Consider two similarly situated sessions of Congresses, the second session of the 112th that just was completed and the second session of the 106th in 2000 — both the final years of a Congress meeting as an election loomed. The Senate in the second session of the 106th Congress sent 131 laws onto the books, according to the Congressional Record. The most recent Senate’s second session logged 42.
“By that time, most of the senators — those staying and those retiring — regarded the Senate as a bad joke — polarized, paralyzed and dysfunctional,” says Ira Shapiro, a Washington lawyer whose “The Last Great Senate” looks with nostalgia to a different chamber in a different age. “The rising demand for ‘regular order’ reflects the deeply felt desire of senators to return to real legislating — committee hearings and markups, floor debate on legislation and amendments, and hard bargaining, which produces principled compromise and legislative accomplishments.”
The situation is so bad — there is so little to do in the Senate — that lawmakers who once were members of the House now often cross the Capitol to pass the time with their former colleagues. Just two months ago, GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, 69, whose two terms in the Senate followed four in the House, stunned Washington by announcing he would not seek another term.
Chambliss was just the sort of lawmaker who in another era might have been counted for a long career. His service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and his chairmanship of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Subcommittee, along with his status as ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, set him up to become that committee’s chairman in a GOP Senate.
Instead, he decided to leave.
There are, to be sure, some hopeful signs. In the first few months of 2013, there is more evidence of serious work on important legislation, especially immigration, than the Senate has seen in years.