The Last Great Senate

Ira Shapiro has written a book called The Last Great Senate. Viewed from today’s perspective it should probably have begun “Once upon a time.”

The Last Great SenateIt is about the 1970s, especially the Carter administration that ended the decade. The years coincide with the end of the author’s tenure as a Capitol Hill staffer.

It is likely to appeal to political historians but it will also appeal to those who wish the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body were less “polarized, paralyzed and dysfunctional” than it is today.

The late 70s vintage was a rarity in the 20th century made great by its leaders’ “belief in government” (though some in the audience whispered the heresy that the author secretly believed it was made great by his presence during that time). The audience was sprinkled with veterans of those years, many of whom received shout outs from the author describing mutual good works.

Self-sacrifice and the national interest were important themes.

Howard Baker ended his presidential ambitions by pushing through the Panama Canal Treaty. He did so because it was right for the country.

William Proxmire, who chaired the Senate Banking Committee, did not think New York City should be bailed out. He lost the vote 12-3 in committee but then led the fight for passage on the Senate floor saying, “I am opposed to the bill but if you want to bail out New York City this is the way to do it.”

Shapiro asked himself two questions: what happened to ruin it; and can we get it back.

Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott (who allegedly hated the Senate) figure prominently in the answer to the first question though other people and ideas (hyper partisanship and permanent campaigns) received prominent mention.

Shapiro, who describes himself as a relative optimist, believes the 2012 election was the beginning of the answer to “getting it back.” The Republicans should have done well but did poorly because extremism and obstruction did not work. According to the author, both the public and the Senators themselves are disgusted. “We don’t do any legislating anymore, we just wait for McConnell and Reid to give us our marching orders.”

Retired Congressman John Anderson, who represented Illinois 16th district as a Republican but ran for president as an independent, asked if the President bore any responsibility for the dysfunction. “Yes!” replied Shapiro, “Obama should have been more engaged.”

Senator Larry Pressler, who represented South Dakota as a Republican, was asked if other countries should emulate the United States Senate. “No,” he replied, “it is uniquely American and does not travel well to other places. Especially not today.”

2 Responses to “The Last Great Senate”

Ashley Higgins, August 06, 2013 at 7:59 pm said:

Gosh, I don’t remember the 70s as being such a great decade, and at the time, I thought the Senate was at least in part responsible for what was.

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Haven Pell, August 07, 2013 at 11:28 pm said:

Well Ira does and seems to think he was significantly responsible.

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