Byrd's-Eye View

The Senate used to be a place where members argued eloquently -- and at length -- about important issues. Not anymore, according to the man who wrote the chamber's four-volume history.

“I've never seen a time as partisanly political as the age in which we live,” Senator Robert Byrd told me on October 6 as he was promoting his book, Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. “Congress, it seems, is governed by the theme we've got to win. The whole thing is built around winning, not around great service, not around great debates.”

Byrd, who has served in Congress for 51 years and in the Senate for 46 of those years, went on: “Here in the Senate, I see a falling away from debates, and I'm so concerned about this. I've never seen the Senate so mute, so timid, so silent when the greatest issue of all, the issue of war and peace, was before the Senate. I've never been ashamed of the Senate until that time. We failed the people, we failed to ask questions, but we're not alone in that. The American people didn't ask questions, either, nor did the press. I'm so sorry to have come to a point in my lifetime when the Senate is afraid to debate, is intimidated.”

In a closely divided Senate, Republicans believe they have to toe the president's party line; any questioning of President Bush's positions could wind up in their being labeled disloyal. A few GOP senators, including Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, have started making noises recently about the situation in Iraq. But in a campaign year, it's a rare Republican senator who is willing to put principle above party. (And neither Lugar nor Hagel is up for reelection next month.)

“We're just no longer a debating forum,” Byrd continued. Of the Senate's discussion on the intelligence reform bill that passed overwhelmingly on October 6, he added: “It seems that the leaders were saying, ‘We've had enough debate, let's get on, finish this bill.' I've never thought I'd ever see the day when the leadership would say, in essence, we've had enough debate, get on with the voting. The business now is hurry, hurry, hurry. Don't debate, just vote.”

Part of the reason for the rushed schedule is because the Senate was simply out of time. With just a few weeks left until Election Day, members were anxious to get out of Washington and hit the campaign trail. (Good thing that earlier this year they debated bills they knew wouldn't become law, such as the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. That was time well spent.)

But it's also because there's little time for dissent if there's little time for debate. If senators needed a sign that the “hurry-up-and-vote” mentality is faulty, it came in the report released earlier this month that showed Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. If the Senate had debated the issue a little more and tried to ask some tough and thoughtful questions -- rather than just acceding to the president's rushed timetable -- there's a chance senators would have recognized the war to be unnecessary.

Senators are supposed to be among America's leaders, after all. Republican senators need to realize that they're serving in an independent, co-equal branch of government that has the right -- and responsibility -- to demand answers from the White House. If they want to serve the president's agenda blindly, they should quit their jobs and go work for the administration.

Yet it's unlikely that the theme of win-at-all-costs is going to go away anytime soon. Republicans, particularly this president, have made it their mantra. He's found willing accomplices on Capitol Hill who have ample reason to go along with his plans: They look like good, conservative Republicans and voters send them back to Washington.

“I hope we have a new party in control of the Senate next year and a new president in the White House next year,” Byrd concluded. “That would make a big difference. We've got to do that to save this country. One more term of this outfit that's in the White House and we'll be gone, broken. The country will be bankrupt and Lord help us if we have George Bush again.”

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week.