For anyone interested in understanding why one of the world’s great institutions of democratic government — the United States Senate — has become so dysfunctional and paralyzed by partisanship, Ira Shapiro’s recently published book “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis” (Public Affairs, New York 2012) should be mandatory reading — not only by pundits and political science classes, but by every member of today’s Senate.
Shapiro, a leading international-trade attorney in Washington, D.C., was a widely respected senior Senate staffer for 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s. His book describes the four years between 1977-80, during Jimmy Carter’s first and only term, as the period of the “last great Senate.” Shapiro’s definition of a “great” Senate is not hard to discern: a Senate composed of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who are able to work together to find compromises in the center — to solve problems and get things done, regardless of what party holds the presidency.
Shapiro sees the watershed year of change from bipartisan solutions to partisan obstructionism as 1980, when the Reagan landslide victory over the feckless Carter carried in a group of Republican ultra-partisan Senate conservatives who were bent on getting “our way or the highway.”
But this is not just a partisan book written by an admitted progressive Democrat who blames it all on the Republicans. It is an insightful and balanced insider account of history, where the facts speak for themselves. For instance, he tweaks liberals for using the hated filibuster when it suited them.
In one compelling chapter, Shapiro tells the story of two liberal senators — Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and James Abourezk of South Dakota — who launched their two-man filibuster in October 1977 during the majority-Democratic Senate debate over President Carter’s energy proposal.
The Senate was considering a bipartisan-sponsored natural-gas deregulation bill that seemed to have majority support in the Senate. Democrats, recognizing that a majority might vote for deregulation, decided to filibuster. Thus, lacking 60 votes to invoke cloture, the Senate was paralyzed, putting at risk Carter’s entire Metzenbaum and Abourezk energy bill.
Ultimately, after losing a cloture vote, the two senators used another technique — filibuster-by-amendment. They introduced over 500 amendments and insisted, as was their right under Senate rules, on votes on every one of them. Ironically, it was none other than Democratic Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the dean of the Senate and self-anointed protector of the Senate rules and traditions, who used a procedural trick to thwart the Metzenbaum-Abourezk filibuster. And it was two anti-filibuster liberal Democratic senators, Maine’s Ed Muskie and Colorado’s Gary Hart, among others, who denounced Byrd for end-running Senate rules for protecting the filibuster.
Shapiro’s bipartisan “chickens come home to roost” lesson is impossible to miss. Today we hear double-standard liberals on TV cable talk shows and in the blogosphere denounce Senate Republicans for imposing a 60-vote majority requirement by their use (or just the threat) of filibusters to prevent anything from getting done.
Interestingly, even Shapiro seems to defend the filibuster as a tool to stop a Senate majority from rolling over the minority. He quotes now-retired Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D): “In a nation founded in revolution against tyrannical rule … there should be one institution that would always provide a space where dissent was valued and expected.” In any event, Shapiro supports the end of the phenomenon of “single-senator holds,” whereby a single senator can block legislation from even being voted on for a long time.
Shapiro’s Republican heroes are, not surprisingly, the great Republican moderate-conservatives now close to extinction today in both the Senate and House: New York’s Jacob Javits, Oregon’s Mark Hatfield, Tennessee’s Howard Baker and New Hampshire’s Warren Rudman, to name a few.
Now, with the pending retirement of Maine’s truly great Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, there is really only one Republican moderate-conservative left in the Senate — Maine’s Susan Collins. But I believe there are many “closet” ones, such as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain, who (I happen to believe) are, in their hearts, “compassionate conservatives” and solutions-based pragmatic leaders ready to compromise to get things done. Perhaps President Obama in his second term will reach out to these types of genuine Republican conservatives in the Senate and House early and often and begin each conversation with: “Tell me what you need to get this done.”
Shapiro ends his book on the “last great Senate” on a hopeful note — that there can be, someday, another one: “The men and women who are senators today, and those who will join them after the next election, have it in their power to begin making the Senate great again. They have the enormous honor and privilege of walking where the giants walked — Humphrey and Javits, Mansfield and Dirksen, Kennedy and Baker, Jackson and Byrd. It is my hope that they will look at the struggles, accomplishments and lessons of the Last Great Senate, and the urgent needs of our country, and make us proud again.”
As my late mother would have said: “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Lanny Davis, a Washington litigator and attorney specializing in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of a forthcoming book, to be published by Simon & Schuster: “Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics, and Life.” He can be found at Twitter @lannydavis.