When most people think of the Senate, they think of partisan gridlock, culture war and bills that go nowhere. A Gallup poll found that as of April 19, 2022, 76 percent of respondents disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. In fact, approval of Congress’s job performance hasn’t cracked 40 percent since 2005.
The Founding Fathers created the Senate with the image in mind of a legislative body detached from the political whims of future administrations. It’s instead become a partisan battleground where popular bills go to die.
Ira Shapiro, a former Clinton staffer and renowned Senate expert, points the finger at one man: Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He talked to Grid about his new book, “The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.” In it, he argues that McConnell has single-handedly obstructed Congress from carrying out its basic duties — and enabled a potential authoritarian in the executive seat.
Hard-line Republicans, such as Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama pitch a different narrative about McConnell’s tenure as majority leader. Tuberville told reporters back in January that he approved how McConnell was leading the Senate, despite Trump’s criticism of him. The former president has been waging an ongoing campaign against the Kentucky Republican for breaking rank with the GOP following the attack on the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
“I think he does a good job,” he told The Hill. “It’s kind of like being a head coach in football. People look at sometimes the outward statements. They don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, the organization, the planning, getting people to work together.”
How did the Senate become so divisive and does McConnell deserve the brunt of the blame that Shapiro gives him?
Shapiro told Grid, absolutely. And the proof? He said look back at the Senate of the 1960s and 1970s — what Shapiro considers to be one of the best leadership runs in Senate history. It was a Senate that passed the Civil Rights Act and investigated the Watergate scandal, he talks about in an earlier book of his, “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.”
“That Senate worked,” he told Grid. “They didn’t engage in endless obstruction. They didn’t resolve everything, but they came to agreements on a lot of things. That’s the complete opposite [of] this Senate.”
A Senate more removed from politics and public opinion
Over the course of the debate on how the three branches of government should function, James Madison explained that his goal in creating the Senate was to establish a slower, smaller and more detached governing body from the rapid cyclical nature of the House: “All that need be remarked is, that a body which is to correct this infirmity, ought itself to be free from it, and consequently ought to be less numerous,” he wrote in Federalist No. 62 (part of a series of newspaper editorials debating how Congress should work that later came to be known as The Federalist Papers).
The founders, including Madison, hoped that the Senate would be “more deliberative than the House and a little bit more insulated from public pressure,” Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the University of Illinois with a specialty in elections and public opinion, told Grid. Senators have longer terms than House members, and their elections occur every six years rather than two, “so the entire Senate doesn’t turn over in any one election,” Gaines explained.
“The Senate has what we call ‘representational responsibility,’” Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told Grid. “Fundamentally, senators represent their constituents, but unlike the House, they represent larger areas, entire states.”
According to Reynolds, the Senate has three main functions: representing their regions, voting on bills and offering advice and consent on nominations to executive branch positions and the federal judiciary. But as Shapiro wrote in his new book, the Senate has one more function: protecting the federal government against authoritarianism.
One of the Senate’s pillars: Keep the balance of power intact
Shapiro noted that the founders didn’t just want to protect democracy from the instability of the House, but also the executive branch. “They feared and anticipated a corrupt rogue president who would overreach and who might be an authoritarian,” Shapiro told Grid. “And they thought they were putting in place a structure of checks and balances that would combat that problem, most particularly a strong Senate.”
The Senate has one major responsibility, he wrote: “to be a bulwark against any leader who would abuse the great powers of the presidency in ways that threatened our democracy.” The central argument of Shapiro’s new book is that the Senate failed at its constitutional duties when it sought to give former President Donald Trump more power rather than rein him in during his administration.
“Some 230 years later, when just such a president finally reached the White House, the Senate should have been democracy’s strongest line of defense,” he wrote. “Instead, a nightmare scenario followed: The Senate, weakened from a long period of accelerating decline, proved utterly incapable of checking Trump’s authoritarian desires.”
Shapiro said then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell exacerbated the divide by obstructing legislative efforts from the left while forcing open every door of opportunity for the right.
“The Senate leaders have the special responsibility of working across the aisle, working with presidents of other parties when necessary and bringing people together,” he told Grid. “McConnell does not bring people together. I consider him to be an architect of division deliberately.”
Shapiro names who he regards as the three greatest Senate leaders in recent history: Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, Republican Sen. Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee, and Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who served as Senate Majority Leaders in succession between 1950 and 1980. And the thing they had in common? A willingness to work across the aisle, he said.
“They believed that the Senate had a responsibility to work on a bipartisan basis, to rise above,” Shapiro explained. “They created an environment in which bipartisan compromises were possible and regarded as part of political life. That was why the Senate was there, to moderate things but also to reach results.”
Not everyone agrees the blame is on McConnell
Some political scientists, like Reynolds, argue that the Senate’s decline has more to do with the political polarization than one bad actor. “Fundamentally, the challenges of the Senate are the challenges of American politics,” she told Grid. “The parties don’t necessarily have an incentive to cooperate with one another.”
During the years these particular Senate leaders Shapiro admires served, “the Democrats enjoyed an almost uninterrupted period of control of both chambers of Congress,” Reynolds explained, “and that really shaped the kind of environment in which the Senate did its work.”
“Both parties sort of looked at the next election and expected the Democrats would win and hold the majority,” she said. As a result, Republican senators were more inclined to cooperate with the opposing party. That’s not the case now.
The future of the Senate: a place for “culture war fights”
To halt the Senate’s “decline,” Shapiro argues the upcoming midterms are “absolutely crucial” to the future of the Senate and “perhaps saving democracy.”
“I think the elections couldn’t be more important,” he told Grid. “The only thing that changes the direction of the country is electing more Democratic senators and weakening McConnell’s hold on power.”
But McConnell isn’t the only one some experts blame, and voting harder may not be enough to grease the wheels of a legislative machine that’s ground to a halt. Reynolds said individual senators aren’t empowered enough to affect the course of legislation unless they’re put in a tiebreaker position like Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virgina and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“That really shapes the kind of person who wants to run for the Senate,” she told Grid. “So, you end up with more senators who see the Senate as a place to have those culture war fights, as opposed to a place to do real legislative work.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.