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Richard A. Baker: If You Think the Senate is Dysfunctional Now, Wait Until After the Nuclear Option (INTERVIEW)

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Richard A. Baker may very well be the leading expert on the history of the U.S. Senate alive today. A veteran Washington hand – he has worked in the nation's capital since 1968, and served as official historian of the Senate for over thirty years, from 1975 to 2009 – there are ironically only five senators – Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Max Baucus (D-MT), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Carl Levin (D-MI) who can claim more Senate experience than Baker.

Baker was a longtime friend of reporter Neil MacNeil, who covered Congress from 1949 until his retirement in 1987. MacNeil, who died in 2009, was widely considered to be an expert on the House of Representatives – in his obituary, the New York Times noted that his 1963 book on the House, Forge of Democracy, was long considered required reading for new congressional reporters.

MacNeil worked tirelessly between his retirement and his death on a companion volume to Forge of Democracy, this time on the Senate. The fruits of his many years of work is The American Senate: An Insider's History, which was condensed, formatted, and expanded upon by Baker after MacNeil passed away. The book was published in June to positive reviews – Roll Call called it “required reading for anyone new to the chamber: interns, staffers, even senators.”

I sat down with Mr. Baker in a Washington cafe to talk about the book, writing with a posthumous author, and the state of the Senate today.

* * * * *

You're very much a Senate traditionalist – even the subtitle of the book is “An Insider's History.” You believe in the institution of the Senate, and it really shows on every page. Why are you so idealistic about an institution so many Americans seem to have soured on?

My co-author Neal MacNeil was very much a Senate traditionalist. He couldn't help but be one. He started covering the Senate in 1949, only retiring from Time magazine in 1988, but he continued to follow the Senate. He'd written a book on the House in 1963, and he said that was the easiest book he'd ever written. It took him about four years writing evenings and weekends. And so the logical next step was a book on the Senate, which he put off until he retired in '88.

It took him almost twenty years, and he was literally finalizing it on his deathbed. And the final version that he produced would have been a 700-page book without an introduction, without a conclusion, and that only went up to about 1985.

So traditionalism is on every page. MacNeil had the unique opportunity to observe the Senate firsthand. Members knew that he had the ability to put them on the cover of Time magazine. He was a very astute observer, and it kind of got in his blood.

Anyway, I would agree, the Senate is dysfunctional, there's no denying that. But the Senate isn't broken. If you move in the direction of the nuclear option -- making the Senate a majoritarian institution -- you do so at enormous peril. That will absolutely destroy the institution. But political scientists like Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann come along and say they have a plan to improve the Senate. But the nuclear option of majority cloture would be perilous in a body that is not structured to be a majoritarian body. If you had a simple majority Senate, you could pass anything with only 52 votes. Take the 26 smallest states, which would give you the 52 votes. They add up to 16 percent of the population. Is that majority rule? That's sort of where I'm coming from, with my traditional view.

But what I try to point out in the book is that the Senate has evolved. Profoundly. But it evolves in fits and starts; I do think, though, that the time for reform will be right in a few years, when the current floor leaders like McConnell and Reid retire. Just as in 1976 and 1977, when the Senate had new leadership in Robert Byrd for the Democrats and Howard Baker for the Republicans. And they implemented a few items on the reform agenda that had been building up over the years, particularly by opening up markup sessions for committees. Prior to that time, they were closed.

In the Senate today, there are procedural changes that need to be made – not filibustering on the motion to proceed, for example. Reid and McConnell have said that's what the plan to do. And they did – they struck an agreement at the beginning of this Congress that they would no longer filibuster on the motion to proceed. But the agreement wasn't maintained.

It does seem that there was a certain kind of senator who served in the mid-to-late twentieth century – senators like Robert Byrd, Hugh Scott, and Mike Mansfield – where you had politicians with a scholarly bent. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

You'd have to look awfully hard to find that kind of [intellectual] curiosity in the Senate these days. One senator told me in a private conversation that “If I knew one-quarter of the history you know about the Senate, I'd be a much better senator.” But they don't have the time. That's why we have this book! It's not Senator Byrd's four-volume history. It's not 700 pages. Oxford University Press said, you get 150,000 words and that's it. So, that's what we gave them.

Because MacNeil died in 2009, how much of the book is his and how much is yours, and how did that affect the writing process, working with a posthumous co-author?

About 80 percent of the book is his actual text, and that's after I cut out 50 percent of what he wrote. I basically cut it from 250,000 words to 125,000 words, and then I added 30,000 words of my own, with an introduction, conclusion, and updated chapters, along with three chapters on the presidency which were lost.

