Welcome Richard A. Baker (CSpan Interview) (Senate Historian) and Host Frances E. Lee (Univ. Maryland) (author, Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partnership in the U.S. Senate)

The American Senate: An Insider’s History

This new book by Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker offers a wide-ranging, illuminating, and entertaining look back at Senate history. Rather than a straightforward narrative tracing Senate development chronologically, the book is organized thematically. There are chapters on Senate elections, campaign finance, the body’s relationships with the president and the House of Representatives, the development of Senate party leadership, the use of Senate investigations, floor debate practices, the use of the filibuster, and the history of institutional reform efforts.

The subtitle of the book is “An Insider’s History.” The subtitle is well justified, given the long experience of its authors as close-in observers of the Senate. Neil MacNeil was a founding member of the PBS program Washington Week. He covered the Senate beginning in 1949 and later served as Time magazine’s chief congressional correspondent for three decades. Richard A. Baker started work at the Legislative Research Service in 1968 and was the Senate’s official historian from 1975 until his retirement in 2009. The book is the product of many years’ labor. MacNeil had worked on a major manuscript on the Senate for seventeen years, and the work was unfinished when he passed away in 2008. Baker took up the unfinished manuscript, streamlined the chapters, added in new material, and pulled together the final book.

The book does not advance a single thesis, so it is not easy to summarize. The Senate is a body “in transition”—and that has been true throughout its history. There is no trajectory toward either “better” or “worse”—at least not in a global sense, across all aspects of the Senate as an institution. The book celebrates neither the past nor the present. Unlike with many other books on the topic, there is no “golden age of the Senate,” no romanticizing of previous periods when the body was less mired in partisan conflict. The history presented here does not shy away from the vote fraud and demagogic racism that characterized the Democratic party of the Jim Crow era or the irresponsible fear-mongering of the McCarthy era. Many famous senators are described in less-than-flattering terms. The book discusses how Senate’s rules have forced bipartisan compromise, but it doesn’t idealize them. It makes clear that rampant use of the filibuster poses a threat to the institution’s capacity to function.

A book this broad-ranging will be valuable for a variety of purposes. Political junkies will find many great anecdotes that they have never encountered before. There are many well-drawn sketches of important senators of the past, from Dirksen to Mansfield to Conkling to Sumner. People interested in understanding how contemporary Senate practices in various areas evolved can turn to the relevant chapters. History, political science, and civics teachers will find useful examples to give students entree into previous eras. Anyone who reads the book will have a better, more multi-faceted understanding of the Senate and its role in American politics.

The author of a book of this scope will be well prepared to answer most any question about the history and operations of the U.S. Senate. So participants in this discussion should feel free to raise questions to Dick Baker on virtually any subject pertaining to the Senate, past or present.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

80 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Richard A. Baker, The American Senate: An Insider’s History”

BevW January 11th, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Dick, Frances, Welcome to the Lake.

Frances, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:01 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Thanks to FDL for organizing this book salon. Welcome, Dick & FDL readers.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Thank you for featuring “The American Senate.” I am certainly looking forward to the coming two hours.

dakine01 January 11th, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Good afternoon Dick and Frances and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon.

Dick, I have not had an opportunity to read your book so forgive me if these questions are addressed in there. Was LBJ the most powerful Senate Majority Leader? (I know that is often the belief – especially when compared to a Harry Reid) If not LBJ, who in your estimation? Would a senator from the early days of the Republic recognize it today?

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:02 pm

I’d like to start with a question from the headlines. Sen. Lamar Alexander recently accused Majority Leader Harry Reid of “destroying” the Senate. Have Reid’s leadership practices been well outside the norms for the institution? If so, how?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I agree that LBJ was a majority leader whose like has not been seen since, despite some capable successors. Majority Leader Reid, in triggering the nuclear option on November 21 certainly acted outside the practices of his predecessors. Bill Frist came close in 2005, but cooler heads prevailed, as they say. Reid’s was a bold move, without precedent. As to how it turns out, we’ll await the judgment of future historians.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 2:10 pm

The U.S. senate is a profoundly undemocratic institution.

