When the Senate Worked

Ira Shapiro: We need to figure out a way for the Senate to be the Senate again.


With the partisan gridlock marring the legislative branch of late, it's hard to believe that anything ever got done in the U.S. Capitol. However, from the early 1960s to 1980, the Senate was a remarkably active body, pushing through bill after bill that very much created the United States we know today. In The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis, former Senate staffer and federal trade negotiator Ira Shapiro focuses on the last chapter of this era, the Carter years, when political titans like Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, and Jacob Javits stepped up to the challenges the country faced. Shapiro recently spoke with U.S. News about what today's senators could learn from this period. Excerpts:

How were the two decades of what you call the Great Senate different from how the Senate usually operates?

Historically and particularly in the 20th century, the Senate had often been a real disappointment, in terms of being a drag on the progress of the country. For a long period of time it was a very ultra-conservative institution and stopped progress on civil rights but also on many other fronts. In the period between the early '60s and 1980, the Senate became a progressive institution which was in the forefront of virtually every legislative accomplishment of that period. It essentially was no longer the graveyard of progressive dreams. It became the place where those dreams were translated into concrete legislation. It was an unusual departure from what had gone before, and much different than what came after.

[See a photo gallery of Ted Kennedy.]

Why was the Senate able to accomplish so much?

It was a combination of an unusual group of people who had a shared experience, first in World War II and then during the Cold War—an unusual group of people who came together at a particular time in American history when there were great challenges but we also had a very prosperous economy. There was much more of a shared consensus about politics then—a positive view of America, what government could accomplish, and the kind of progressive consensus that existed in that period. In that sense, it was quite unusual.

What were some of the greatest accomplishments of the last Great Senate?

The Panama Canal treaties were an extraordinary accomplishment. Presidents going back to Eisenhower had thought we should have a new arrangement for governing the canal and that the arrangement we had was a product of the high-water mark of U.S. imperialism. Carter was the only one that stepped up to it and the Senate ratified those treaties despite huge political pressure to do the opposite. A second example was that the Senate came to the financial rescue of New York City at precisely the time that the tax revolt that started in California was sweeping the country.

[Jimmy Carter: President Obama Leaves Too Much to Congress]

How were Democratic Majority Leader Robert Byrd and Republican Minority Leader Howard Baker able to work together?

Their concept of the Senate was that they were supposed to work together. They really developed a relationship of mutual trust and respect. There's a chapter where Byrd and the vice president crush the filibuster that was being conducted by two liberal Democrats, and Byrd was criticized for what he had done. But Byrd alerted Howard Baker and alerted the Republican leadership to what he was doing. He would never surprise the Republican leadership, and vice versa.

What can the current Senate learn from your book?

The main lesson is that people who have the privilege of being senators—and it's a great privilege—they have to represent their states and they don't have to forget what political party they're in, but their North Star should be the national interest. They're supposed to bring their wisdom, their experience, and independent judgment to figure out what the national interest requires. The other thing is that their individual agendas are not as important as the Senate being able to take collective action. And for that reason, individual agendas have to be subordinate to the Senate.