It's actually a pretty good story. MacNeil was a great cook, and he was hosting a dinner party a number of years ago, and he had his type-written manuscript on the table to show his guests. And it was the chapters on the Senate and the president from Truman to modern times. And somehow the manuscript -- the only existing copy, since it was typewritten -- disappeared. They actually went up to the landfill afterwards to try and find the manuscript! They couldn't find it, though, and so at the time of his death the chapters on the presidents and the Senate ended with Truman. So I had to finish that.­

But the bulk of what I did -- and what Oxford University Press was adamant about -- was footnotes. MacNeil was a journalist -- he didn't believe in footnotes. If he thought something was worth noting, he mentioned it in the text. It took me about a year to trace through his research notes -- thirty-two boxes! -- to trace down his sources. I created 1,400 footnotes, which is not exactly the most intellectually stimulating way to spend one's time, and also a bibliography. I automatically ruled out biographies, because if you had a bibliography of biographies, it would double the size of the book! So it was basically a bibliography of institutional histories, with a few choice biographies of major figures thrown in. And I also shaped the prologue.

My sins were partly of omission, too. MacNeil had the idea of doing his opening chapter as a big arc of the Senate's history, and he'd go back and do topical chapters highlighting specific themes. But what he was doing was repeating himself, and it was very boring reading. So I threw that chapter out.

But it actually hit on an important point: how do you write a history of the Senate? Do you do it chronologically? Then it's one damn thing after another, and some of the periods aren't worth talking about, and you lose your focus. So what I did was basically to limit the book to thirteen mostly topical chapters, except for the three presidential chapters, which form the chronological spine of the book, so you can read from Washington to Obama. Then there are separate chapters on debates, and whether or not floor debates make a difference. There are two really great chapters Neil wrote on filibusters, and I've looked at a lot of writing on filibusters over the years, and Neil's are the best. I had to change very little in those chapters, except of course to update them to the present day. His chapter on relations with the House is also good, though it's not a very long chapter.

In terms of how comfortable I was with his writing style, he'd spent a little too much time at Time magazine. We all know about Time-speak, and I declared war on Time-speak. I had to turn a lot of sentences around! But otherwise, y'know, I think philosophically McNeil and I had the same take on the Senate.

Looking back over the broad scope of Senate history, when where there moments of similar dysfunction in the Senate to what we're seeing today? Not just the Civil War, that's too easy.

How about the Quasi-War with France, near the very beginning in 1798? One of the clauses of the Alien and Sedition Acts was that it's an act of treason to criticize Congress. I don't think anybody was sent up the river for that!

I'd also say during World War II. I did some digging into the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, and there was a lot of public anger about congressional perks during wartime (and members of Congress were making plans to raise their salaries). At one point, a public group set up a program called “Bundles for Congress,” care-packages for Congress because, y'know, these poor people were just barely getting by. This vein of anger and hatred against the people who were raising your taxes and giving your money away to other people has always been there, and it doesn't take much for it to burst through the surface.

During the Progressive Era, one of the major reform issues was the direct election of senators. That took eighty-five years from the first rumbling that the state legislative system wasn't working -- it was just a seedbed of bribery and corruption -- to the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. It really took a new class of senators coming in in 1911 and again in 1913 to pass it.

The House had passed the amendment at least three or four times since the 1890s, but basically the reason the Senate kept rejecting it is that Southern senators didn't want blacks voting for them. I think it was only when the Jim Crow laws really solidified white supremacy that those senators let it go through.

One of the major theses in the book is that reform in the Senate comes episodically and is always half or less than what you want. But it does come.

What about the relationship between the Senate and presidents who were themselves senators – since World War II alone, that's Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (briefly), and of course Barack Obama. How did the experience of being a senator color the mutual relationship between the Senate and the president during these administrations?

I think you have to put Truman in a class by himself. He loved the Senate to his dying day (he said it was the happiest ten years of his life). The day after he got the call that FDR had died and that he was president, he went to Capitol Hill into one of the back rooms of the Senate wing, and met with Senate leaders, and said, “fellas, we're in a hell of a pickle here, and we have to work together.” He knew the culture of the Senate, and of course he had Alben Barkley as his vice president, and Barkley was very much an institutional man, too.

Johnson was in the same category as Truman. Robert Caro can tell you about that in 2,000 well-told pages though I do think he overmakes his case slightly. When freshman senators come into the office and ask what book they should read to help them get up to speed, Master of the Senate was the book we recommended for years.

There's a guy named Jack Shaw who just finished a book on Kennedy's Senate years -- it's coming out in six months -- and I was very skeptical about it before I read it because there's not much to say about Kennedy's Senate years. He just didn't do a lot. It wasn't his kind of place. Shaw does a pretty good job in the book, but I'm still not convinced that Kennedy was a behind-the-scenes, hidden-hand kind of senator. When he became president, he was smart enough to elevate Larry O'Brien as legislative liaison director, who was someone who could go to the Hill very quietly, very confidentially, and work out problems and get 'em fixed before they went public.

Kennedy, to his credit, knew the importance of that and set up the infrastructure, but LBJ really expanded it. If you go to the LBJ Library at the University of Texas, Austin, and look at the Larry O'Brien files, you find out all the favors given to individual senators. One senator, Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, sent to LBJ a swatch of fabric from a suit he was going to have made, but he didn't want the fabric to be too close to something LBJ had in his closet. Why he was worried about that, I don't know, but that kind of stuff is in the Larry O'Brien files. They had a real sensitivity to nip small problems in the bud before they became big problems.