Pros & cons?

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Do you see the “nuclear option” as a significant change for the Senate? Or will it, in some respects, return the Senate to the status quo ante of greater deference to presidential nominations (esp. for lower profile nominees)?

dakine01 January 11th, 2014 at 2:10 pm

As a technical note, there is a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” will pre-fill the commenter name and comment number being replied to and makes it easier for folks to follow the conversation.

Note: some browsers do not like to let the “Reply” function correctly if it is pressed after a hard page refresh but before the page completes loading

Peterr January 11th, 2014 at 2:14 pm

In reading the book, two contemporary concerns kept running through my head. First, the string of five years (and counting) of funding the government through stop-gap continuing resolutions rather than the adoption of regular appropriations bills. Second, the increasing obstruction of presidential appointments, particularly in the judiciary.

Am I wrong in thinking that the best parallel to the last 12 years in the Senate is 1848-60, as the Senate floundered in the run-up to the Civil War?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:14 pm

I see today’s Senate as on the verge of some major institutional adjustments, similar to those that took place in the late 1970s, in the wake of Watergate and under pressure from a fairly large influx of new members. The Senate established study panels on floor operations and committee procedures. Also, both parties gained new floor leaders in 1977 with Howard Baker (R) and Robert Byrd (D). That’s also when the Senate established its Historical Office and I went to work there (1975)

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Beyond the nuclear option, have Reid’s other leadership practices been outside the norms? Is there anything distinctive about his style, compared to other recent leaders? What about his use of parliamentary devices to restrict amendments?

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 2:16 pm

New members to senate are from TEA party. Does that mean the “institutional adjustments” you expect will favor that party?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:17 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 7

In terms of providing equal representation to the citizens of this nation, it is indeed undemocratic with Wyoming equaling California. If the Senate was a state legislature, it would have been redistricted under the provisions of 1960s Supreme Court rulings. But the Constitution’s Article V guarantees that will never happen.

Teddy Partridge January 11th, 2014 at 2:18 pm

This is quite a book, comprehensive and detailed. I am enjoying it even though it’s probably more than any casual student of the Senate would undertake. Thanks for writing it, and for chatting with us today!

Why do you think Senate Democrats have lost the battle for narrative over the filibuster? How can GOP Senators like Lamar Alexander accuse Harry Reid of “destroying the Senate” without a riposte that Mitch McConnell has ruined the “advise and consent” clause? I simply don’t understand why nominations can be treated this way, both Article III and executive appointments: more have been filibustered under Obama than all other Presidents’ combined!

Can you make an institutional connection between the race-filibusters in the Senate of yore, over Civil Rights and anti-lynching bills, and the current treatment of our nation’s first African-American president’s nominations and policies at the hand of obstructionist Southern Senators? It seems to me it’s all of a piece: white privilege-holders seeing their majorities and power slipping away, using record-setting levels of every trick in the book to de-legitimize the black American.

Your thoughts?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:20 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 8

It is a bit early to tell about the impact of the Nuclear Option decision, but I can’t help but believe that it will strengthen the already dominant executive at the Senate’s expense. In earlier times, troublesome nominations remained bottled up in committee and were difficult to discharge to the floor, so there was little discussion about simple majority votes. That concept is truly alien to the Senate when it comes to contentious matters.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Thanks for addressing the “undemocratic” portion of my Q.

Wouldn’t expect constitutional amendment effort over Article V; higher priority items for such efforts.

Do you see any pros to undemocratic senate? Usual talking point is “protection of minority rights against tyranny of majority.” Your judgement?

