Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: Pining for an era when senators were senatorial

April 14, 2012

Louis MahernI suppose it is a normal function of aging that the past seems preferable to the future. It probably has something to do with the past being long and the future short. Maybe it is related to the past being well-documented and the future unknowable.

Or it could be that we were healthy in the past. Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. The future, however, seems to hold only further erosion and debilitation.

Nonetheless, there it is. For instance, I often think back to my time in the employ of Sen. Birch Bayh. In the fog-shrouded mists of my memory, I imagine that the Senate worked better then. In my reveries, I see moderate-conservative Republicans like Everett Dirksen, Hugh Scott, Howard Baker, Jacob Javits, Mac Mathias, Ed Brooke, John Sherman Cooper, Thurston Morton, Chuck Percy, John Chafee, Kenneth Keating and Clifford Case.

I imagine that progressive Democrats and moderate-to-conservative Republicans worked together, often bargaining hard but ultimately shaping legislation to make America a better place to live.

You can imagine my relief when I saw recently that it was not a dream. From the early 1960s until 1980, the Senate really did accomplish much and it did so in a bipartisan way. Instead of withdrawing into a position of ideological rigidity and refusal to legislate, conservative Republicans engaged, offered good-faith amendments, stood by their principles of smaller government and greater responsibility, and actually made proposed legislation better.

When it came time to rescue New York City finances, Sen. Dick Lugar, who initially opposed the legislation, became convinced something had to be done. Rather than just vote no and denounce the bill, he engaged. He proposed an alternative approach that has been deemed “tough love.”

New York City advocates screamed and hollered, but Lugar stood his ground and demanded that the rescue be so onerous no other city would seek the help. He demanded that reforms take place, that the dollar amounts be reduced, that the state of New York maintain its efforts, and that the Emergency Finance Control Board remain in place.

As a result of his decision to engage in the legislative process, a better bill went before the Senate. As a result of his work, a truly bipartisan approach was achieved.

Lugar decided sound public policy trumped standing by and watching his colleagues pass a bad bill just so the vote could be used in the next election cycle.

All this and much more is chronicled in a recently published book titled “The Last Great Senate.”

Written by a former Senate staffer, Ira Shapiro, the book tells not only of the legislative battles but also of the relationships that existed among senators. Shapiro writes of Birch Bayh’s first year in the Senate when he was “stunned one night on the presidential yacht, Sequoia, as Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader from the neighboring state of Illinois, spent an hour telling Bayh what he had to do to get re-elected.”

He also tells of how Bayh shared the deepest secrets he learned as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee with fellow committee member Lugar, “whom he trusted completely.”

Lugar is mentioned prominently throughout the book as an excellent legislator and as about the only one left in the Senate from that era. Lugar’s work—along with that of Sam Nunn—making sure nuclear weapons from old Soviet satellite countries did not fall into the hands of terrorists is not mentioned but should be.

I suppose, technically speaking as a Democrat, the Republican nomination for the Senate is none of my business. But there is at least a 50-50 chance the primary winner will be my representative.

The Senate is capable of rising above partisan rancor. Let’s hope it finds its footing and regains its greatness. And that Lugar will at least be an option this fall.•

Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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