Earlier this week, as the United States Senate went through the motions of debating Elena Kagan’s nomination to a Supreme Court seat that almost certainly will be hers, readers of the New Yorker across the country could review journalist George Packer’s masterful article “The Empty Chamber,” tracing the decline and fall of that same Senate.
Packer shares with thousands of citizens what every reporter who covers the Capitol knows: that the public disdain for Congress, measured in record low approval scores in polls, is mirrored by the frustration of the members of both parties who have to serve and bear the scorn.
I heard it over lunch one day last week from a conservative Republican senator with three years of seniority. He was bitterly disappointed that he did not find the collegial, challenging body that his predecessor had described to him – or the cross-party friendship that Vice President Joe Biden had told him he once enjoyed in his travels with a Republican counterpart from the senator’s own state. Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its current low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate.
The Senate was designed not as a representative, small-d democratic body but as a deliberately minuscule assemblage, capable of taking up the most serious national challenges and dealing with them appropriately, because of the perspective and insulation provided by its lengthy terms and diverse constituencies. Its best leaders have been men who were capable, at least on occasion, of rising above partisanship or parochial interest and summoning the will to tackle overriding challenges in a way that almost shamed their colleagues out of their small-mindedness.
Many forces – from the money chase to the party realignments to the intrusiveness of 24-hour media – have weakened the institutional bonds of that Senate. But it is the absence of the ethic embodied and enforced by its leaders that is most crippling. In the end, Packer reports, “the two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances – a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic president with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis – that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon.”
Two days after the passage of financial reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threw in the towel on energy legislation. “And so,” Packer said, “climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing.”
Is this too harsh? Regrettably, no. What gives me hope is that so many of the younger members of the Senate in both parties are giving voice to the frustration they feel with what the Senate has become. If their ranks are reinforced by this November’s election, and if they start talking to each other and realize how widely shared their feelings of dissatisfaction are, perhaps the change could bubble up from within. But it would be so much easier if there were leaders ready to lead. And the danger is that if this doesn’t happen soon, no one in the Senate may remember what it has been at its best.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.