The American Senate: An Insider’s History

  • Neil MacNeil and Richard A. Baker
  • Oxford University Press
  • 472 pp.
  • Review by Claude R. Marx
  • August 7, 2013

A look at how Congress’ upper chamber came to its current state of dysfunction.

Members of the Senate — a notably immodest bunch — have long fancied themselves to be members of “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” That moniker has long been questionable at best and laughable at worst.

A good place to start if you want to understand how Congress’ upper chamber has evolved into its current state of dysfunction is The American Senate: An Insider’s History. The book is a thematic story of the Senate by two people who know the chamber and its idiosyncrasies better than almost anyone.

MacNeil, a long-time congressional correspondent for Time Magazine, and Baker, the former Senate historian, discuss subjects as varied as the Senate’s investigative role, the use and misuse of the filibuster, and the role of money in influencing the work of lawmakers. MacNeil started the book and Baker joined him later, finishing it after MacNeil died of cancer in 2008.

The book tells a fascinating story, yet the authors too often do so with prose that is dry and saps the excitement from dramatic events featuring larger-than-life characters. They focus on the monotony of the legislative process, which results in the book reading like a school textbook.

History and political aficionados will love the book, a worthy complement to Robert Remini’s critically acclaimed 2006 history of Congress’ other chamber, The House. It’s not clear how much appeal this will have to general audiences who like their history filled with great stories.

MacNeil and Baker note that during the 19th century — a period that many herald as a high point in the caliber of Senate debate — the chamber had “a claim, on political questions, to the intellectual leadership of the nation.” The authors also point out that the debates on issues such as slavery didn’t necessarily change how lawmakers voted. Such changes instead resulted from “the backroom vote-hustling and bargaining that had marked the Senate’s decision-making from its origins.”

However, MacNeil and Baker don’t spend enough time chronicling those maneuvers. Merrill Peterson’s The Great Triumvirate, by contrast, is a masterful book on the three biggest legislative stars of that era — John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster — which paints the big picture and tells vivid stories about behind-the-scenes machinations. Biographies of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro and Rowland Evans and Robert Novak give a similar account of the Senate’s workings during the 1950s and 1960s.

MacNeil and Baker are at their best when placing the modern Senate in historical context. They contend that the nation’s founders didn’t envision the partisan rancor many say has hobbled the modern Senate. As they explain, “The intent of the Philadelphia delegates was obvious. They wanted the Senate composed of men little tempted to react hurriedly to any passing craze. How better to assure that than to have them elected by already elected state legislators. The longer and staggered terms for senators would further guarantee that the Senate would make its judgments with appropriate deliberation.”

Things didn’t quite turn out that way. The change to direct election of senators in the early 20th century dramatically increased the level of partisanship. The modern-day position of party leader didn’t evolve until shortly after senators were directly elected and didn’t become powerful until the 1950s during the tenures of Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic side and Robert A. Taft for the GOP.

“The men who wrote the Constitution miscalculated the evolution of American politics. They assumed that those future generations would shun partisan politics,” the authors contend.

MacNeil and Baker also do an effective job of explaining the evolution of the filibuster. Though the authors occasionally get bogged down in the minutiae of senatorial procedures, readers flummoxed by the current debate over the wisdom of giving the minority party veto power will gain a thorough understanding of the issue.

The authors spend a great deal of time detailing why the House and Senate are different and cite the Senate’s use of the filibuster (which was first employed in 1837 during the debate over the charter of the Second National Bank) as one of the major points of distinction. They note that, while the House’s majoritarian nature often leads to a more efficient legislative process, the snail’s pace of the Senate often leads to a more thorough and contemplative examination of the issues.

MacNeil and Baker cite the possibly apocryphal story of George Washington explaining to Thomas Jefferson (who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the Constitutional Convention) how the drafters of the Constitution designed the two bodies of Congress to be different. As Jefferson was pouring his coffee into a saucer to cool it, Washington commented, “That is the role of the Senate. It is there to cool the hot legislation coming from the House of Representatives.” Today, the enmity between the chambers is such that both Democratic and Republican House leaders often advise their newest members “the other party is the opposition but the Senate is the enemy.”

The Senate is a vital and all-too-often misunderstood institution. In The American Senate: An Insider’s History, MacNeil and Baker do an outstanding job of bringing it to life and reminding readers how it evolved to its current state.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.

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