The Real Reason the Senate Can't Get Anything Done

Historian Richard Baker and former congressional correspondent Neil MacNeil explore the history of the Senate.

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The U.S. Senate is commonly criticized as becoming increasingly dysfunctional and inefficient. But in "The American Senate: An Insider's History," Senate historian Richard Baker and the late Neil MacNeil, former chief congressional correspondent for Time Magazine, describe it as "the most powerful upper house of any legislature in the world." The authors chronicle the history of the Senate, exploring its institutional developments and changes in leadership. Baker recently spoke with U.S. News about the body's rich history, the significance of the filibuster, and why the current Senate can't seem to get anything done. Excerpts:

Which periods of U.S. history have most defined the Senate?

Certainly in the founding period, 1789-1820, the Senate really took the shape that would be recognizable today. Another period would be the years leading up to the Civil War and also a few decades after. It's hard for me to give you a tight answer because it really has been evolving. In the 1930s, during the New Deal, it changed. It began to develop strong party leadership. The floor leader's position really began to take shape. And, of course, in the 1950s, Lyndon Johnson, as Democratic leader of the Senate, gave it an even tougher edge, and it gained more prerogatives for the floor leader. The Senate likes to think of itself as a body of equals. But LBJ certainly became the first among equals. If you look at the current majority leader, Harry Reid, he is certainly the first among equals in today's Senate. One of the things we tried to develop in the book was the sense of change over time in response to national challenges.

How have party leaders influenced the body?

All 100 members of the Senate theoretically are equal. We have three chapters on the evolution of Senate leadership, and it becomes pretty clear in the last of those three chapters that it's hard for a leader to damage the Senate. Senators won't stand for it. What they'll do is find themselves another leader, sooner or later.

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Is the Senate's bad reputation justified?

It's no surprise that when you have a divided nation, you get a divided Congress. In the decades leading up to the Civil War there was enormous polarization in the country and certainly in Congress. Members of Congress were carrying pistols, and there were fights on the floor of the House and the Senate, sort of trying to give vent to the frustration of these national issues that Congress just didn't seem able to solve. And the result was the Civil War – a real monument to the failure of Congress to get everyone to be part of the same conversation with an agreement that maybe we have to give a little in order to take a little.

How does this Senate compare to past ones?

It certainly is getting less done. But I go back to the rather simple-minded, from my point of view, notion that the nation is divided, the nation is angry, and a lot of that stems from the economic recession. You don't have angry Congresses when the economy is doing well and unemployment is down, and people are graduating from college and finding jobs and paying off their student loans. But we don't happen to be in one of those periods now, and that situation really is reflective of what's going on in the House and the Senate.

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What can be done to fix the Senate?

As a historian, I try to avoid coming up with answers to things in the future. But I can give you a historian's answer and say that the Senate is particularly easy to be angry with because of its constitutional purpose. One of its purposes is to serve as a brake on the engine of government; to slow things down. One senator from the early 20th century referred to it as a place for sober second thought. That's what defines the Senate. One determined senator, or a group like the tea party, for instance, can come in and, in the environment of the Senate, they can assert an awful lot of power in stopping things. So how do you fix that? Well, institutionally and structurally, I'm not sure there's very much that the Senate can do.