BY IRA SHAPIRO, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 01/04/23 1:30 PM — The Hill
As the House Republicans made extraordinary history battling each other in an acrimonious and chaotic effort to pick the next Speaker, the Senate quietly convened, swore in seven new members, and generally seemed to enjoy being the “adults in the room,” far from the turmoil on other side of the Capitol.
But the stark contrast masked a more complex reality, reflected by several senators, retiring after long careers, who expressed fears about the future of the Senate.
As reported by Emily Cochrane in the New York Times, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) “ticked through his frustrations that had piled up in recent year: party leaders devaluing committee work, an institution reluctant to embrace new ideas, and unnamed colleagues unwilling to collaborate or brush up on the details of legislating.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving senator, grimly observed: “If we don’t start working together more, if we don’t know and respect each other, the world’s greatest deliberative body will sink slowly into irrelevance.”
Without in any way questioning the depth of these concerns, it is important to recognize that the decline of Congress — particularly the Senate — is the longest-playing story in American politics, matched only by the endless movement of the Republican Party, starting with the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), from conservatism to MAGA radicalism and nihilism.
Congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann analyzed the decline of Congress in their classic, “The Broken Branch” in 2006. Ten years earlier, in 1996, the Senate experienced a record number of retirements — 14 — by some of the most respected legislative deal makers of their time, including Democrats Sam Nunn (Ga.), Bill Bradley (N.J.), Howell Heflin (Ala.) and David Pryor (Ark.) and Republicans Alan Simpson (Wyo.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) and William Cohen (Maine).
James Exon, who served 25 years as Nebraska’s senator and governor, put it forcefully in terms that the other departing senators could relate to:
“Our political process must be ‘re-civilized. … The ever-increasing vicious polarization of the electorate, the us-against-them mentality, has all but swept aside the former preponderance of reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of many legitimate issues. Unfortunately, the traditional art of workable compromise for the ultimate good of the nation, the essence of democracy, is demonstrated eroded.”
Those speeches came more than a quarter of a century ago, in a period of peace and prosperity. From that point, the Senate spiraled downward, hitting rock bottom with its catastrophic failure to protect Americans and our democracy from Donald Trump in the crisis year of 2020 and in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
In contrast, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observed, “the congressional session that just ended was remarkably productive. Major investments in infrastructure, clean energy and technology showed that our government has the capacity to think ahead, not just react to political pressures and short-term problems.”
Moreover, the Senate was able to come together on a bipartisan basis to enact the first gun safety legislation since 1994, safeguard marriage equality, revise the flawed electoral count system and fund the government through Sept. 30. Repeatedly, a significant group of Senate Republicans — ranging from 12 to 19 — joined the Democrats, led by President Biden, Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in making these legislative accomplishments possible. This impressive record compels several conclusions.
First, while we can respect the dedication and service of retiring senators like Burr, Blunt, Leahy, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), their experience didn’t save the Senate from decline and failure. Legislating requires skill and some experience; it does not require 30 or 40 years on the Hill. Over the years, countless senators from both parties, such as Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) had a powerful impact within a short time after arriving.