It sounds like there's a distinction here between institutionalists who love the Senate and really thrive in that environment versus those who are using the Senate as an opportunity to build a national profile.

You're suggesting a pretty common distinction in personality types of public officials -- the executive versus the legislative personality type. Sometimes former governors find themselves in the Senate, and by and large they hate it. Look at any former governor in the Senate, and even without knowing anything about that person's views, they probably hate the Senate. Most of them do. Most of them only last a term. When you're a senator, you don't have your own state police motorcade, you can't make decisions that immediately turn into action.

One of the things I really used to like doing was going to the Democratic caucus every week and giving a little historical anecdote (kind of like a weekly chaplain service). I did that for about ten years, and now Don Ritchie's continuing to do that for the Democrats (Betty Koed is doing it for the Republicans). Every week, historians in the Senate get to talk to an audience of potentially one hundred senators about something historical that has relevance to what's going on today. And it also speaks to the fact that senators don't have the time to read deeply on the Senate. Here's an institution that is totally based on precedent and tradition, and these young senators come in – and I hate to sound like an old fogey, but it's true – in a seniority-based institution, you can bang the pots as much as you want, but that doesn't mean you're going to get anything done. It takes a while. I can't imagine being a freshman senator, walking onto the Senate floor, and trying to introduce an amendment. The party staff will help you, you can go to the parliamentarian, but I've heard freshman senators say, after the complicated Senate voting procedure takes place, “did my amendment pass?”

Are we talking also about different expectations the electorate has? I mean, we now live not only in the age of C-SPAN and 24-hour cable news networks, but also the Internet, Twitter, and all that entails. There's more of an expectation that your senator is out there actually working (and in order to see that, you need to see them in the media). But fifty years ago, that wasn't necessarily the case. You learned how to be a legislator before actually introducing legislation.

I was recently watching MSNBC, and there was a young congressman -- who shall remain nameless -- who was banging the drums, and the more outrageous he is, the more coverage he gets. They ran a clip of him walking down one of the House corridors, and he was surrounded by media. The guy's a very junior member, and the only platform he has is the media. But that makes his constituency happy, even though he's not going to get anything done. He personifies a certain type of younger legislator.

There are fifty-six senators who are on their first term. That's a very low experience base. There are sixteen who have been there twenty years or more, which is about average. We don't need term limits – it's a sort of automatic, self-adjusting process. But it requires a lot of institutional knowledge.

One of the things we try to point out in the book is that there are workhorses and show horses. Hillary Clinton, for example, came in as a great star, but she spend a lot of time with Robert Byrd (so did Barack Obama). The trick is to find a senior senator from your party, and get close to them.

And then there's the relationship between the two senators from the same state. Some have radically different personalities, but they can make it work (Domenici and Bingham from New Mexico are perfect examples).

Does that relationship transcend party affiliation?

Oh, yeah, and that's what's so remarkable about it. They have the same constituents, and they face the same issues. They really need to be seen as working together. Some senators actually share state offices. It's a reminder of the diversity of the Senate.

When you speak about institutional memory, and the fact that senators just don't have the time anymore to learn about the Senate, is that also true of the staffers as well?

The position of chief of staff for U.S. senators has really only developed in the past ten or fifteen years. Prior to that they were called administrative assistants. By the 1980s, they begin to be called chiefs of staff, like military organizations. Chiefs of staff coalesce, some eras more than others. When I was there, they would have organized breakfasts and other events – one time, they all went up to Philadelphia for the weekend with David McCullough – to talk about institutional history. The trouble now is that they're so damn busy – three Smartphones and a Blackberry buzzing simultaneously – and nowadays chiefs of staff are actually performing the duties of senators in their home states, working with constituents and whatnot. It's going back to that earlier fear about if you hire a staff, you're opening yourself up to competition, since they're going to know how to do your job better than you.

But the Senate Historical Office has been a great educational force and a great preserver of institutional memory. On the website, we have a new “States and the Senate” project, where you can click on a particular state and get info about all of their senators from the very beginning, anecdotes, and bibliographies.

Where do you see the Senate being in five years? You've talked about incremental reform – are we at that kind of inflection point now?

I think that we are, but we're going to see a lot less reform than we'd all like to see. In five or seven years, absolutely we will see reform. It's one of the reasons this book was written. Senators need a text, a guidebook, to help them. It usually takes some sort of precipitating national event, like World War II or Watergate, to really galvanize reform. But with things like the nuclear option, all the tools are there to shut the place down. If you think it's dysfunctional today, it'll be nothing compared to what a majoritarian Senate would look like.

But you begin to see with immigration reform some small movement to actual legislative progress... but then you have to deal with the House, were something like 40 percent [of the Republican members] are Tea Partiers. That's a high wall.