Once Noble Senate

The US senate chamber in 1868 (Courtesy of Cornell University Library via the Commons on Flickr)

I don’t know that what I write here makes me a pundit, but in the wake of the election I have been hit with a strong urge to refrain from punditry—to take a break from it, at least, and let government be.

One of the evils of an excessively long campaign season is that we all develop the habit of opinionating and editorializing.  Our partisan passions, aroused for such a long period, require an effort to quiet, and we forget that there is something larger than the fate of the parties or particular people, namely our collective fate as a nation and economy.  That hangs in the balance now.

The media, even more than our political leaders, bear responsibility for having created a public culture that prizes the work of governing less than politicking.  Competent governing is not praised and celebrated; it is not longed for; it is not revered or nurtured.  No, it is regarded skeptically—poked at and doubted.  Dubious motives are assigned; obstacles exaggerated; worst-case scenarios dreamt up and embroidered.

Would the nation would better or worse off for having a moratorium on loose talk, during which all cable networks, talk shows, and editorial rooms would go dark for a few days?  The talking heads, eager for their fees and salaries, who incessantly press their stale points of view on the rest of us are one of the biggest impediments to redirection and innovation.  They are themselves one of the biggest drags on bipartisanship and governmental resolve.

The hullabaloo surrounding the “fiscal cliff” reminds me that the Senate, in its earliest days, used to meet in private.  That’s right.  From 1789 to 1794, the first senators met privately in chambers in New York and later Philadelphia (Washington DC didn’t exist then) to fulfill their Constitutional duties as they understood them, admitting no spectators, seeking no publicity.  They simply did their work and went away.

This was a perfectly legitimate style of proceeding.  After all, they had been entrusted with large public responsibilities and they knew the nation depended on their behaving in an honorable way.

The senators soon abandoned the custom of meeting in private, however, because they thought that, unless the public could look in on the Senate and begin to understand what it was all about, the body would never develop the authority and prestige that the Founders wanted and expected it to enjoy.   The early Senate was in danger of being eclipsed in importance by the House, which then, as now, was a more unruly and irresponsible body.

The Senate, intended to be the ultimate forum for resolving the nation’s most complex problems, evolved into a highly prestigious and effective body during the long period from the early 1800s until 1986, when the Senate approved live televised coverage of its proceedings.  The reservations that had made senior senators reluctant to embrace such a change were fully vindicated, for the reorientation of the Senate toward this vicarious presence has destroyed the close-knit mutuality that characterized the body, and which rewarded the difficult work of its members with commensurate prestige.

The nation’s chief executive, once the factotum of his party in Congress, has become inflated in importance proportionately.  Today, we look to the president for all things—even for the wisdom that our Founders knew could only be found collectively, in the best minds of the Senate, in its palmiest days.

Image from this source.

The Pledges We Need

Photograph of the US Senate Chamber circa 1920

“No new taxes.”  The pledge has had a baleful effect on government, reducing Congress’s ability to problem-solve and foreclosing broad-ranging discussion of how best to increase the revenues that an established government needs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the parties could be persuaded to take other sorts of pledges?  Such as:

We pledge to refrain from negative advertising.
We pledge to refrain from casting aspersions on our opponents or their families.
We pledge to foreswear super-PAC money.
We pledge to attend the Senate when it’s in session and to debate openly and in person with members of the other party. . . .

The possibilities are endless, don’t you agree?