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:22 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 7

I’d just add that Dick is right that the Senate’s basis of apportionment is a fixed matter as far as the constitutional system goes. It has many effects on federal policymaking, including guaranteeing small states far more federal funding per capita than large states receive. But it’s interesting how little public ire centers on the Senate’s composition. People are very accepting of equal state representation, even though it’s a profound violation of one person-one vote.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:23 pm
In response to Peterr @ 10

The Senate of 1848-60 offers a chilling parallel to what happens when the Senate becomes dysfunctional. It is, of course dangerous to make tight comparisons over a distance of more than a century and a half, but such inquiries tell us what happens when senators, especially Senate leaders, stop communicating with one another

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Obstruction within the judiciary committee can continue to keep controversial nominations off the floor – right? The “nuclear option” doesn’t solve that problem for the president, does it?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:26 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 13

I’m not counting on that. The Senate has a way of taming some of its third party members, as do their constituents–ultimately. There’ nothing like a silent stare at a party caucus meeting to help get the message across to the would-be renegades.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 2:27 pm

“Silent stare” would not seem to intimidate TEA Party pols that I am familiar with. More likely to incite them.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:27 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 18

I am always amazed to remember that the nation’s 26 smallest states in terms of population account for only 16% of the country’s population, but a majority of votes in the Senate.

Peterr January 11th, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Last September, Rodger McDaniel was here to chat with folks about his book “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt” which I had the privilege to host. In the introductory post to the chat, I wrote about Alan Simpson’s foreward to the book:

In the foreword by Wyoming’s retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson — a family friend of the Hunts — gives us a glimpse of why this book needed to be written and this story told. Says Simpson: “There is much handwringing going on today regarding incivility in public dialogue. We pine nostalgically for a time when politics was more civil, less nasty, and more decent. . . [But] dirty tricks and the outrageous smears didn’t just begin in this generation.” After noting ugly allegations made against John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and the epic Blaine versus Cleveland nastiness of 1884, Simpson puts the story of what was done to Lester Hunt in 1954 into perspective, calling it “beyond anything even the toughest, meanest, most negative politicians would have recognized as being acceptable.”

Let the record show that Alan Simpson is well-known for his sometimes over-the-top descriptions and characterizations of politicians and their activities. As McDaniel documents, however, in this case Simpson is merely being accurate.

With this kind of description from Simpson, I was somewhat surprised to see no reference to Hunt at all in your book. Two questions:

(1) Are you familiar with McDaniel’s book, and if so, what did you think of it?

(2) I recognize that distilling 200+ years of Senate history into 360 or so pages (plus notes) means that lots and lots of stuff has to get left out of the final draft, and I’m curious about how you made these kinds of choices. Are there other stories you wish you had space to include?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:29 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 17

I do see a major value in the Senate’s undemocratic structure. We tried hard to pursue that theme in the book.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Is the contemporary Senate dysfunctional? If so, how could it be improved? Does it just take better, more skilled leaders? Or will institutional reformers need to make some adjustments to how the body operates?

Teddy Partridge January 11th, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I was very impressed recently, speaking of third-party Senators, that it was Senator Bernie Sanders’ unemployment extension bill that Leader Reid brought to the floor.

Peterr January 11th, 2014 at 2:30 pm

But now we’re at a place where it’s not just “troublesome” nominations get held up, but almost everyone (save a SCOTUS nomination) is held in limbo.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:32 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 22

Sources close to those meetings indicate that it is at work. It reminds me of the conservative Republican who joked with Edward Kennedy that he was having great fun beating up on him back in that Republican’s home state. Within the walls of the Senate, hover, it can be a different matter, particularly when the new member gets out of “campaign mode.” We’ll see.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Does the Senate’s traditional “social pressure” work as well today at taming uncooperative members? These days, senators spend so much more time campaigning in the home state and so much less time in Washington.

BevW January 11th, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Speaking of “campaign mode” – when did it become obvious that members of the Senate (and House) had to raise funds for their next run, on a daily basis? It seems like they are in campaign mode for the cameras all the time now.

