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Learn More About the Senate With This Guide

“The American Senate” should be required reading for anyone new to the chamber: interns, staffers, even senators. There’s unlikely to be another single volume quite as comprehensive anytime soon, a fact that can probably be attributed to the authors.

Neil MacNeil was chief congressional correspondent at Time magazine for 30 years, and Richard A. Baker spent longer than that as Senate historian. MacNeil died in 2008, leaving Baker with extensive notes to bring about a finished product.

The two men opted to divide the book into subject areas, rather than running through a history of the Senate from 1789 to the present day. The result is that each segment tells its own story and thus can largely be read independently from the others.

MacNeil and Baker demonstrate knowledge of both the serious and the absurd. Sure, there are detailed explanations of the caning of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner and the first cloture vote (in which senators sustained a filibuster of the Treaty of Versailles). But the volume also features references to more recent esoteric incidents, like the posthumous election of Mel Carnahan, D-Mo., in 2000 — which the authors call “a tactic without precedent” — and the “diagnosis” of Terri Schiavo by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Follow the Money

That the authors choose to begin with campaign finance is somewhat instructive. It seems that they made a conscious decision to set forth the importance of money in politics from the outset, from the early years through the bribery and sale of Senate seats that led up to the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators by the voters of each state. Up until that point, it had been the oft-corrupt state legislatures and party bosses making the selections.

Speaking of the 1970s campaign finance debates, the authors make one of many points that still rings true today.

“Quarreling over campaign funds and election law had long been a regular feature of Senate debate and a matter of grave concern to both political parties. The two parties had differing constituencies and, consequently, differing sources of financial support. In this, Republicans had an obvious advantage from their ties to business interests that were better off than the labor unions that formed a key sector of the Democrats’ base,” MacNeil and Baker write. “The Democrats generally tried to limit campaign money, while Republicans fought such restrictions.”

From there, the book weaves through the subsequent decades of attempts to change campaign finance law, through enactment of the McCain-Feingold campaign overhaul and the Supreme Court challenge led by current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“Today, senators who wish to keep their options open for another term must labor for six full years under the preoccupying urgency of amassing the many millions of dollars that such a campaign will be certain to require,” they write. “More than at any previous time, these money-driven elections are discouraging otherwise promising potential candidates and distracting members from optimal participation in the Senate’s day-to-day legislative responsibilities.”

Of course, MacNeil and Baker dedicate a substantial number of words to the Senate’s seminal debates over slavery and civil rights. That included going beyond the well-documented history of the “Great Triumvirate” of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, Kentucky’s Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (he of New Hampshire and Massachusetts lore).

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