Once, the Senate really worked
by Marc Johnson
Sen. Henry M. Jackson
Given today’s persistent gridlock in Congress, it’s easy to forget that the United States Senate was once a place where bipartisan lawmaking actually occurred on a fairly regular basis, and not that long ago.
A fine new book by Ira Shapiro, The Last Great Senate, remembers a Senate full of great and gifted legislators, including Washington state’s Scoop Jackson. Shapiro, a former trade official in the Clinton Administration and Senate staffer, makes a compelling case that the U.S. Senate in the 1960s and 1970s was a great place. A roll call of the great ones of that period, Scoop included, reads like a roster of some of the institution’s very best.
Mansfield from Montana, Baker from Tennessee, Church from Idaho, and Hatfield from Oregon. And there were more, Javits of New York, Rudman of New Hampshire, Byrd of West Virginia, Cooper of Kentucky, and Case of New Jersey. Most are lost to memory now, but the Senate they occupied was a far different place than today’s where party leaders seem only to traffic in partisan sound bites and elbow each other for each day’s tactical political advantage.
Writing last week in The Seattle Times, Shapiro remembered Scoop as a fully formed, well informed, and well-intentioned senator. “Jackson was also a master legislator,” Shapiro wrote, “able to reach principled compromises to further the national interest. During the late 1970s, as energy dependence became a central concern for America, Jackson was the chairman of the newly formed Senate Energy Committee. Jackson loathed President Jimmy Carter (the feeling was mutual), who had defeated him for the Democratic nomination in 1976. Jackson doubted Carter’s readiness to be president and also disagreed with the thrust of his energy proposals, believing them to be too generous to the oil and gas industries.
“Yet, despite all these factors, and even while leading the fight against Carter’s effort to negotiate the SALT II arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, Jackson worked tirelessly for three long years to produce a national energy policy. He respected the presidency, if not the president, and saw the need to forge compromises between consumer and producer interests, and the various regions of our country.”
Talk privately to any thinking member of Congress and they will tell you that the country faces serious challenges that aren’t difficult to identify. We must gain control of fiscal policy. The tax code is a mess and must be reformed for reasons of both fairness and increased revenue. We face serious competitive issues that are only met by world-class trade, education, and infrastructure investment. Immigration policy must be re-structured and (brace yourselves) even gun violence in America must be addressed.
The problems are readily apparent. What is failing is our institutions, beginning with the federal legislature and particularly the United States Senate. Gone is the sense that a six-year Senate term gives 100 elite Americans a license to operate just a little above the partisan hustle. For the better part of three decades, as Shapiro’s must-read book makes clear, many of the nation’s most pressing problems have gone begging, while the Senate has fallen into a frozen, partisan swamp of inaction.
It would be comforting to think that the institution can reform itself from within and regain some of its historic luster, but in today’s Twitter-infused partisanship that is probably asking too much. The fault, dear friends is not in the Senate, really, but in ourselves. We settle for gridlock rather than demand a Senate of Scoop Jacksons.