Teddy Partridge January 11th, 2014 at 2:35 pm
In response to Peterr @ 28

Until, of course, they are permitted to come to the floor by Leader McConnell, at which point and despite all the maximum debate time taken up, many nominations are approved almost unanimously. Even now.

I’m also interested in the new “blue slip” abuse being practiced in the Judiciary Committee — where Obama has nominated to federal judgeships candidates suggested by GOP Senators, only to see Chairman Leahy having to honor a blue slip (veto) from that same Senator. Marco Rubio recently pulled this stunt over the first gay black nominee to the federal judiciary, and Senator Burr has done it as well. While Patrick Leahy honors blue-slips from senators representing the state of the nominee despite their having recommended them previously, previous GOP Chair Orrin Hatch never honored blue slips.

Is this another “rule” of the Senate better set aside by both parties instead of only one?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:35 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 26

I believe that it is “relatively” dysfunctional, compared to what it has been and can be. It does get some things done, although fewer and fewer as election time approaches. I may have to strike “relatively>” Start with passing appropriations bills–how about that?–and resuming the ancient practice of conducting legislative conferences with the House.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Many senators and former senators echo your call for a return to “regular order.” But I wonder if there’s any way to go back to past practices.

It’s like the way the House minority party complains about the abuse of its rights, promises to rule differently if given the chance. But once in the majority they usually discover that they have to use the same practices they once derided.

Are there reasons why the regular order just doesn’t work now to pass appropriations bills or reconcile H-S differences?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:39 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 30

You’ve hit a major problem. Perhaps it all began in 1958 when the first jet airplane took off from National Airport for a transcontinental flight. That was the beginning of the end of inter-party socializing, having picnics with other members irrespective of their party affiliation. As soon as the local Rotary Club knew that it was possible for a member to get home to address a Friday luncheon, the closely knit congressional family community began to fray. Today, of course, few members bother to move their families to the Washington, DC area.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Russ Tice, my favorite whistle blower, has recently revealed that one of the jobs of NSA is to collect blackmail material on VIPs. Tice said something to the effect that no candidate for high office who is squeaky clean clears vetting. Tice personally held Senator Obama’s “jacket” (J.E. Hoover term of art) in his hand. (Also soon-to-be Justice Alito’s.)

What influence did you unearth of behind-the-scenes pressure on senators’ votes and other behavior?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:43 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 34

The one theme of our book that we tried to emphasize is that the Senate, as retrograde as it appears, grudgingly does change to meet modern demands–ever so haltingly and perhaps belatedly, but out book does document that change. A new generation of leaders and members inevitably moves into the vacuum. 1911-13 comes to mind, and so deos 1945-50.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:45 pm

One implication of your comment is that we may be in for a long wait!

Do you see a rising cadre of new senators comparable to the generations of 1911-13 or 1945-50?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:47 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 36

Oh, that’s such a wonderful subject. One way to pick it up in our book is to read the chapters describing how senators have gotten elected, especially before the changes that culminated in the 17 Amendment of 1913. And that opens the door to the huge topic of campaign finance reform. It is badly broken and no one seems to have a solution except to equate campaign spending with free speech. As one long time observer noted, the more money you have the more free speech you can buy. Stay tuned.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:47 pm

It’s generally an American tradition to disdain Congress. But public esteem of Congress fluctuates—sometimes higher, sometimes lower. Obviously, it’s at historic lows now.

Can you think of periods when assessments of Congress were more positive? If so, do you have any thoughts about why some Congresses were more esteemed?

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Yes, your chapter on campaign finance reform is a catalog of futile efforts at regulation. Is the process beyond the hope of management?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:50 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 38

These changes seem to come in 25-40-year bursts. Most senators simply don’t have the time between campaign victory celebrations and getting office space assigned to learn much about this challenging institution. I earnestly hope that each new senator (and the veterans as well) wil read this book. They are one of its multiple target audiences. Several have already told me that tyey plan to give copies to some of their colleagues.

