Putting ‘Deliberative’ Back in World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

Posted November 14, 2003 at 3:01pm

Upon his return to America from France, Thomas Jefferson asked George Washington why he had supported the establishment of a second chamber in Congress, the Senate.

Washington was said to have responded with a question. “Why did you pour coffee into that saucer?” he asked. “To cool it,” Jefferson responded.

“Even so,” Washington remarked, “we pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”

Putting aside the Founders’ exaggerated fear of giving too much power to the popularly elected House of Representatives (Senators originally were appointed to their posts), it’s clear from its very beginnings that the Senate was relied on for serious, thorough debate on the issues of the day.

And that’s exactly what came to pass in the ensuing years on issues ranging from federalism to secession to slavery. The chamber hosted stirring, impromptu debates by such legendary orators as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun (though all were wrong on the issue of slavery). More recent rhetorical luminaries included William Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Adlai Stevenson and Margaret Chase Smith. Of course, the Senate was also the forum for less-lofty encounters, such as long-winded filibusters against civil rights legislation and, in 1856, even a brutal caning.

Still, the Senate rarely failed to capture the American people’s interest as it undertook its duty of carefully, sometimes exhaustively, debating the issues. Indeed, excerpts and even full texts of major Senate debates commonly filled major newspapers and, with the rise of the telegraph, were transmitted across the country.

That was then.

I’ve been in the U.S. Senate for nearly a decade now and I must tell you that these days inspiring oratory in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” is often lacking. Nothing much is actually debated on the Senate floor anymore. Most Senators speak on the great issues of the day from typed notes before empty chambers. Direct interaction is extremely limited.

Even filibusters aren’t really filibusters anymore. Debate can be closed and a vote required on a bill only if 60 Senators agree. That means a determined minority of 40 can hold up legislation (or nominations) indefinitely without ever stepping foot onto the Senate floor.

There exists no modern parallel to the intense, lively exchanges of our Senate predecessors. That’s surely not because the modern era lacks momentous issues.

Instead, what’s happened is that we’ve surrendered dialogue and face-to-face interaction to 30-second sound bites and over-the-top diatribes that might give us some airtime on the evening news.

The same emptiness affects presidential politics. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said something quite candid recently, dismissing the latest series of Democratic presidential candidate “debates” as amounting to little more than getting “60 seconds to talk about the country every 11 minutes or so.” I’m inclined to agree.

But I can remember how the free-wheeling Nixon-Kennedy debates captured the nation’s attention in 1960, as the two presidential candidates engaged in lengthy and thoughtful exchanges on the nation’s most pressing issues. Just look at how these encounters went downhill in the ensuing years: to irrelevant discussions on whether the first President George Bush looked at his wristwatch in a “debate” with Bill Clinton, or on whether Michael Dukakis was sufficiently nice, or how Dan Quayle compared to John F. Kennedy.

Our political culture substituted the trivial for the hard work of fairly examining the substance of what candidates were saying.

It’s no wonder, then, that politics has often lost the public’s interest. Or that the discourse has turned increasingly sour, since today’s leaders rarely allow themselves to be held to account for the more outlandish things they say in an isolated television studio, a brief sound bite, or to an empty but televised Senate chamber.

We should strive for better. Today, the Senate Republican and Democratic Policy committees are scheduled to jointly host the second of a periodic series of one-hour debates on the Senate floor. Our first debate was on the subject of Social Security. Today’s topic is the economy and job creation.

These real Senate debates are a modest attempt to try to bring back some policy oriented, thoughtful and lively discussions to our chamber so that Senators of both parties can actually exchange ideas, participate in a genuine give-and-take, and better appreciate each other’s point of view.

Perhaps in the process we can help the Senate slowly return to what James Madison hoped for. “The use of the Senate,” he wrote in the Federalist Papers, “is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.