Has there even been a time when the United States Congress ranked lower with the American public or when dysfunction more profoundly gripped the institution? Hardly.
University of Tennessee historian Daniel Feller says we need to go all the way back to before the Civil War to find a Congress quite so much at war with itself as today’s bunch. Feller is among a group of historians that NPR surveyed to determine if the current Congress is just bad or among the worst in the nation’s history. Historically bad is, according to the historian, the correct answer.
Professor Feller cites the Reconstruction period immediately after the Civil War when Andrew Johnson struggled, with little success, to replace Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson’s fight with Congress over the League of Nations and Harry Truman’s battles with the “do nothing 80th Congress” as historic examples of when a president and a Congress were deeply divided. Still, Feller told NPR, “None of those involved the level of conflict within Congress itself that we see today.”
Just this week came further evidence that Congressional dysfunction and serial partisanship has claimed another victim. Nebraska’s conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, already the subject of intense negative attacks in his state, opted to quit rather than fight for another term. While coverage of Nelson’s decision has focused on the undeniable fact that Senate D’s will now be even harder pressed to hold the Senate next year, the real story here is the crumbling of the institution.
As Politicos Mike Allen reported in his newsletter, quoting an email from a Senate insider, “The retirement is a reflection of the growing polarization of the body. Nelson could work with anybody in the senate. Either side. His growing frustration with the domination of partisanship within the body lead to this decision. He blames both sides for letting things get out of hand and he often laments the willingness of anyone to really focus on the issues and develop a bipartisan solution anymore. Not since he put together the judicial nominations agreement in 2005 has there been any bipartisan accomplishments in the Senate. Since then a Fat Tuesday parade of exits have left moderate dealmakers like Nelson on the sidelines. Lott, Chafee, Breaux, etc. all left for the same reason. There is no comity to be found in the upper chamber anymore. … [T]he tea saucer is losing more of its cooling element and is becoming indistinguishable from the tea pot.”
Ben Nelson wasn’t a great senator, but then few in the Senate today would qualify to carry Robert Taft’s or Mike Mansfield’s briefcase. Nelson was a person, by political necessity and personal inclination, able to work across the partisan divide. But, there is no place for such people in today’s Senate.
It make me, an amateur historian of the Senate and its quirky ways, wonder what motivates people to reach the near absolute top of the American political system – the Senate – and then spend most of their time there trying to make certain the institution cannot function?
The late Sen. Robert Byrd revered the Senate as an institution. Byrd studied the history, knew the rules, understood what the Senate was designed to be and had to struggle to be. He even wrote a massive history of the institution that is remarkable for its lack of partisanship and its appreciation of compromise.
The retirement of Ben Nelson, whether or not his brand of conservative, Midwestern politics was your cup of tea, does mark yet another rubbing out of a “moderate.” As Jon Avlon notes in a piece at The Daily Beast, “at a time when our politics is looking like a cult, there is no tolerance for principled dissent. Dissent is disloyalty and punishable by either the threat of excommunication or electoral execution.”
Two things need to change. Those in the Senate – there must be a few – with some respect and understanding for the institution’s role in our democracy need to begin, through action and word, to restore a sense of civility and common purpose and voters need to quit rewarding people with high public office who seem to merely want to destroy the other side rather than work on the real problems of the nation.