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When Traditions Die

What the decline of the U.S. Senate teaches us
September 28th, 2023

By Jim Towey

When I was a freshly minted graduate from Florida State University law school and in my mid-twenties, I moved to Washington and ended up going door-to-door on Capitol Hill looking for a job.  I was fortunate to find a one with United States Senator Mark Hatfield, a moderate Republican from Oregon.  He was the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee and one of the most senior and respected members of the Senate.

From the day I got my Senate ID, I was awestruck by the grandeur and traditions surrounding me.  The atmosphere in the Senate chamber felt almost sacred, its history stretching back to the times when Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy orated there.  I moved up in the staff pecking order and became Hatfield’s legislative director and legal counsel and was granted access to the floor of the Senate.  This “floor privilege” was something I did not take for granted.  Whenever I walked on to the Senate floor, I was mindful of the decorum and rules that had served the institution from its inception.  A coat and tie were always required.  Staff members didn’t speak unless spoken to.  Conversations were held in the adjoining cloak room where senators relaxed, took phone calls in little phone booths, and conversed with one another.  Staff members were not to loiter there.

U.S. Senate greats

When the Senate was in session, the presiding officer held the gavel and maintained order and was positioned on the dais in the center along the back wall of the chamber.  This senator decided who was recognized to speak.  Some politicians were more eloquent than others, but they all seemed like America’s best and brightest.  People like Howard Baker from Tennessee, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum (Kansas), William Proxmire (Wisconsin), John Glenn (Ohio), and Lawton Chiles (Florida) were among my heroes.

The Senate was dubbed the “greatest deliberative body in the world” then, and deservedly so.  The mannerly debate, the rules that protected minority opinion, and the high ideals that were the legislators’ pursuit put it a notch above British Parliament.  I remember being on the Senate floor when the legislation establishing a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., was passed.  It was fun to watch from the front row U.S. history being made.

Just as impressive was the civility among the senators themselves.  It was not uncommon to see senators fiercely debating an issue on the floor, and then after the vote, retiring to the cloak room, greeting each other, and inquiring about each other’s family.  They were adversaries, not enemies.  The focus was on the issues and policy.  Of course, politics permeated the policies that were adopted, but that is precisely how democracy is supposed to work.

U.S. Senate embarrassments

Fast forward to today.  The U.S. Senate is becoming an embarrassment.  Senator John Fetterman (Pennsylvania) recently presided dressed in a baggy shirt and shorts (fortunately the Senate later reinstated the dress code).  Should we be grateful he didn’t don the Viking hat that one of the vandals wore in the House chamber on January 6, 2021, horns and all?  Fetterman should never have run for office in the first place once a debilitating stroke felled him.  Is power so important that the best interests of the country must take a back seat to personal privilege and lengthy rehab?

Sadly, he is not alone in his incapacity. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), age 81, has had recent bouts of public incoherence, but his handlers assure us that all is well.  It obviously isn’t.

God bless these people and we are grateful for their service.  But the U.S. Senate is not for you if your mental capacity diminishes.  But of course, if Donald Trump (age 77) and Joe Biden (80) can seek the highest office in the land despite the obvious sunsetting of their abilities, why can’t others hold on to their positions?

U.S. Senate disgrace

Which brings me to the biggest disgrace before the Senate, Bob Menendez (New Jersey).  He was recently indicted for a string of felonies, and the public evidence against him and his wife is damning.  Yet as of this writing he refuses to step down.  This should surprise no one.  When the bar is lowered, you get lower, even base, behavior.

Selfishness is unbecoming in any soul.  One of the greatest acts of public service is to know when it is time to step down and let others lead.  Senator Hatfield, at age 74, gracefully left public office.  Today he retains an excellent reputation.  Those, however, who stay on too long will be remembered, not for their political achievements, but for their last acts in office where they (and their spouses and families who enabled them) put their own interests ahead of the country’s.


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