Ira Shapiro has been thinking about the United States Senate for a long time. He was living in Claymont in 1972, when 29-year-old Joe Biden, a longshot candidate, knocked on his door in the Harbor House Apartments.
Shapiro was commuting to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School; his wife Nancy, a Wilmington native, was teaching at her alma mater, Mt. Pleasant High School to put him through school.
When he greeted Biden, Shapiro had already interned in the Senate in the summer of 1969 for Jacob Javits of New York and decided to pursue a law degree so he could work in the Senate. (“The lawyers were dominant then,” he recalled.)
Shapiro went on to serve 12 years in senior Senate staff positions, working for some of the leading Democrats of his time: Gaylord Nelson, Abraham Ribicoff, Tom Eagleton, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. He later served in the Clinton administration as General Counsel and Trade Ambassador in the office of the US Trade Representative, helping to finish major trade agreements including NAFTA. More recently, disturbed by what he saw as the “long decline of the Senate,” Shapiro wrote The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis (2012), a critically-acclaimed narrative history of the Senate of the 1960’s and 70’s (featured here on TSD).
Last year, Shapiro returned with a much tougher book, Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country? That’s a question Shapiro predicts will be answered this year. Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said about the book: “Shapiro’s unflinching account is a call for the Senate to rise above partisanship rather than succumb to it. The book reminds us that Congress must provide the ultimate check against one-man rule, as our founders intended.”
Here’s our discussion with the former Claymont resident, who doesn’t hold back on his views on President Trump, the filibuster and Delaware’s own senators, Messrs. Carper and Coons.
TSD: As we talk, the federal government has been shut down yet again for lack of a funding agreement between the White House and Congress. This ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario is increasingly feeling like the norm versus some kind of extraordinary and dangerous impasse. How can Senate leadership make a meaningful difference in this mess?
Ira Shapiro: While the recent holiday shutdown is fairly attributed to President Trump’s commitment to a border wall, it is hard to distinguish it from the series of impasses that have threatened the functioning of the government, particularly since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010. It also can’t be separated from the long decline of the Congress, starting as far back as the late 1980s in the House. However, the Senate bears considerable responsibility as well, because it was the place in Washington where the parties used to come together to solve the hard problems through extended debate and principled compromise. When the Senate lost its ability to transcend partisanship, gridlock and acrimony became the order the day — every day.
TSD: Your first book, the Last Great Senate, talked about a group of people that seemed to collaborate effectively on addressing big issues. But you also acknowledged that it might have been one of the only “great” Senates. It was unique for a lot of reasons including having a membership with a lot of World War II veterans. What about the current Senate gives you any hope this group of 100 can become great or even near-great?
IS: It is impossible to replicate the conditions and experiences that created “the last great Senate,” and we have to hope there will be another great, or at least near-great Senate, without having to fight a catastrophic war first. In fact, everything is different in our politics now. The parties are genuinely much further apart, and the impact of the polarizing 24/7 cable news and social media, plus the demands of endless fundraising and an enormous lobbying corps, all make it much more difficult to be a senator today. Many people interested in politics feel despair about the Senate, and it’s fair to ask: what is the basis for optimism? In my view, it comes from the fact that the senators on both sides of the aisle are capable people, who understand what the Senate should be, and hate the institution as it presently operates. They can’t stop talking about how broken it is. They will, at some point, rise to the occasion and restore it to respectability, in part by reasserting the power of the committees and reclaiming the Senate from the majority leader.
TSD: In “Broken,” you write in detail about several pivotal events in the first part of 2017 including the confirmation process for now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. In hindsight – after the bruising, divisive Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation vote – that feels like a relative ‘era of good feeling,’ to borrow a phrase. How can anyone be optimistic about relationships between senators after that debacle? A lot of people think both sides handled things poorly.
IS: The Senate only faces historic moments like the Kavanaugh confirmation, when the nation’s attention is riveted, once every ten or fifteen years and the spectacular failure of the Senate on handling the nomination responsibly did great damage to public confidence in the Senate. The fight certainly inflicted damage on the relationships between senators as well. And yet within a short time, the Senate has moved on the overwhelming bipartisan support for landmark criminal justice reform legislation, and a unanimous condemnation of Trump policy toward Saudi Arabia after the killing of Khashoggi. They are behaving more like real senators, bringing independent judgment to important issues, rather than simply being knee-jerk attackers or defenders of President Trump. In the coming months, the Senate will face the challenge of responding to the report of Special Counsel Mueller. History will remember and judge this Senate and its members for whether they force Donald Trump from office, rather than whether they confirmed Brett Kavanaugh.
