The Truth About The Senate

The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate by Lewis L. Gould (Basic Books, 416 pages, $27.50)

During last spring's fight over the proposed “nuclear option” banning judicial filibusters, it was slightly troubling to hear the Democrats' repeated paeans to the sacred majesty of the Senate and its anti-majoritarian features such as the filibuster. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Harry Reid praised the filibuster for “preserv[ing] our limited government” -- an accurate claim that could be extended to the whole institution. After all, the procedures and structures that make the upper chamber “the world's greatest deliberative body” render it a forbiddingly sluggish lawmaking body. But that sluggishness has hardly been an entirely positive force, especially for the progress of American liberalism.

In the introduction to his new history of the modern Senate, Lewis L. Gould describes having begun his research “with the belief that the upper house had compiled a record that, with some notable exceptions, brought enduring credit on the institution,” only to become “somewhat disillusioned” upon further study. Too often, he writes, the Senate has “genuinely impede[d] the nation's vitality and evolution.” By the time we reach the book's unremittingly grim conclusion, we are told that the upper house is “an enemy of effective governance,” and that shrinking its role to something closer to the British House of Lords might result in better lawmaking.

The negative cast of Gould's account here is striking, but his pessimism is both warranted and persuasively expressed. It's difficult to come away from reading this breezy and engaging survey without being impressed by the Senate's historic role, not just as a “cooling saucer” for legislation but as a bottleneck stifling popular and necessary government action. In our current, dire political moment, of course, many liberals have discovered a new appreciation for the obstructive potential of the Senate, as it serves as a moderating influence on the hard-right policies pushed by the GOP House majority and the president. But Gould complicates the picture by reminding us that the Senate has usually given liberals more grief than cause for celebration.

A history of the upper chamber from Teddy Roosevelt's presidency to George W. Bush's re-election, The Most Exclusive Club focuses primarily on the institutional role that the Senate has filled in the American system. Along the way, Gould manages to poke holes in the inflated historical reputations of some of the chamber's most famous figures while reviving the names of others who left a lasting institutional legacy.

These revisionist evaluations probably constitute the book's most valuable contribution to Senate scholarship. While emphasizing figures who helped institutionalize both the tactics of obstruction and the clubby atmosphere that so characterize the body, Gould also singles out senators who managed effectively (if temporarily) to wrest sustained action from the chamber despite its overwhelming tendency toward stasis.

He argues, for example, that the Progressive Era reforms of Woodrow Wilson's first term can largely be laid on the shoulders of a now-forgotten single-term senator from Idaho, John Worth Kern, who worked tirelessly as Democratic caucus chair (the position now known as majority leader) to whip his party into a disciplined and effective parliamentary-style force. Riding the crest of popular outrage at Senate corruption and decadence in the era of conservative Republican rule, reformist Democrats gained control of their own party and a majority in the upper house in the 1912 elections. Kern seized the opportunity to place progressives in charge of the powerful Senate Steering Committee, which meant in turn that fellow reformers would gain key committee chairmanships. He also created the post of party whip to address chronic problems of indiscipline and absenteeism. Together with Wilson, Gould writes, Kern “produced one of the rare constructive bursts of sustained lawmaking in the Senate's modern history,” not to be repeated for decades to come. While certain innovations like the whip position survived after Kern, the institution's general bias toward inaction and the conservatism that was a byproduct of the seniority system returned soon enough.

Gould is also persuasive in his bouts of idol smashing. Senators famous long after their time for eloquent oratory or a high-minded bearing are often exposed in these pages as windbags with little substantive achievements to show for their pretensions. Of the famous western progressive William Borah, Gould writes, “[T]he ‘Lion of Idaho' was often more blather than accomplishment”; the legendary Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, the author contends, similarly proved more adept at cultivating fame than delivering substantively on his beliefs. Pomposity combined with endemic inaction is the common affliction of members throughout the book. Meanwhile, Gould argues that Lyndon Johnson's famous tenure as majority leader ultimately left no lasting impact on the Senate itself. Johnson had an opportunity to transform his office in ways that would have made the Senate a more effective, dynamic, and progressive lawmaking body, but he declined to pursue those possibilities.