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 2:54 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 40

And are the members themselves concerned about the “how low”? There does not to be much sense of shame, but only more mud-slinging and blame? Are there any adults to make a course correction?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:55 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 40

Well, we only have to go back to 1974, in the wake of Watergate. That brought in a crop of senators and representatives capable resetting the institutional compass. Unfortunately, those windows to change open and shut quickly. I have a great deal of respect for leaders such as Mike Mansfield, Hugh Scott, Robert Byrd, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, among others for recognizing and acting on those opportunities. Of course back then we hadn’t quite arrives at the age of electronic communications that makes our exchange this afternoon possible.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 2:58 pm
In response to RevBev @ 43

It seems that members mainly use the “how low can we go?” point to level accusations of blame.

And, perhaps ironically, partisan conflict in Congress seems to be a major factor in driving down public approval of the institution.

A likely cause of this continual charge / counter charge politics is the extreme competitiveness of the current era. Every time there’s a Senate election coming up, there’a s lot of speculation about whether the Senate majority will change hands. This isn’t typical for U.S. history, but it has been the norm for recent years.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 2:58 pm
In response to RevBev @ 43

I sense a deep concern among the more senior (less electorally vulnerable) members. But I also recall the comments of leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle about what happened after their weekly party conference luncheons. “They came out of there on fire and it took us the rest of the day to get them calmed down. We tried to follow this theme in Chapter 8 on modern-era Senate leadership.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Could you say a bit more about what these senators of the Watergate era did so well — to make the institution function better and to win public approval?

Tammany Tiger January 11th, 2014 at 3:00 pm

I recall reading that Robert Byrd was an expert in the history and procedures of the Roman Senate.

Which brings me to my question: when the American colonies and later, the Framers, included a Senate in their constitution, what historical precedents did they rely on, and which ones did the reject?

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 3:01 pm

There is a question above about the book about Sen. Hunt and McCarthy. Is there anything you would like to add about that era? The book is remarkable; we had a really good Salon. Thanks

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:01 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 41

If it is, the nation is in big trouble. And we can lay so much of that at the marbled portico of Cass Gilbert’s Supreme Court Building.

Peterr January 11th, 2014 at 3:02 pm

The book notes the effect of the televised Kefauver hearings in changing the way the public viewed the Senate, and McCarthy certainly did his part as well. The Watergate hearings had a similar effect. But since then, hearings have tended to become more of a televised campaign appearance. Each senator has the questions he or she wants to ask, regardless of whether they’ve been asked already, and there is little apparent cooperation between senators to advance the investigation at hand or discussion of the relevant issue.

Who, in your estimation, is (or was) best at leading productive hearings?

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Has the character of the Senate, its members, changed dramatically? It may be naive, but I recall a sense of having some trust and some members having integrity. It is almost impossible to call up that sense in today’s membership; maybe an over-statement, but accurate, I think, about perception.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:07 pm
In response to Tammany Tiger @ 48

The Senate has evolved in ways so alien from what the framers of the constitution expected. Some looked to the House of Lords as a model, with the idea that the Senate would be a counterweight to the more democratic House. They also thought that the Senate would be a small body, perhaps like an advisory committee to the president. Political parties did not yet exist.

The Senate today is much larger than the framers envisioned the body. Its members are directly elected, unlike under the original constitution. And everything about the way the body functions is affected by party politics and party organizations.

One lesson is that it is that political institutions rarely work as they were intended to!

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:07 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 47

Well, to begin with, they were elected on a wave of reform. The impetus came initially from the House, where there were more “Watergate Babies.” Many of them ended up in the Senate before long. The Congressional Budget Act was a herculean effort at reform, as was the Federal election Campaign Act–both before the 1974 elections, but subject to common pressures. And then in 1975, the Senate adopted something known as “S.Res. 60″ that, for the first time allowed every member of a Senate committee to hire a staff member for that committee. Previously, the chairman and ranking minority member did all the hiring. That decentralized the staff’s loyalty and made committees more”democratic” and ;ess predictable. That also led to open-seeion meetings and mark-ups of pending legislation–a major change.

