“Clay and Webster and Calhoun gave the Senate its fame — and its power — but there were others of almost equal talent. Among them were [Thomas Hart] Benton, a formidable parliamentarian despite his unmatched egotism, and New York’s Silas Wright. They had great subjects to debate, almost all involving the interpretation of the Constitution, and they, rather than members of the House of Representatives or those in the executive branch, debated them at length,” the authors write, before adding that, as remains true today “debates, of course, did not pass legislation. Far more than eloquent speeches was needed to persuade senators how to vote on any pending question.”
The book gives the expected treatments to the myriad efforts to break through the Southern blockade of civil rights legislation of the 1950s and ’60s, along with the key role that filibusters played in protecting the prerogatives of segregationists such as Richard B. Russell.
A Contemporary Hook
Publication comes in the midst of the latest talk of retooling the rules to advance the majority’s agenda, in this case President Barack Obama’s executive and judicial nominations, with the threat that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., might use the “nuclear option” to effectively change the Senate’s rules by procedural means with a simple majority vote. The move would eliminate the ability to block nominations by filibuster.
It’s to some extent a reprise of 2005, when Frist seemed prepared to make the same move until the emergence of the “gang of filibuster judicial nominations,” they write.
Of course over the past few years, the roles have reversed, with McConnell making arguments that could pass for 2005 Democratic talking points.
The book ends just after a January 2011 rules standoff came to resolution with Reid and McConnell working with colleagues to bring about a resolution that included incremental procedural changes like the formal end to the ability to hold up nominations and legislation in secret, along with a colloquy about an ill-fated handshake deal between Reid and McConnell that Baker called “extraordinary for its expression of interparty good will.”
“History moves in cycles and so does the Senate,” the book says in an afterword. “As long as the US Constitution — the world’s oldest continuing written charter of government — remains in effect, the fundamental structure of the Senate will stand unchanged. There can be little doubt of that.”
Still, the authors attest to the great changes that have happened in chamber operations, which will no doubt continue. At the end of the day, anyone who intends to pass through the Senate for more than a fleeting second ought to read this book.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.