The Senate's history as a graveyard of progressive reform is, unavoidably, Gould's all-pervasive theme. From the iron grip exercised at the beginning of the century by archconservative Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich and his allies (who expressed concern that the new president, Teddy Roosevelt, would try to “do things” while in office) to the midcentury conservative coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans that long obstructed civil rights and social reforms, power in the Senate has thrown up barriers to liberal innovation. Only during a few periods in the last century have those barriers cracked open. The three major examples of such openings -- the first terms of both Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the early years of Johnson's presidency -- involved confluences of events and political fortunes that proved impossible to sustain.

During more ordinary political times, the Senate's procedural veto points and decentralized structure have ensured its function as a legislative roadblock. The filibuster is the most famous of such procedures, and Gould's account makes it abundantly clear that on various fronts -- from civil rights to labor law to health care -- the filibuster has stood in the way of necessary reform.

Somewhat less compellingly, Gould adds endemic ethical foibles to his bill of indictment against the Senate, ruminating at length on the body's long-standing culture of alcoholism; its insular, old boys' club elitism; and individual members' penchant for corruption, self-aggrandizement, and egotistical grandstanding. Unfortunately, Gould too often attributes these problems solely to the moral failings of individual members, when their recurrence throughout the Senate's history would seem to indicate the existence of some broader underlying causes.

Indeed, if there's one shortcoming to Gould's work in this book, it's a failure to identify the deeper institutional bases of the Senate's problems. As a result of the demographic realities and financial burdens of statewide electoral politics, the Senate will almost invariably be whiter and wealthier than the House. The body's numerous obstructive procedural mechanisms and the structural elements that lend individual members so much independence are precisely what encourage petty corruption, pork barreling, and the easy ability of special interests to block progressive reforms. Party leaders have so little ability to instill discipline in their caucuses that individual senators often act like free agents in search of celebrity and higher office rather than as members of a team trying to deliver on a coherent policy agenda.

To be sure, such independence also enables members to turn the Senate into a bully pulpit -- often through high-profile hearings that have played an important role at key moments of American history. Gould recounts, for instance, the Foreign Relations Committee's famous hearings on the Vietnam War in 1966 and '67 (led by William Fulbright), which “undercut the rationale for the conflict” and showed “how the Senate could impact popular opinion.” Senators' famous egos and the comparative leeway they've enjoyed to challenge party leaders have often had the salutary effect of encouraging oversight and accountability, though their independence just as often has led merely to ineffectual grandstanding and sometimes -- as in the case of Joe McCarthy -- something far more pernicious.

Thus, the improvement in party discipline recently mustered by the GOP in the Senate, particularly during Bush's presidency, offers something of a double-edged sword. Gould traces the Senate's recent trend toward polarization, and he counts the decline in civility and rise in destructive partisanship among the modern, lamentable failings of the body. To be sure, from a liberal's perspective, the collapse of congressional oversight of the executive branch and the Republican majority's unprecedented ability to pass destructive legislation with thin majorities have been baleful developments. But a case can be made that, to the extent that the Republicans effect a lasting transformation of the Congress into a more parliamentary-style institution, liberalism stands to gain the most.

As historian Julian Zelizer has detailed, this was precisely the goal of the mid-20th century liberal reform coalition pushing for procedural changes in Congress, such as filibuster reform and strengthened power for party leaders (the latter of which echoed the short-lived changes Kern had pioneered in the Progressive Era). Assuming that party control does change hands eventually, liberalism simply has more to gain than conservatism from an institutional regime that allows for easier passage of laws -- which is to say, a greater ability to “do things” in power.

The question to ask is whether the short-term legislative damage from Republican control will outweigh the potential long-term gains from future Democratic majorities' ability to push through expansive legislation. Gould's history hardly resolves the question. But it may encourage liberals to look beyond their present troubles to a time when they will control the institutional levers that the Republicans are strengthening.

So, go ahead, Senator Frist, take away that judicial filibuster, and imagine who a Democratic president and Senate might be able to put on the Supreme Court.

Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect staff writer.