Political awfulness is self-concentrating.
You wouldn’t say no sane person would want to be a U.S. senator. The power of public servants to do good and prevent bad is still real. And if you’re someone who likes being catered to, it’s an atmosphere of institutional sycophancy not unlike a fancy resort hotel. “Right this way, Senator …”
Indeed, that can be part of the problem with our upper chamber. So well-developed is the dignity of many of the mostly older, already wealthy members that they don’t have the spunk to deal with the growing number of zealous, self-promoting demagogues in their midst.
It was all fun and games 15 years ago when it was just Bernie Sanders, who was good for a head pat and a press conference and would be on his way muttering about millionaires and billionaires. But the bear-baiting purveyors of class-warfare bull pucky are now everywhere: Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Josh Hawley, Tommy Tuberville, and Mazie Hirono have all arrived since then. Others, like Kirsten Gillibrand and Ron Johnson, caught the bug after they arrived.
Some are sincere. Some are grifting. Some are a little of both. But they are all energetic.
It may be that income inequality and cultural anxiety are driving this change via pitchfork populism, but it’s also true that this change in the Senate itself is driving some of the anger and antipathy among Americans.
The use of the Senate as a platform for demagogues is hardly new: Ask Huey Long or Joe McCarthy. But the volume is startlingly high these days, setting ever lower standards for discourse, and wasting everyone’s time with pointless performative hearings.
And if their objective is often to prevent the Senate from doing its job, this only leads to more dysfunction and more voter frustration.
There are a handful of senators who seem to want to make the body work, but many of them are working outside the system. Gangs of any number work by defeating the committees that are supposed to craft the legislation presented to the Senate as a whole. It’s understandable, given the way the leaders in both parties have themselves circumvented the committee system. If the only other option is to wait for the leadership to plop out some jerry-built bill crafted in secret at the last minute before the next fiscal cliff, gang warfare might seem like the best bad option.
And we know why the leaders don’t let the committee process work, too. An open process would, from time to time, create problematic votes. If one’s objective is to retain or obtain majority status, innovative, bipartisan legislation will often look like trouble. Imagine if in this election year, a broadly popular bill banning abortion after the first trimester emerged. How about border security combined with a pathway to citizenship? We know these are consensus positions with most Americans but would put endangered incumbents on the spot. Is Arizona’s Mark Kelly ready to vote in favor of keeping late-term abortion? Is Rubio ready to revisit comprehensive immigration legislation facing reelection in Florida?
The 60-vote threshold for legislation allows this technique to be deployed more often in an evenly divided nation where the Senate hasn’t seen either party with a majority of more than five seats in a decade. Members don’t want hard votes and leaders want to protect them, and that goes for both primary and general election considerations. No squishy stuff before primaries. No red meat before generals. That doesn’t leave much time for actual legislation, which leaves us where we are: spasmodic, emergency legislation and the expanding powers of our imperial presidency that fills the void.
If you’re neither a gangster nor a demagogue, how much fun would the Senate be? Maybe if you’re into national security or intelligence issues, there’s interest there. Or maybe an occasional confirmation fight. The rest of it looks pretty dreary: Interminable conference lunches, lots of fundraising, friendly media appearances, ‘Dear Colleague’ letters, and then it’s home to be grand marshal for the Petunia Festival parade. If the body is not legislative, what’s a legislator to do?
For a lot of them, the answer is to get out. Three of the smartest, most legislatively adroit senators are retiring at the end of this year: Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Roy Blunt of Missouri are calling it quits sooner than expected. Each would have faced rough primaries in the new, fratricidal GOP, but one has to imagine that it would have been much harder for them to leave a Senate that actually deliberated and fought to preserve its own power.
Now Nebraska’s Ben Sasse says he’s probably heading for the exits. The University of Florida has announced that he’s the only finalist to be the 55,000-student school’s next president. Sasse starts his public interview process today, but Gov. Ron DeSantis is on board and it certainly seems like it is Sasse’s to lose.
I’m sure it’s an interesting job and a great fit for a former college president and professor like Sasse, and I wish him well. But what the hell does it say about the state of our Senate that it keeps losing its most thoughtful members? Even if you’re a Georgia Bulldogs fan, you’d admit that running U of F would be a big, interesting job. But belonging to a properly functioning Senate should be too.
When we look at the bunch of demagogues and grifters lined up to try to join the Senate this year, it’s clear that this is not a problem primary voters are ready to address. Leaders and serious members in the Senate understand that part of the reason they keep losing their best and brightest members is dysfunction. Letting committees do their jobs not only would alleviate some of the dysfunction, it would give the smart people something useful to do.