THE SORRY STATE of American politics has become a staple of political nonfiction, almost deserving of its own genre category. The requisite doomsday scenario usually turns on the author’s ideological perspective, as well as which set of politicians are making headlines for something gone wrong. Common themes have been that the president’s actions are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court is partisan in its rulings, news media coverage is biased, or money is unduly influencing the electoral process.
But the favorite target, without fail, has been Congress. With its rock-bottom approval ratings, and popular tags as “the broken branch,” and “even worse than it looks,” our national legislature is the unquestioned villain of the modern era. And it is genuinely hard to argue with that assessment.
Ira Shapiro’s Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country? is the latest addition to the growing literature on what is wrong with Congress, why it matters, and what needs to be done to fix things in Washington. As a follow-up to his 2012 book, The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis, Shapiro offers his unique view of the workings of the Senate as a former congressional staffer in the 1970s and 1980s, and a former trade ambassador to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
The result is an entertaining history of the evolution of the Senate marred by a partisan analysis of what went wrong and who is to blame. The influence of money, lobbying, incumbency, gerrymandering, and safe seats — all widely recognized as important factors contributing to the hyper-partisan political environment — are not problems unique to either political party. Unfortunately, Shapiro does not address these issues until late in the concluding chapter, and no solutions are provided. This is unfortunate, as we are at a time when more Americans need to be informed about the basic functions of their government, and objective expert analysis can play a significant role toward that end.
Shapiro examines the growing partisanship and obstruction on Capitol Hill against his idea of the glory days when political luminaries such as Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) and Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) held the position of Senate majority leader. In fact, Shapiro considers Mansfield, who held the position from 1961 until 1977, to be the “greatest [Senate] majority leader,” and claims that the Senate was “free from partisanship” during the 1960s and 1970s. While partisanship presented itself in more of a regional fashion during that time, the differences between the political environment and atmosphere in the Senate then, compared to now, are nevertheless striking. What is never in doubt throughout the entire book is Shapiro’s love of the Senate as a political institution, and his dismay at its current state of affairs.
It is that premise that drives the first half of the book, a fast-paced history of the politics of the Senate from the early days of the Kennedy administration through the end of the Obama presidency. Relying on press reports (mostly The New York Times and Washington Post), political memoirs and biographies, and a handful of scholarly assessments by political scientists, the early chapters provide a narrative about how much better the Senate used to function when Mansfield ran the place. Shapiro notes that Democrats including Ted Kennedy, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, and Jay Rockefeller, and Republicans including Howard Baker, Mark Hatfield, John Danforth, and Richard Lugar, to name a few, were capable of deliberation and bipartisanship on the big policy issues of the day, representing a somewhat idyllic institution compared to the crass gutter brawl that dominates the current political environment.
As Shapiro further explains, even later Senate leaders like Democrats George Mitchell and Tom Daschle, and Republicans Robert Dole, Trent Lott, and Bill Frist, maintained a more cooperative and deliberative environment than the current fractured and obstructionist politics of Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and prior to his retirement in 2016, his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid. Here the book is engaging and offers a mostly fact-based retelling of some of the most important political moments from the vantage point of key senators.
However, it is in the second half of the book, the “real time” analysis of the Senate’s role in the first several months of the Trump administration, where the book disappoints. Shapiro should have bequeathed his readers with the unique expertise offered by a former insider — an approach generally missing in scholarly or journalistic works and that can be educational to better understand an opaque institution like the Senate. Instead, the later chapters quickly devolve into a selective and partisan narrative that places a lion’s share of the blame for the broken Senate on the shoulders of McConnell. It is at times hard to tell whether Shapiro respects or reviles McConnell as a political animal. Perhaps it is both, but the revulsion comes through loud and clear about McConnell’s policy choices. Unfortunately, this character study provides little explanation about the constitutional implications of the current state of the Senate.
Shapiro’s partisan viewpoint is hard to miss, especially when he asks readers to not “dismiss this as simply the view of a partisan Democrat.” But that is a challenge throughout. For example, on Republicans winning the House and Senate in 1994, and the Clinton impeachment in 1998, Shapiro writes, “American politics had become unhinged from the realities in the country. It was sobering to consider what our politics might be like if the country faced a genuine crisis.” Perhaps an alternate theory is worth considering. Was Congress reflecting the mood of the nation, and did the growing Republican majority by the end of the 1990s represent a backlash over failed policies despite the record economic growth? The New Deal coalition did not disappear overnight and on a whim, and not everyone agreed that the liberal policy agenda was the correct one.