Tammany Tiger January 11th, 2014 at 3:12 pm

One of the Tea Party’s constitutional hobby-horses is repealing the 17th Amendment which, they believe, will make senators more motivated to fight for their state’s interests. My $.02 is that moneyed interests would find it even easier to bribe state legislators (legally, of course, since money is speech) than to buy statewide elections.

Do either of you care to comment on repealing the 17th?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:13 pm
In response to Peterr @ 51

I don’t have a good answer for you from recent times. In Chapter 10, we take some pains to describe the decline of special Senate investigative committee, like the Truman Committee, and the Watergate Committee. This explains, in part, why Congress farmed out the 9/11 investigation to a special commission. A main culprit is lack of bipartisanship and the overriding chase for money to fund phenomenally expensive election campaigns

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:15 pm
In response to Tammany Tiger @ 55

I can’t imagine that it’d be possible get widespread public support for making Senate elections less democratic! This particular Tea Party idea is, in my estimation, a dead letter.

Political scientists who have studied the effects of the 17th amendment don’t see it as having transformative effects one way or another.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:17 pm

What would you say was the last really important Senate investigation?

Do I understand from your previous remark that the rise of partisan conflict stands at the root of the Senate’s declining ability to use investigations effectively? Investigations in partisan periods don’t produce any consensus about a problem or an issue, but instead just become mired in “he said / she said.”

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:18 pm
In response to Tammany Tiger @ 55

You are absolute correct, in my humble opinion. That’s precisely whjat happened from the 1880s to 1912. And it is worth adding that direct popular election of senators evolved throughout that period. Soe of the progressive western states (Colorado is a good example) initiated preference primaries, the results of which were then laid before the state legislature. “All right, gentlemen, are you going to ignore this expression of public sentiment?” In one instance, Colorado’s Republican legislature actually elected a Democrat. That ties into our theme of evolutionary change in Senate operations–and the nation as well, for that matter

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:19 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 57

And I would agree with them. After 1913: same old problems.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:23 pm

The first chapter of your book is chock full of examples of the racist demagoguery that used to win elections during the Jim Crow era and the sort of fear mongering senators used during the Red Scare.

Would you say that Senate elections today are better at defining meaningful policy differences between the candidates than they were at earlier points?

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:26 pm
In response to RevBev @ 52

In earlier times, the Senate included among its members studious, possibly introverted members who actually called up books from the Library of Congress and helped to draft their own legislation and questions to witnesses before their committees and executive branch officials.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Now members of Congress rely on staff for all information gathering, question preparing, legislative drafting. They don’t do these things themselves.
Has the increase in staff had detrimental effects on the Senate?

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Thanks…what a wonderful description. I will not ask you to compare and contrast…

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:32 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 61

I think the electoral process, in practice, does as much to obscure the differences between candidates and to differentiate them. That has always been the tendency and is dependent on the state and region of the nation and the hot issues of the day. I recall the debate over the 1977-78 Panama Canal treaties. Senators up for election couldn’t escape that one. Either you wanted to “give it away” or you didn’t. And it cost some very good senators their seats. As one of them said not too long ago: “In 1978 people weren’t speaking to one another on that issue; today, no one remembers what the fus was all about.”

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:37 pm

The book argues that the passage of Civil Rights is one of the key factors that began to break down restraints on the use of filibusters. Can you say a bit more about this? Do you see any prospect of reining in their use, short of another “nuclear option”?

