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OPINION

Senate No Longer Works for Americans

Senate No Longer Works for Americans
Even Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has trouble reaching across the aisle because of protests from fellow Republicans. (Getty Images)

George J. Marlin By Friday, 12 April 2024 12:52 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Like most of Washington, the U.S. Senate has not been working all that well. Too many members of that august body are more concerned with grinding out press releases, gabbing ad nauseam before the cameras and racing back home to announce pork barrel goodies for favored interest groups.

Yes, too much of a senator’s time is devoted to making headlines.

The Founding Fathers had a very different view of the job. The Senate was to be a forum where its members could deliberate on important issues. Having six-year terms, they were expected to make sound judgments, to restrain hotheads in the House of Representatives and to reject legislation based on momentary political whims or the latest public opinion polls.

Senators, the Founders hoped, would adhere to the maxim of the great British statesman, Edmund Burke, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

There was a time in our recent history when members of both political parties believed it their duty to govern. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, senators rose above ideological and geographical differences, and reached bipartisan consensus on the pressing issues of the day.

The story of that era is described in historian Marc Johnson’s excellent new book, Mansfield and Dirksen: Bipartisan Giants of the Senate.

The Senate functioned when it was managed by three extraordinary leaders who were pragmatic, not purists: Democrats Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Mike Mansfield of Montana, and Republican Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois.

At mid-century, the Senate was collegial. Spending more time in Washington, they got to know one another’s personalities, idiosyncrasies and their approaches to public policy. It was a time when they could speak freely to one another, knowing their conversations would not appear in the next day’s newspapers.

When Lyndon Johnson became Senate minority leader in President Eisenhower’s first term, he said “there are two courses open to a minority party, it can indulge in the politics of partisanship, or it can remain true to the politics of responsibility.”

While not an Eisenhower lackey, Johnson did not risk angering the American people by ideological-driven criticism of the popular Eisenhower administration.

Senators devoted their energies to becoming policy experts in various fields — defense, housing, education, agriculture, etc. And they used that knowledge to champion legislation that benefited the nation.

The Republican leader, Sen. Dirksen, working with Johnson in the 1950s, passed the first major civil rights bill in 100 years. The legislation was passed without a filibuster.

Dirksen, whom Marc Johnson describes as a flamboyant and would-be actor, was a solid conservative in the tradition of his hero Sen. Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft (1889-1953). And like Taft, and later Ronald Reagan, he believed that getting 60% of the loaf by hard bargaining and being flexible, was better than getting 0% by refusing to compromise.

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Dirksen and Johnson’s successor as Democratic leader, the mild-mannered S.en Mike Mansfield, worked together to pass legislation including civil and voting rights legislation and Medicare.

Dirksen was no pushover. In negotiations, he made it clear what it would take for his Republican caucus to sign on to bills. Mansfield, knowing that to pass landmark legislation he needed overwhelming GOP support, often ceded to Dirksen's needs and publicly gave him and his Republican colleagues credit for success.

The '50s and '60s were also the era of bipartisan foreign policy. Republicans and Democratic senators supported the dealings of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson with the Soviet Union.

For example, when it came to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, Sen. Mansfield said, “It is my avowed hope that Sen. Dirksen and I will be working shoulder to shoulder on this one. When the chips are down, I have every confidence in the fairness of the Republicans. I am certain that with them it will not be politics but what will be good for their country.”

After gaining concessions from JFK that the U.S. would continue “to maintain a posture of readiness, to resume atmospheric testing, enhance detection capabilities to ensure Russians were not cheating, and maintain a robust development capability,” Marc Johnson notes that Dirksen signed on, as did former President Eisenhower. The treaty reached the two-thirds of votes needed for passage with the support of 25 Republican senators.

The days of such bipartisanship are long gone. When Sen. Mitch McConnell, the best Senate leader since Lyndon Johnson, reached across the aisle to achieve consensus on legislation, he was often rebuffed by his party members, particularly in the House of Representatives.

The recent rejection by House GOP members of the Senate bipartisan migrant immigration legislation is an example of the dysfunction.

If the Republicans should win the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives this fall, it is my hope that they finally decide it’s time to stop bloviating and to govern. To learn how that’s done, I recommend they read Marc Johnson’s book, Mansfield and Dirksen.

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." Read George J. Marlin's Reports — More Here.

© 2024 Newsmax. All rights reserved.


George-J-Marlin
When Lyndon Johnson became Senate minority leader in President Eisenhower’s first term, he said “there are two courses open to a minority party, it can indulge in the politics of partisanship, or it can remain true to the politics of responsibility.”
senate, bipartisanship
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Friday, 12 April 2024 12:52 PM
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