When one has reached the political apex of the Senate — the most powerful elected office in the land with the exception of the presidency — secure in a six-year tenure that partially insulates you from the tides of public opinion for a few years at least, there are few people to answer to for your actions — or lack thereof — unless it is an election year.
In the past, outside of media criticism or the rare rejection of passed legislation as unconstitutional by federal courts, the clubby environment of the Senate has allowed some senators the apparent luxury of an arrogant sense of unaccountability for their actions — an impression only heightened by the lack of consequences that followed such outrages as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wholesale theft of a Supreme Court seat that former president Barack Obama rightfully had the authority to see his nominee considered for and the recent politically-motivated acquittal of Donald Trump on his impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in a sham trial with no witnesses or late-breaking evidence considered.
Now, however, the Republican-controlled legislative body is facing an unprecedented rebuke by 70 former members of the previously august institution who have signed an open letter to the current holders of the powerful positions in the Senate and published their damning opinions of the performance of the members of the upper chamber of the 116th United States Congress right on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post.
The bi-partisan signatories of the letter —which include such familiar political luminaries of the recent past as Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Tom Daschle (D-SD), John Kerry (D-MA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Bob Packwood (R-OR), among many others — waste no time in making their purpose known, launching into a statement that is both an accurate assessment of the current Senate’s failures and an urgent plea to return to the primacy of constitutional values.
“Congress is not fulfilling its constitutional duties. Much of the responsibility rests on the Senate. We are writing to encourage the creation of a bipartisan caucus of incumbent senators who would be committed to making the Senate function as the Framers of the Constitution intended,” the letter begins.
The writers then go on to explain the Founding Fathers’ vision of the powers of the legislative branch and how the Senate itself has voluntarily surrendered those powers to the executive branch in an abdication of their rightful responsibilities — noting how “the power to regulate international trade, the power to authorize the use of military force in foreign conflicts and, when the president declares national emergencies, the power of the purse,” have all been squandered by the Senate in recent years.
The former Senators’ warning about this practice is dire and devastatingly damning to the current crop of legislators.
“The Senate’s abdication of its legislative and oversight responsibilities erodes the checks and balances of the separate powers that are designed to protect the liberties on which our democracy depends,” their letter declares.
While noting that they don’t intend to suggest that their own senatorial tenures were “some golden age when the Senate operated like clockwork and its members embraced one another as one big happy family,” the former senior congressional leaders are dismayed by a sense of purposelessness that they believe is dissuading some from remaining in office and others from even considering serving in a body that has become a shadow of its former self.
“Anecdotally, we have been told by sitting members that the diminished state of the Senate has left them doubting whether there is any point in continuing to serve, and it has caused potential candidates to question whether the reality of Senate membership is worth the considerable effort and expense of running for office,” the signatories ruefully confess.
Reaffirming the description of our nation’s legislative process as a messy process of “sausage-making,” they declare that the machine is broken and the larder is empty. Among the factors they cite:
“Senate committees have lost responsibility for writing legislation. Rules allowing extended debate, a feature of the Senate that is essential to protecting the rights of minorities, have been abused as the filibuster and cloture have shut down action on the Senate floor. It is now commonly said that it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. This is new and obstructionist; it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture in the once relatively exceptional event of a filibuster. Filibusters are now threatened as a matter of course and are too readily acceded to. Neither in committee nor on the floor do rank-and-file members have reasonable opportunities to advance their positions by voting on legislation.”
The former Senators did not write their missive to merely complain about the current situation, bereft of solutions. They explain how they propose to restore the Senate to its proper role in the functioning of a democratic institution.
“We believe a bipartisan caucus of incumbent members that promotes a fair opportunity for senators to participate in meaningful committee work as well as on the Senate floor could help restore the Senate to its essential place in our constitutional system. Its members would need to stand firm in the face of what could be strong opposition from partisans who prefer politicians who take intransigent positions over those who champion a legislative process that celebrates compromise,” they insist.
As people who have faced the same political pressures that the current Senators must deal with — minus a president who is unbounded by tradition or propriety in most instances — the signatories understand that they are asking for a profound act of political courage and vow to publically support any efforts to achieve their aims.
They conclude their letter with a final plea appealing to the current Senators’ higher ideals and a warning of the consequences of continuing on the current errant trajectory.
“We know that accepting this challenge may put some of you at political risk. But we are also confident that each of you chose to serve in public life to advance the cause of a “more perfect union.” Our hope is that all of you will accept this challenge to advance that timeless and higher purpose. The Senate — and the proper functioning of our Republic — are simply too important to be allowed to continue on their present course,” they say.
While the former Senators’ conclusion is undeniable, it remains to be seen if their faith in the advanced consciousness and public idealism of our current Senate is justified or not. We can only pin our hopes to theirs at this point…and on the next election to ensure that a new Senate emerges, one that is willing to embrace their vision for a Senate back in the mold that the Founding Fathers envisioned.
You can read the full open letter from 70 former U.S. Senators as published in The Washington Post here.