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Just an aside…during last year I was making visits on the Hill during the immigration march and debate. We visited a number of offices and mostly spoke with staff, of course. My main observation was about seeing these “kids” all about 21 years old….your comment makes me wonder if those are the folks providing information to the members.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:39 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 63

Senators need to be careful about becoming isolated by their staffs. It is easy for that protective wall to rise and stay in place. As Senator Robert Byrd cautioned new senators, “Every day around here is a crisis; trying to absorb information is like trying to drink from a fire hose.” Good staffs are essential, particularly in these times when a senator can make a speech in the Senate chamber, or cast a vote only to return to her office and find the e-mails–some supportive and some downright threatening. Senators today, unlike pre-World War II times, are expected to have an informer opinion on every topic that might have a legislative handle.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Had to take some time out, but thought I’d entertain with a relevant anecdote.

In the mid-90s, I ended up seated next to Senator Pothole (D’Amato) on the shuttle from National to LGA. I worked on Wall St at the time & took out some reports that I was hoping would entice him into a conversation.

Successful gambit. We talked for an hour, about NYS wine industry, medical industry were two main topics. He was better informed that I expected.

Passenger on window side was tropical fish importer, flew 250,000 miles/year, so he got involved in conversation. Pollution, other matters.

Was one of the most fascinating hours I’ve had. How often does one have n hour with a senator, even one you disagree with.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:43 pm

The rise of staff is probably another factor in the decline in the extent to which senators know one another personally. Senators today spend so much time managing and interacting their staffs. But it leaves them little time to get to know other senators. This probably undermines trust and ability to work together.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:46 pm
In response to RevBev @ 67

I’ve observed two levels of Senate staff: the post-graduate cohort in town for a year or two to get their developmental sea-legs, and the professional staffs, who tend to work for committees rather than in members’ personal offices. Those committee staffers who are deeply experienced tend to stay around even as the committee’s membership changes. Or they may move into a leadership office. I believe the overall level of competence on policy issues is very high and stable. That is somewhat counter-intuitive given Congress’s decentralized structure.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 3:46 pm

At Netroots Nation 2007, when Obama was making his speech at the Brandenburg gate, I went to his table at the convention to complain about his FISA vote. The dripping-behind-the-ears 20-something volunteers working the table sneered at me: What’s your choice.

Got Obama’s # PDQ. Amazing how “trickle down” works.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:50 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 69

That surely rises to the stature of a lifetime memory. In the book, we note the experience of catching a senator alone on the subway that shuttles from the Capitol to the office buildings. A three-minute conversation in that setting can also be an eye-opener.

BevW January 11th, 2014 at 3:52 pm

As we come to the last few minutes of this Book Salon discussion. Any last throughts?

Dick, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, and the Senate.

Frances, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Dick’s website and book

Frances’s website

Thanks all. Have a great weekend.

There will NOT be a salon tomorrow. If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Bev, Thank you as always, and many thanks to the guests. Really important and helpful information. Thanks for being here.

eCAHNomics January 11th, 2014 at 3:55 pm

My takeaway was what a shame all that talent was wasted in dysfunction and other pressures.

Frances E. Lee January 11th, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Thanks to FDL for organizing this book salon. Thanks very much to the readers for your comments and questions. And many thanks to Dick for a fascinating discussion.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:57 pm
In response to Frances E. Lee @ 70

A further thought. When Senators Daschle and Lott were the Senate’s floor leaders, they made a point of scheduling evening events for all senators and their spouses at the Smithsonian, National Archives, and other such places just for the socializing. Senator Lott in 1998 also inaugurated a “Leader’s Lecture Series” two of three times a year in the crimson-and-gold Old Senate Chamber for former leaders, beginning with Mike Mansfield, to speak about what leadership in the context of the Senate meant to them. A majority of senators turned out for these events and the reception that followed. C-SPAN broadcast them. They are treasures, but all done in the name of having a Senators’ Night Out.

Richard A. Baker January 11th, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Thanks to all. I enjoyed every minute.

RevBev January 11th, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Amazing how long ago all that seems. Thanks for the note.

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