibuster tactic. It may have been the closer personal relationships among senators that formerly caused them to limit the use of the filibuster to occasional issues on which they felt particularly strongly. Now, with less such inhibition, a minority leader is more likely to reason that, whenever he can block the majority party's legislation with 41 votes (i.e., enough to block a cloture motion that would allow a vote on such a bill) he will do so.

Rogers quotes the current incumbent in that job, Mitch McConnell, as acknowledging that point of view regarding filibusters. Speaking of his ability to block legislation in that manner, McConnell said "I like it". Democratic minority leaders, during the periods of Republican control before 2007, had a similar attitude.

For those of us with libertarian leanings, what has, in effect, become a supermajority requirement is not such a bad thing.

To sum up, yes there needs to be a degree of comity between the parties, to be able to reach necessary compromises, and simply to run the Senate from day to day. But the following elements of the changed Senate have a lot to be said for them:

  • Greater diversity among Senate membership.
  • More contact with constituents, via television and increased home-state travel.
  • Increased need for supermajorities to pass legislation.
  • Greater responsibility to the rank and file of one's party, as opposed to one's elite friends within the Senate.

1 comment:

Terry L. Johnson said...


I often wonder about how things which are un-related make such a significant impact. In your blog you mention the impact of air conditioning, lighting and travel as being potential issues impacting the change of political discourse.

I can well imagine former times where social pressures on the individuals would have created pressures on the Senators. The social pressures of working closely together in uncomfortable spaces tends to bond individuals: I recall my work in the US Navy as being often uncomfortable, yet I remain close to those I worked with 25+ years ago.

That air conditioning and low-cost travel could be the cause of partisanship is a theme worthy of additional consideration.