The imminent resignation of Nevada Senator John Ensign, who was facing an ethics probe and a strong chance of expulsion, adds to a stampede for the exits. Seven other senators have announced they won’t seek re-election in 2012, and unlike Ensign, none of them are embroiled in a sex scandal.
That’s close to a record turnover, for the second election cycle in a row. Ten Senate seats were open in 2010, most due to retirements. In the past 100 years, the record for most senators leaving at one time is 13, timed to the 1996 election.
The Senate once styled itself as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Now its members can’t wait to get out.
No doubt many departures are due to the political climate. It’s no picnic to run as an incumbent with persistent unemployment between 8 percent and 9 percent. And one retiring incumbent, first-term Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, won his seat in the Democratic wave of 2006 and therefore was an electoral outlier facing an unlikely path to reelection.
Still, something more profound seems at work. Partisan shifts can’t explain why Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl are leaving, or Democrat Jeff Bingaman, or Democrat- turned-independent Joe Lieberman. Those retirements likely have more to do with the rancor, partisanship and sheer dysfunction that seized the Senate in recent years. Once the cushiest place to serve as a public official, now it seems like a grind.
The Senate had ambled through the 20th century at its own leisurely pace. With their six-year terms, senators weren’t expected to jet home every weekend, as many of their House colleagues do. Party organizations took care of things back in their states. A few big contributors could discreetly run their fund-raising.
Now Senate life has become frenetic, hyper-partisan and obsessed with fundraising. In other words, more like the House.
Once, the chambers differed sharply. “The Republicans are the opposition,” longtime House Speaker Tip O’Neill would say. “The Senate is the enemy.” If the House was defined by the yap of members competing for airtime with their one-minute speeches, the Senate was defined by sonorous self-regard. Though its pomposity was easily mocked, the Senate had a sensible centrist bloc that was real and could produce progress.
Today, rather than silver-haired former governors near the end of their careers, former House members hardened by legislative combat set the tone in the Senate.
A generation ago, conservative southerners shared the Democratic Party with liberal northerners. Patrician Rockefeller Republicans vied with the Taft and Goldwater wings. Now party- line votes are the norm. Every Democrat in the Senate was more liberal than every Republican in 2010, according to an analysis by the National Journal.
Senate procedures still date from an earlier era and are easily abused by partisans. The filibuster, once used rarely, now amounts to a legislative no-fly zone: Without 60 votes, nothing moves. This de facto supermajority requirement produces not consensus but stalemate. When the new Congress convened in January, Senate leaders declined to do much of anything about filibusters. These senate Old Bulls turned out to be more like wimpy Ferdinand.
Added to this mix is what an incumbent must do to stay in the Senate. Fundraising for a typical race has increased almost five-fold since 1982. Senators now raise, on average, $9.4 million to stay in office, much more in larger states. You’ll find them at party offices, hunched over a phone, dialing for dollars. Think “Glengarry Glen Ross.” You can’t blame them: To the threat of a free-spending self-financing opponent, now add the tens of millions of dollars that might be poured into secretly funded attack ads, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Many of the departing senators seem relieved. In their remaining time, they have pledged to work together to pass comprehensive immigration and entitlement reforms and to take on other fractious topics.
What we really need is for them to work on the Senate’s dysfunction. There is a long tradition in which lawmakers rise in their final speech and renounce the fundraising arms race, having been silent before then. (As Saint Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”)
Chance for Change
Unlike Ensign, the retiring senators still have 20 months to make change. They don’t need to raise money anymore. They should take the lead in a new push for public financing of congressional campaigns, a cause often embraced by senators only after they leave. At the very least, the Republicans who long urged more campaign-finance disclosure, then voted to filibuster legislation that would require corporations and unions to disclose spending on political advertising, should vote their true views.
Instead of Saint Augustine, these departing senators should take their tune from SaintJanis Joplin: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
(Michael Waldman, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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