Moving on to the Obama years, McConnell is called “shameful” for not working with Obama in 2009 on economic recovery legislation. Perhaps he was, but did Obama not have a role in seeking bipartisan support? At times in our nation’s history, winning a presidential election has made bipartisan cooperation with Congress seem unnecessary to a president and his staff, still fresh from electoral success. Few presidents have had a true mandate to govern, though Democratic majorities in 2009 and 2010 were large enough to allow Obama to have legislative success on the economic stimulus as well as health care reform. While bipartisan legislation is often optimal, McConnell was not solely responsible for the obstruction. Personalizing senators as individual actors makes for a good story, but moves away from the Senate’s important constitutional role.
The later chapters feature a helping of outrage at Donald Trump and his administration — nothing we haven’t seen before — instead of an expert assessment of how the Senate has reacted, or perhaps more importantly, what the institutional response should be in this political moment. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is “a racist,” and Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch is labeled “extremely conservative” several times (though it is not clear what the qualifier “extremely” adds to the definition of Gorsuch’s conservative judicial philosophy). The point here is that partisan jabs bring nothing to a scholarly analysis, other than alienating readers who might benefit from the expertise provided.
A partisan assessment also misses the point that both major parties have contributed to the current political environment, and perhaps, a good number of citizens recognize that as a plurality of voters are now independent as opposed to registering with either major party. Problems such as dark money, powerful lobbyists, and partisan gerrymandering are not problems uniquely created by Republicans, but Shapiro misses an opportunity to analyze why these issues so desperately need to be addressed. He blames recent Senate leaders and their inability to stop the changes in the political environment rather than institutional defects. If Senate leaders truly have supreme power over the entire policymaking process, then it is more than the Senate that is broken.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment comes in Shapiro’s glossing over a major change since 1992 when the Senate finally began its move away from being an “old boys club.” In that pivotal election year, known as the “year of the woman,” the American political landscape shifted dramatically as more women ran — and won — legislative seats than ever before. The Senate was no exception, as it went from having just two women members in 1992 to seven by mid-1993. Currently, the Senate includes 22 women, the highest number ever. But Shapiro provides only a handful of throwaway lines about women in the Senate, despite his desire to see a return to a more bipartisan and collegial environment. Women senators have done just that, despite how the politics of personal destruction have escalated since the 1990s.
While Shapiro lauds a few women, such as Susan Collins (R-Maine), for bipartisanship, a much more detailed discussion of the institutional change brought by women senators is necessary. As nearly 30 years of political science research has shown, women can and do bring different priorities into the policymaking arena, and some studies suggest that women are more likely or willing to work across party lines to achieve policy goals. A prime example is the leadership style of women in the Senate, who have made their collective voices heard on numerous bipartisan issues affecting women since the 1990s. While party loyalty is still a driving factor, the women in the Senate have and continue to set a bipartisan example for collaboration, have forged a sense of collegiality that comes from their experiences as women in a traditionally male-dominated institution, and are well known for their regular informal and bipartisan dinners in Washington. These are the features that Shapiro bemoans as missing from this “broken” Senate. As we may be on the cusp of yet another “year of the women” in American politics in 2018, it is disheartening to be told that the best days of the Senate occurred in an era where little diversity, gender or otherwise, existed.
Shapiro is correct in his assessment of the Senate’s important role as a “mediator” within the policymaking process where cooler heads should prevail. The real question, that Shapiro asks yet never adequately addresses, is whether Congress, moving forward, will step up and govern in a responsible way. Unfortunately, looking back idealistically at the Senate does not provide that answer. The Trump presidency certainly offers Congress the opportunity to reassert its role as a co-equal branch in the governing process, and the Senate has stalled the Trump agenda on a few notable issues like health care reform. The Senate can fix itself by doing the work on behalf of the people who elected them, fighting back against the toxic political environment and setting a strong example for others to follow. That would require, however, moving away from the self-interested motivations of political power and, for some, presidential aspirations.
While too many parts of Broken are descriptive rather than explanatory, the story itself is still an interesting read for most political enthusiasts, though the partisan commentary may turn off readers looking for viewpoint diversity. Despite Shapiro’s insider’s perspective, the book offers too little insight into how to reform key aspects of the electoral process (for example, recruitment of candidates, the role of money, and gerrymandering), as well as the governing process (for example, the power of incumbency, the role of seniority in committee assignments, and the influence of lobbyists).
While Trump hysteria is easy to understand from left, right, and center, an objective assessment would also acknowledge the outrage felt by many Trump (and Bernie Sanders) voters at the direction of government policies driven by Washington elites in recent years. Experts in all fields seem to forget a basic fact about the American system of government, namely that the people, and not the politicians who represent them, are sovereign.
Lori Cox Han is professor of Political Science at Chapman University. Her recent books include Presidents and the American Presidency, second edition (Oxford, 2018), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States (Oxford, 2018), and In It to Win: Electing Madam President (Bloomsbury, 2015).