The Senate’s evolution: From its founding to the present day

The publisher and co-authors of The American Senate: An Insider’s History could not have picked a better time for it appear in bookstores and on the Internet. 

Indeed, in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision last week striking down a key part of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, this thoughtful and incisive book highlights the Senate’s decades-long struggle with the high court, and the presidency as well, for control of power to shape the nation’s laws.

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As the book makes clear, the court’s 5-4 decision, one of several handed down at the close of its session, including controversial rulings involving affirmative action, immigration and gay rights, illustrates the Senate’s evolution from its earliest days to the present.

Once known as the world’s greatest deliberative body with the power to reject efforts to pack the court and to unseat — and seat — presidents, it’s earned a reputation as a fiercely partisan and largely dysfunctional chamber more likely to filibuster than work with the House to frame legislation.

How and why it’s fallen on hard times is the focus of this thoroughly researched book by two veteran Senate observers. Unfortunately, one of them, Neil McNeil, who began covering the Senate in 1949 and was Time magazine’s chief congressional correspondent, died in 2008 just as the book was in its final stages. 

But Richard A. Baker, the Senate historian from 1975 until his retirement in 2009, has done a superb job of combining his deep knowledge of the Senate with that of McNeil, to complete it and illuminate the evolution of the upper chamber of Congress through the efforts of the more than 1,900 people who have served. 

And even for those of us who have covered or been involved in the Senate for many years, as I have since coming to Washington as a reporter in 1965, I learned things I did not know about the Senate. For example, I didn’t know it wasn’t until 2001 that each party held the same number of seats — 50 — for the first time. Or that from 1932-92, no more than two women served at the same time.

Readers pressed for time — and who isn’t these days — will do well to carefully peruse the 11-page prologue that describes the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) closed-door address to the 15 newly elected senators in December 1996. Byrd, then 79 and master of Senate history and procedure, warned of the “enormous” pressures the new senators would face. 

“A senator’s attention today is fractured beyond belief. Committee meetings, breaking news, fundraising, all of these will demand your attention, not to mention personal and family responsibilities. But, somehow, amidst all the noise and confusion, you must find the time to reflect, to study, to read, and, especially, to understand the absolutely critically important institutional role of the Senate.”

McNeil and Baker trace the origin of today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, which thankfully has eased somewhat in the current debate over immigration, to the weekly members-only luncheon meetings that both parties began in the 1970s. 

But as former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) declared in his farewell address in 2010, the corrupting influence of “powerful financial interests” and a “24/7 political media industry that seems to favor speculation over analysis and conflict over consensus” have also led to today’s “intense partisan polarization.”

As to where the Senate of the 21st century is headed, McNeil and Baker point out in their concluding chapter that “History moves in cycles and so does the Senate.” While the “fundamental structure of the Senate will stand unchanged,” they note, there has been “significant change, coming in episodic and unplanned bursts” throughout its history. Let’s hope they are right.

I’ve necessarily skipped over chapters that could also have served as the book’s title, i.e., “Debate, Deliberation and Dispute,” which include fascinating descriptions of giants of the Senate from Daniel Webster to Daniel Moynihan and John. C. Calhoun to John McCain. But there’s little reason to challenge historian William Leuchtenburg’s judgment that “This is the best history of the United States Senate ever written; I doubt that it will ever be matched.” 


ABOUT THE BOOK
The American Senate: An Insider’s History
By Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker
Oxford University Press, June 2013 472 pages, $29.95