Cardiology, airline deregulation, HD-TV and the damaged filibuster. Four things that have contributed to the decline in civility in the U.S. Senate. The first three we can do little about. The last, the filibuster, we can and should attend to.
How are these things linked? A short tour of the first three will illustrate the last, and why it is so important.
Improvements in cardiology (and related health care fields) is a great thing. We now have tools and methods to prevent and address some of the biggest health issues: heart disease, obesity, alcoholism and liver disease. One method was a recognition that the eating and drinking habits of generations past were dangerous. Food and drink, acknowledged as social lubricants, became less and less a part of the daily life of members of the Senate (a group whose demographic (older and stressed) particularly needed to cut back). The days of Lyndon Johnson sitting with colleagues with a bottle of whiskey after votes was long gone, and so were convivial late-night steak and wine dinners. I worked for a senator who would certainly enjoy a glass of wine, but also had a pedometer, and kept in better shape than many of her young staffers. But a result was less time spent socializing and establishing personal relationships.
At the same time, airline deregulation made it much easier for most senators to return home for the weekend. Pressed by home-state constituents, senators (most of whom, despite common belief, work incredibly hard seven-day work weeks) were forced to spend more and more time at home, shrinking the D.C. work week to four, or even three, days, with the weekend spent at home, meeting constituents. Again, the intra-Senate social life declined. Many senators did not even have a home in D.C. (some famously returning to their post-college days, sharing rooms or even sleeping in their offices). Again, the community of the U.S. Senate began to disappear.
A third blow to the social community came with the advent of HD-TV. Senators have for years had close-circuit C-SPAN access to the Senate Floor, but it was black and white, and on a small screen. But now, with 70-inch HD color, and high-quality audio, Senators can (and do) watch the floor from their office – in fact, the audio is better than on the Senate floor! The result is that the long “quorum call” period on the Senate floor (puzzling to C-SPAN watchers, as the senators mill about the floor, while the clerk calls the roll, slowly) grew ever shorter. Senators could keep track of the progress, rush over to cast their vote, and return to their offices. But the foreshortened milling about was not meaningless – it was one of the few times (other than committee and caucus meetings) when members could personally interact.
The end result was the “Most Exclusive Club in the World” became less and less a club, and more simply an affiliation. With time short, and members holed up in their offices during that short time in Washington, the personal relationships (which often transcended party and politics) became thinner and fewer. I would hazard a guess that many members had never had a meal, or a drink, with many other members; in some cases, do not even really know them except as a name to be read out in a roll call vote.
This is all bad for the Senate, an institution that works, in large part, because it is small and intimate, and where personal relationships, affection and a network of interrelationships support, even compel, civility and compromise.
The filibuster is the last of these institutional drivers of civility, and unlike the other, is within the control of the Senate. With its funny name (actually derived from the Dutch for “freebooter,” or pirate), and its apparently anti-democratic super-majority, the filibuster is often seen as a strange and unneeded vestigial artifact of earlier times. But in fact, the filibuster, in its odd, mathematical way, fosters, even requires, civility.
In practice, the filibuster allows the minority to hold up both legislation and nominations (requiring a 60-vote supermajority). Not only that, informally, a single senator can be the mathematical difference, and by tradition, can place a “hold” on any action anonymously. The result is that at any given time, every senator knows that she or he may need the support of any other senator. And, that any senator can hurt any other senator by placing a hold. On a larger scale, whichever party is in the minority can slow, even stop, the majority.
The result is that every senator has a strong, and structural, reason, for wanting to treat every other senator with respect and courtesy. Alliances are necessary, and simple party affiliation (unlike in the House of Representatives), is not enough. Civility is a requirement for functionality. It drives compromise, and guards against extremism. It also (in most times) has an effect on the president, who knows that his or her agenda, because of the filibuster, depends on members of both parties.
Nobody would want to insist on more meat and bourbon or ending convenient air travel to smaller and more distant states. Nor would we want to shut down C-SPAN (or return to tiny black and white fuzzy screen). It may not be possible to recreate the community of senators from the past. But we can preserve and understand the filibuster.
The importance of the filibuster is particularly critical now, in a time of divisive politics, including an upcoming Supreme Court nomination. The filibuster is the mechanism by which we ensure that a nomination is not too extreme, not too far afield from the minority parties views.
The filibuster is the Senate rule that holds the center, and makes politics less vicious, more thoughtful, and simply nicer. And that, it seems, is what most Americans want.
Steven Cash is counsel at Day Pitney LLP in its New York and Washington D.C. offices and former Chief Counsel to Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinF-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Democrat rips Justice for not appearing at US gymnastics hearing MORE (D-Calif.).