I watched the swearing in of the new Senators by Vice President Dick Cheney. Senators came forth four at a time and took the oath of office. I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences between the 90th Congress, which is the first one I witnessed, and the 109th Congress, which has just begun its work.
In 1967 the Congress was dominated by Southern Democrats. Today the Congress is dominated by conservative Republicans. Those Democrats got elected in basically the one-party South. The Republicans got elected in highly competitive two-party contests.
In 1967 the U.S. Senate still maintained a strict decorum. Aides who went on the Senate Floor even had their shoes inspected. If they weren’t polished the suggestion was made to get to the Senate barbershop. Today, there is no dress code. Often aides, who in 1967 were forbidden to speak to one another, now create a buzz when Senators of whom they don’t approve, carry forth.
Senators 38 years ago were much more their own people. They did not completely depend upon aides to know what to say. Some Senators today are plastic people. They hardly know how to debate. Without their staffers whispering in their ear they hardly know what to say.
Senators today are mostly good looking. That is because they have to get elected via television. Today voters get almost all their political information from television. Back then voters got most of their political information from the newspapers. I suspect that many Senators who came into office in the 1940s and 50s and were in office 38 years ago could not be elected in the era of television. A pity. Many of them were more able than today’s crop.
The Senate I first encountered was controlled by the Democrats as was the House. And Lyndon Johnson had been elected to the Presidency on his own. The Great Society was in full tilt. Today’s Senate is controlled by the Republicans as is the House. And George Bush has been elected on his own without benefit of the U.S. Supreme Court. The President also has am ambitious domestic agenda.
There was a war in 1967. A war in Viet Nam. An unpopular war. Men serving over there had been drafted. They were disproportionately minorities. There is a war in 2005. A war in Iraq. An unpopular war. Men serving over there have volunteered to go. They are disproportionately minorities.
The filibuster in 1967 required just 34 votes. The filibuster today takes 41 votes. The difference is this. In 1967 there might be one filibuster during each session of the Congress. Another two or three filibusters would be threatened and the threat was often enough to keep the bill off of the calendar. In 2005 we shall see but in 2004 almost everything was filibustered. Judicial nominees. Nominees to serve in the Administration. Important legislation such as the energy bill. Almost everything was filibustered. So far the new Democratic Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV.) has indicated he is inclined to use the filibuster about as often as his predecessor. We shall see. Reid has only 45 Senators. He needs 41 to sustain the filibuster. It remains to be seen if Democrat Senators from Red States who are up for re-election in 2006 are as inclined to support the filibuster as they were last year.
As I watched the Senators escorted to be sworn in, accompanying them were almost always were the colleague from the same state regardless of party. Sen. Evan Bayh is a Democrat from Indiana. But Sen. Richard Lugar, longtime Republican, brought him up to be sworn in. In some cases, the colleague is a fellow Republican. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah was being sworn in for his third term. Standing behind him was Sen. Orrin Hatch, who along with Lugar, came to the Senate in 1977. But when I saw Sen. John Thune of South Dakota being escorted up I didn’t see his Democrat colleague, Sen. Tim Johnson. Instead, I saw an older gentleman who I later recognized was former Sen. Jim Abdnor, the man who defeated Sen. George McGovern in 1980. Thune had run against Johnson in 2002. Clearly the election had been stolen from Thune. But Thune was gracious in defeat. Had he defeated Johnson no one would have remembered. But the fact that he turned around and defeated the Senate Minority Leader two years later was a victory heard around the world. Minority Leader Tom Daschle was the first leader of either party to be defeated since Barry Goldwater in 1952 knocked off the then-Senate Democratic Leader, Ernest W. McFarland. I can understand why Thune wouldn’t want Johnson to accompany him. It was a nice gesture to have Abdnor do so. He is up in years now and had been largely forgotten after his defeat by Daschle in 1986.
One other time a re-elected Senator did not want his colleague to walk him down the aisle. Sen. Hiram Fong (R-HI) said that his colleague Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) had used anti-Chinese slurs during the campaign of 1970. So Fong asked Sen. Gordon Allott (R-CO), the Chairman of the Senate GOP Policy Committee, to accompany him. So Allott did.
Republicans have some extraordinary new Senators. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said he wants to learn the Senate rule book better then Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who has been in the Senate since 1959. Sen. Richard Burr is noted for his tough determination. Sen. David Vitter is a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar. Sen. Mel Martinez was born in Cuba. Sen. Jim DeMint touched the third rail of politics (Social Security) and survived. Whether or not they will end up having a real impact remains to be seen.
The Senate today is far different from that one I first encountered almost four decades ago. It was known then as the world’s greatest deliberative body. What we will say about it at the conclusion of the 109th Congress remains to be seen.