WASHINGTON -- What if they had a Senate race and nobody ran?
Not as fanciful as you think. It's only April and already seven lawmakers have announced they won't run again in elections still 18 months away. Almost certainly more will join them. Last year, 10 senators shied away from running.
Hardly anyone wants to be in the world's most exclusive club -- it's actually called that, though many describe it as the cave of winds. Especially the men and women who are in it now.
Of all the institutions in American life, the Senate once seemed the sturdiest. Fortified with rules written by Thomas Jefferson, animated by an 18th-century Enlightenment outlook, protected by a generous sense of tenure, it had charm and stability and seemed impervious to change.
Within its walls, time stood still, in part because the traditions of the Senate defied time, because the rules of the Senate suspended time, because time could not dim the history -- from Webster and Calhoun to Baker, Dole and three Kennedys -- that was made within those walls.
"I had such respect for the institution itself and the very large figures who inhabited it, many of whom I had admired from afar," says former Sen. Gary W. Hart, a Colorado Democrat who served from 1975 to 1987. "Then, not one time in 12 years did I enter the chamber without being keenly aware that I was inheriting national history and making it at the same time."
All that was true and may be true again. But it is not true now, with senators abandoning the chamber like passengers fleeing an ocean liner on fire. No one today would agree with Gladstone's assessment that the Senate was "the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics."
Senators from another time regard their years in the chamber as among the richest, most rewarding in their lives, and almost universally they speak wistfully, nostalgically, almost romantically, about their time there. Yet these days the Senate is a wretched place.
There's the partisanship, which always existed but in the past was much more muted. There's the lack of comity, a favorite Senate word when there actually was some. There's the lack of respect from the public, which once regarded the Senate as the "upper house" even though longtime House denizens, particularly onetime Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., never bought that theory. There's the lack of a sense of accomplishment, mostly because the Senate doesn't accomplish much anymore.
In short, it's a lousy job, with very little satisfaction because the Senate's work is consumed with routine filibusters, indefinite holds on legislation and nominations, and straight party votes dictated by leaders who watch helplessly as the chamber lurches from crisis to crisis.
Some figures make the case. Twenty years ago the Senate held 395 roll-call votes. Last year it held 251. Two decades ago it ratified 20 treaties. Last year it ratified none. Twenty years ago it confirmed 38,676 nominations. Last year it confirmed 24,296 -- a reduction of about 37 percent.
Now, it is perfectly plausible to argue that a Congress that passes less legislation is a better Congress and, in a world where the country would do well to tend to its own knitting, the reduction of ratified treaties from 20 to zero is a good thing. But few people -- Republicans or Democrats -- go to the Capitol with the hope of accomplishing nothing, and few lawmakers, even in the age of the Tea Party, go to Washington with the stated intent of preventing legislation rather than promoting it.
"We had hard-line, unbending senators before," says former Vice President Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, who served in the Senate between 1964 and 1976, "but they tended to marginalize themselves."
Similar comments could be heard from Republican lawmakers such as former Majority Leader Robert J. Dole of Kansas (Senate years 1969-1996) and, before he died last year, Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire (1980-1993).
Consider two similarly situated sessions of Congresses, the second session of the 112th that just was completed and the second session of the 106th in 2000 -- both the final years of a Congress meeting as an election loomed. The Senate in the second session of the 106th Congress sent 131 laws onto the books, according to the Congressional Record. The most recent Senate's second session logged 42.
"By that time, most of the senators -- those staying and those retiring -- regarded the Senate as a bad joke -- polarized, paralyzed and dysfunctional," says Ira Shapiro, a Washington lawyer whose "The Last Great Senate" looks with nostalgia to a different chamber in a different age. "The rising demand for 'regular order' reflects the deeply felt desire of senators to return to real legislating -- committee hearings and markups, floor debate on legislation and amendments, and hard bargaining, which produces principled compromise and legislative accomplishments."
The situation is so bad -- there is so little to do in the Senate -- that lawmakers who once were members of the House now often cross the Capitol to pass the time with their former colleagues. Just two months ago, GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, 69, whose two terms in the Senate followed four in the House, stunned Washington by announcing he would not seek another term.
Chambliss was just the sort of lawmaker who in another era might have been counted for a long career. His service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and his chairmanship of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Subcommittee, along with his status as ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, set him up to become that committee's chairman in a GOP Senate.
Instead, he decided to leave.
There are, to be sure, some hopeful signs. In the first few months of 2013, there is more evidence of serious work on important legislation, especially immigration, than the Senate has seen in years.
But lawmakers still feel profound frustration, and they don't feel they are surrounded by what Hart called "large-scale figures." He listed some colleagues by last name only, knowing he served at a time when Senate surnames sufficed: "Mansfield, Humphrey, (Philip) Hart, Muskie, Nelson, Church, Mathias, Javits, Case, Stennis, Goldwater and many others. All gone. All gone."
All gone, and with them, something special in American life.
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