, Salem, MA


June 1, 2013

Shribman: Longing for Senates past


So if you are sitting on the right, intransigence seems prudent. And congressional comity — an SAT word you used to hear on Capitol Hill — could seem beside the point.

Increasingly, the nation sits helplessly by while two parallel range wars are conducted on Capitol Hill.

The first is the usual one, drearily familiar though it may be, that pits Democrats (basically interchangeable with liberals) against Republicans (basically interchangeable with conservatives).

But the second is more interesting, and maybe more consequential. It pits veteran Republicans, reared in a Senate where comity ruled and intransigence was regarded as bad manners, against newly minted Republican senators, who regard the upper house as a torture chamber where principles go to die.

The result is a drastic change in two of the most important institutions in American civic life: The Republican Party (which in both houses of Congress provided a far higher rate of support than the Democrats for the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the Senate (where the American filibuster was invented, and then twisted to a form that would be unrecognizable to its onetime masters).

For many years, political scientists and political commentators regarded the Senate as if it were invulnerable to outside influences, exempt from time, existing in a world of its own and, more to the point, of its own making. This circumstance prevailed for decades, even into recent memory.

But that no longer is the case. The first breezes of change came with television, resisted by many of the Senate’s old bulls at a time when the phrase was redundant, but implemented under an agreement between Republican Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, no rebel against tradition, and Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the most stubborn defender of Senate customs and prerogatives ever.

That changed everything, including the color of the Senate walls, which soon were adjusted to look better on television. Junior lawmakers like Sen. Albert Gore Jr., a particularly deft manipulator of Senate TV, developed visibility and power beyond the expectation and experience of their predecessors.

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