TSD: The old joke about the US Senate is that each of its members wakes up in the morning and sees a president in the mirror. There was no shortage of ambitious POTUS-wannabees in your “great Senate” of the 1960’s and 70’s, but there were also many long-serving members, institutionalists who maintained and ruled over the body’s traditions and decorum. There could be a few handfuls of senators running for president in 2020. Barack Obama barely checked in at the cloakroom before he was off and running for president. This president-itis, passing-throughism certainly can’t be a helpful factor in making the place run any better.
IS: There will always be senators who run for president; I counted more than 40 since John F. Kennedy made it from the Senate directly to the White House in 1960. And historically, every senator between JFK and Barack Obama failed to make it. Many of them, such as Joe Biden, came back to be very effective senators, having acquired a better understanding of the country. I actually think that senators running for president is the least of the Senate’s problems.
TSD: The filibuster has been referred to as “the soul of the Senate.” But in the last decade, we have witnessed a proliferation of filibusters paralyzing the Senate from even dealing with routine matters, while major legislation gets rammed through the Senate with bare majority votes. Is the filibuster worth saving?
IS: The Senate originated as a place of unlimited debate. By the 20th century, it had become clear that there had a way to end debate or a minority — what President Woodrow Wilson called a “handful of willful men” — could make Senate action impossible. The “cloture” rule was adopted a way of ending a filibuster by having a supermajority of the senators vote to end debate. For many years, filibusters were real, but rare, reserved for only monumental issues. In the past twenty years, filibusters have become increasingly routine, and even one senator raising the threat of a filibuster has forced Senate leaders to pull back from moving legislation. The Senate rules have not been reviewed since 1979, and they are in need of change. But senators also must show the mutual respect and restraint that made the Senate work.
At the same time, it is outrageous that major legislation like the Trump tax cuts or the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act could proceed on the basis of a bare majority vote. As Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has often said, only the Senate can pass legislation which commands broad national support because the Senate is the place where both parties have the chance to shape legislation. We do not have a parliamentary system in America, and senators and the public should consider and understand the value of a supermajority requirement, which encourages compromise and builds consensus.
TSD: There are some who feel the construct of the Senate is actually anachronistic. For example, Democrats and those on the left complain that the “two members per state” rule gives Republicans an unfair, disproportionate advantage in the chamber because states with tiny populations but conservative voter bases in places like Wyoming and Idaho and Montana get as many representatives as California and New York. And of course, members from what you might consider conservative states may not have much incentive to work with the other side. What’s your view on that?
IS: Of course, each state having two senators, regardless of population, is constitutionally-based, part of the “great compromise” that enabled the Founding Fathers to agree on the Constitution. I can’t envision that it will be changed. But, at the same time, our Founders could not have envisioned that California would have fifty times the population that Delaware has. The Senate’s composition does fly in the face of our concept of “one man, or one woman/one vote.” The Senate can keep its legitimacy only if the small state senators prove to be large figures, working for the national interest, rather than knee-jerk partisans.
TSD: Of the current senators, name a few who you see as strong leaders – as individuals capable of raising the Senate’s reputation in the public eye, members with the potential to help restore some of the institution’s vitality and effectiveness.
IS: There are many senators on both sides of the aisle of great ability who can contribute to restoring the Senate’s vitality, effectiveness and luster — actually more than I can name in a concise answer. But I have particular admiration for the performance and potential of Democrats Patty Murray, Michael Bennet, Ron Wyden, Chris Van Hollen, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Ed Markey, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as Republicans Lamar Alexander, Richard Burr, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Corey Gardner, and Ben Sasse. I think Delaware’s senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons are very strong. But overall, it is a challenge to be a great senator unless the Senate is functioning as it should. What President Kennedy once said about the economy applies to the Senate as well: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” And I think the Senate will rise to the occasion of the historic challenge it will face,