The way things used to be in the Senate, will they ever be again?
© Greg Nash

Recently, some 60 former Senate Banking Committee staffers from the 1970s and 1980s, both majority and minority, did something rather unusual. We held a reunion, gathering to reminisce about “the good old days” and, to a lesser extent, ponder the country’s future. We did so without a civil war breaking out, which raises the question: Does the past offer any lessons as a way out of today’s toxic politics?

The Senate and the Banking Committee were then very different. Democrats had a large majority in the 1970’s, but party-line votes were rare. Majorities were assembled one vote at a time, which meant that Democrats almost always needed Republican votes.

In 1980, things changed dramatically. Republicans elected 15 new senators, and became the majority in the Senate. Roles were reversed overnight. However, because six-year terms and statewide constituencies give senators more independence than House members, the Senate remained much more collegial, even for a staffer in the minority. Bipartisanship was still necessary and, fortunately, achievable. We often had ferocious debates over policy, but we respected one another, listened to one another, and had one critical thing in common, a desire to make the world a better place. We understood that having a different view on legislation did not make one “bad” or “evil.” We also knew that those opposed to our position on one issue could become a critical ally on another. Therefore, there was always an unstated preference for reaching common ground rather than running roughshod over the minority. In our combined tenure as Senate staffers, we found that this was true, whichever party had control. 

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Most senators had genuine respect for each other. This was not just a show for the TV cameras. One of us, Ray, recalls staffing a private meeting for Sen. Jake Garn, a conservative Republican from Utah, with an important constituent. Early in the meeting the constituent made a disparaging remark about Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Garn stopped him in his tracks and said, “you are talking about a fellow United States senator, and a friend. I will not have this in my office.” The message was loud and clear, an example for all of us in the room.

While, of course, things were not idyllic, most of us loved coming to work every day and believed we were acting to improve people’s lives.

When we decided, six months ago, to hold a reunion, there was never any doubt it would be bipartisan. We just didn’t know whether others would come. As it turned out, not only did so many want to attend – coming from as far away as New Mexico -- but, to a one, they had a wonderful time, with warm memories of past battles and promises to stay in touch.

Our reunion showed that good policy and lasting friendships across the political aisle are possible. What would it take for the Senate to restore the comity of that time and reclaim its critical role in legislating? While we could propose procedural and substantive ways forward, we think the best answer lies in senators making individual decisions to pull back from today’s poisonous warfare, recognize the value of others’ ideas and respect their humanity. For us, the other side of the aisle was the opposition, not the enemy. Our history, and the success of our reunion, gives us some small hope for the future. We want to believe that the current political dysfunction is not permanent and that, in the future, the Senate will be restored to a place where a bipartisan reunion of former staff is not worthy of comment.

Peter Kinzler served as minority and majority counsel and staff director of the Consumer Subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) during most of the 1980s. Prior to that, he served as counsel to two subcommittees of the House Commerce Committee during a 25-year Hill career. Ray Natter served as the Republican general counsel of the Senate Banking Committee in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, having previously served as special counsel to the House Banking Committee in the early 1980s. William Mattea began his career in the Senate as a senior aide to Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson. After Stevenson left the Senate, Bill was responsible for Banking Committee issues during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as he held leadership positions in the offices of three successive Democratic senators from Illinois.