The Senate’s Defining Moment

How an institution of reliable bipartisanship became an echo chamber of political polarization — and what can be done about it.

The Senate's Defining Moment
Nicolas Raymond / Lara Mukahirn
The Senate's Defining Moment

The shocking nature of Donald Trump’s presidency understandably dominates our political landscape. But the central crisis facing American democracy started long before the celebrity billionaire/ reality-TV star came down the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to throw his hat into the ring. The crisis predates the Great Recession, and the rise of China, and 9/11.

Because we are a deeply divided, polarized country, the political system in America is broken. And ground zero for this breakdown is the U.S. Senate, once a crown jewel of our constitutional system.

Decades ago, the Senate played a central role in the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It exposed the folly of Lyndon Johnson’s military escalation in Vietnam and, ultimately, forced an end to that war. It held Richard Nixon accountable for Watergate.

Twenty years later, the Senate’s luster had faded. The 1991 confirmation hearings for future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas featured the public mistreatment of Anita Hill, now a University Professor at Brandeis, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. In 2002, the Senate rushed to authorize George W. Bush to wage preventive war in Iraq, eager to make the enormously consequential decision quickly so that it might return to discussing the economy and health care.

At its best, the Senate has been “the nation’s mediator,” to borrow Walter Mondale’s great phrase — its members coming together to reconcile their diverse views and take collective action in the nation’s interest. Every major legislative accomplishment in the U.S. reflected the unique role of the Senate, where extended debate and the need to assemble a 60-vote supermajority demanded that legislation have bipartisan support. This is the Senate’s special role — transcending partisanship to hammer out principled compromises that move our country forward.

But when the Senate fails in this responsibility, our political system seizes up. And over the past decade, the trajectory of the Senate’s long decline has gotten steeper. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republican obstructionism on domestic and foreign policy issues, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), routinely paralyzed the Senate and the country. In 2016, the Senate took the unprecedented step of refusing to consider Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia.

In 2017, in an effort driven by majority leader McConnell, the Senate repeatedly tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act on a purely partisan basis, without hearings, committee action or floor debate — an astonishing approach to dismantling the health-care system on which millions of Americans depend. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), fighting incurable brain cancer, chastised his colleagues for a “terrible process,” urging the Senate to put country first and return to “regular order.”

The Constitution’s framers created a Senate strong enough to check an overreaching president and cool the passions of the moment that periodically rip through the House of Representatives. But that construct works only if the Senate can transcend partisanship, not succumb to it.

In these crisis times, how can the Senate regain its vibrancy and relevance?

First, it must follow McCain’s advice and return to regular order. Senators must stand up for the importance of their committee work and push back against the excesses of a leader-driven Senate. The committees are where substantive expertise resides and bipartisan cooperation still exists. Wise legislation that commands broad support can be framed there.

Second, the Senate needs to remove obstacles that block meaningful, time-limited debate. Why should the Senate operate by “unanimous consent,” allowing a single senator to block consideration of legislation or nominations for any reason, or no reason at all? Shouldn’t a filibuster be a real filibuster, not just a refusal to grant unanimous consent? Is there justification for considering “nongermane” amendments? Apparently, no other legislative body in the world thinks so.

The Senate’s long failure to address such issues makes the involvement of an outside group essential. The Senate should appoint a commission, made up of former senators and members of the public, to conduct the first comprehensive review of its rules since 1979. After the commission makes its recommendations for reforms, the Senate could decide whether to follow them.

Third, a great Senate — or even a respectable one — relies on trust. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the greatest Senate leaders, created and maintained a climate of trust. McConnell’s actions often undermine trust. How many times did he announce the Senate was moving on from its effort to repeal Obamacare, only to return with yet another repeal bill, thrown together in the leader’s conference room behind closed doors?

The Senate has gone from being hallowed ground, almost a demilitarized zone where bipartisanship could flourish, to scorched earth. Most senators are frustrated and angry about the institution they worked so hard to reach. They know what the Senate is supposed to be, and that it does not come close to measuring up.

Yet there is hope. Watching Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) keep the Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election moving forward, senators can see the power of bipartisanship. They respect the bipartisan legislation fashioned by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to shore up the Affordable Care Act.

Changing how we finance campaigns or draw congressional districts would have a much-needed positive impact on our political system. Yet those changes will take years to make, if they can be made at all. The Senate, on the other hand, has the power and the responsibility to reform itself now.

Time to step up.

Ira Shapiro is the author of “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). A former Senate staffer and U.S. trade negotiator, Shapiro also wrote “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.”