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Senate Reform Founders on Whether It’s Even Needed

Americans widely perceive the U.S Senate to be a pretty dysfunctional place. But a handful of observers with firsthand experience of the chamber wonder if that’s the case.

Trent Lott arrived in the Senate in the late 1980s as most newcomers do: thinking the place incomprehensible and in need of some updated conventions.

“I kept trying to figure out ‘what are the rules here?’” he recalled Monday in a talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Robert’s Rules of Order? Is it Deschler’s rules of the House? It didn’t make any sense. Finally, I went to the parliamentarian of the Senate, and I said, ‘I don’t get it. I’ve got a rules background, but what are the rules of the Senate?’”

Lott laughs now at the answer, a simple two-item insiders’ guide to the most lumbering and deliberative body in American politics: exhaustion and unanimous consent. Basically, if you get the senators exhausted enough, they will unanimously consent to anything. Lott went on to deploy that knowledge as Senate majority leader. (“He who controls the rules controls the institution,” he says wisely now.)

And today, four years after resigning, he thinks much differently about the place than when he arrived, describing its quirks with an affection shared by few Americans — and very few in public opinion polls of late.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

“When you study the Senate, you think, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so hard to move.’ And there’s the old saying, which is absolutely true: In the Senate it is easy to stop anything; it is hard to move anything,” Lott said. “But that was the way it was intended, I feel very strongly. I’ve watched the hot passions of the House, and I’ve watched the lumbering slowness of the Senate, and I think they both serve us quite well.”

The public, on the other hand, isn’t quite so pleased (one telling headline from December: “Congress’ Job Approval Rating Worst in Gallup History.”) The most recent data pegs the share of Americans content with Congress at 18 percent. Polling questions rarely separate out the Senate from the House for specific enmity, although Americans paying attention seem quite aware that the House got much more done in the last Congress than its more plodding counterpart.

The sense that there is something fundamentally broken about the Senate also comes, not surprisingly, from the latest crop of Senate newcomers, several of whom in January set about tackling, first and foremost, the arcane rules of the filibuster. That minority threat has consumed much of the Democratic leadership’s energy for the last two years, alongside its more perverse cousin the “secret hold,” which allows individual senators to hold up entire pieces of legislation — anonymously.

Views of the Senate

“When a member of the House moves over to the Senate, he raises the IQ of both bodies.”
— Everett Dirksen (U.S. senator from Illinois, 1951-1969)

“I may have grown cynical from long service, but this is a tendency I do not like, and I sometimes think I'd rather be a dog and bay at the moon than stay in the Senate another six years and listen to it.”
— John Sharp Williams (U.S. senator from Mississippi, 1911-1923)

“If you're hanging around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the Senate. You'll get the same kind of feeling and you won't have to pay.”
— Bob Dole (U.S. senator from Kansas, 1969-1996)

“The Senate is a place filled with goodwill and good intentions, and if the road to hell is paved with them, then it's a pretty good detour.”
— Hubert H. Humphrey (U.S. senator from Minnesota, 1949-1964, 1971-1978)

“The Senate is the last primitive society in the world. We still worship the elders of the tribe and honor the territorial imperative.”
— Eugene J. McCarthy (U.S. senator from Minnesota, 1959-1971)

“Someone has said the best nursing home is the U.S. Senate.”
— Ernest F. Hollings (U.S. senator from South Carolina, 1966-2005)

“When they call the roll in the Senate, the senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.’”
— Theodore Roosevelt

“About all I can say for the United States Senate is that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.”
“Rome declined because it had a Senate; now what’s going to happen to us with both a Senate and a House?”
“Our Constitution protects aliens, drunks, and U.S. senators.”
— Will Rogers, humorist

Calls for reform — and quips (see blue box) about the chamber’s basic uselessness — are as old as the Senate itself. But they’ve picked up steam lately as the political polarization of America outside the Senate has exacerbated its internal glacial workings, and as voters in the age of televised C-SPAN proceedings and Internet news have gotten a closer glimpse of how the sausage is made. Whether or not Senate dysfunction is really on the rise, Americans now know considerably more about the topic (a quick Google search of the term “filibuster reform” turns up more than a hundred juicy news stories on the topic).

“Historically the pressure for Senate reform has come from the outside and, in part, from newly elected senators who campaigned on a pledge to come to Washington to fix the Senate,” said Richard Baker, the chamber’s emeritus historian, who spoke alongside Lott. “But of course, as Sen. Lott suggested, by the time those newly elected reformers gain the seniority necessary to seriously advance their proposals, some of them begin to doubt whether they really were actually needed.”

That scenario gets at the puzzle surrounding Senate reform (“Is Senate reform an oxymoron?” was the question posed by the Woodrow Wilson Center event): How should we reform the place if we don’t all agree there’s anything wrong with it in the first place?

If you don’t like the Senate, is your problem simply that you don’t understand it as well as Trent Lott does? Or is there something truly troubling about the fact that he points to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed last month — on which the Senate first began work when Lott was still a member — as an example that the process in fact works?

And if we had reform, to what end would it aim? Do we want to make it easier for the president to pass legislation or make the legislators more equal partners in power with the president? Or is the goal simply to make everything pick up speed?

At least one member of Lott’s audience objected to the idea that Senate dysfunction is really more of a punch line than a national problem. John Kingdon, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan, is certain things are getting worse.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s beyond the filibuster, it’s beyond dysfunction,” he said. “I think it’s dangerous to the country.”

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