Two books on the United States Senate

“The United States Senate has fallen on hard times.”

The American Senate: An Insider's ViewThat’s the publisher’s first line on a new history of the U.S. Senate by journalist Neil MacNeil and historian Richard A. Baker. Due out in June, The American Senate: An Insider’s History (Oxford UP) takes a special look at what some have called “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” what others see as “a force to genuinely impede the nation’s vitality and evolution,” and what the New York Times today accused of being a bunch of corrupt, un-American idlers.

According to pre-publication reviews, MacNeil and Baker are strong on the usually tense relationship between the President and Senate, beginning with George Washington’s first and only visit there in 1789. (The proceedings were so distracted and inconclusive that the Father of His Country declared, “This defeats every purpose of my being here!” and left.) The authors also delve into the power of majority leaders, into how the “mess” of the modern filibuster began in the 1960s as a white-supremacist tool, and into the Senate’s investigative power (including the McCarthy witch hunts and Watergate). This book might help us to understand how “persistent structural pressures” and recent “transformations” have brought controversy upon the U.S. Senate.

The Most Exclusive ClubFor a lively account of such controversy, from charges of corruption to attempts at reform, check out veteran historian Lewis L. Gould’s book, The Most Exclusive Club (Basic Books, 2005). According to Daniel Wirls, of the University of California, The Most Exclusive Club “successfully weaves particulars about the Senate into the fabric of American history.” Gould focuses on the Senate as a collection of people with human faults and weaknesses, notably:

  • widespread alcoholism among its members at the turn of the 20th century,
  • myopic isolationism prior to the World Wars,
  • callous apathy in the 1960s to civil rights and women’s equality,
  • the recent shift (also criticised by MacNeil and Baker) to ceaseless fund-raising and political campaigning.

“Where many writers have lauded the vision and classical debate of the Senate chamber,” writes Kirkus Reviews, “Gould depicts hubris and archaic procedures.” The Senate, he says, is driven primarily “by partisanship and pork” and by selfish ambition.

Joseph Keppler's 1889 political cartoon, "Bosses of the Senate" depicts a line of fat business interests haunting the Senate chamber. There is a "People's Entrance" -- closed, barred, and locked -- and one labelled "Entrance for Monopolists" -- wide, wide open. Today Americans call those top-hatted, fat-bellied moneybag men by the name "Special Interests".

Joseph Keppler’s 1889 political cartoon, “Bosses of the Senate,” depicts a line of swollen lobbyists haunting the Senate chamber. There is a “People’s Entrance” — closed, barred, and locked — and one labelled “Entrance for Monopolists” — wide, wide open. Today Americans call those top-hatted, fat-bellied moneybag men by the name “Special Interests”.

There seems to be a growing pile of books, both forthcoming and in our collection, that in varying degrees of intensity show just how dysfunctional the United States Senate has become (or indeed always was). One might conclude that it simply isn’t fit for purpose. Perhaps that explains the latest edition of that perennial reminder, from Congressional Quarterly Press, optimistically titled, How Congress Works (5th ed., 2013).

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