How to Spend a Trillion and Be Frustrated


Running in Place: Life Inside the Senate, by James A. Miller, New York: Simon & Schuster, 204 pages, $17.95

Some of the wisest, most perceptive criticism of the American form of government is found in the sadly neglected writings of the Anti-Federalists, that large but disorganized band of men who opposed the ratification of a new Constitution in 1787. Consider Maryland's Luther Martin, a drunk and a wastrel, given to rambling, besotted speeches to his fellow Constitutional Convention delegates. Martin, who feared that the Constitution granted the central government excessive powers, described the likely fate of the U.S. Senate: "If he [a senator] has a family, he will take his family with him to the place where the government shall be fixed, that will become his home, and there is every reason to expect, that his future views and prospects will centre in the favours and emoluments either of the general government, or of the government of that state where the seat of empire is established."

Martin's words would doubtless draw blank stares from today's senators and their camp followers, whose historical memories seldom stretch back beyond passage of the Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974. The modern Senate's sole nod to the Founding Fathers is the annual reading of Washington's Farewell Address by some bored freshman to a nearly empty chamber. The poor fellow and his colleagues then spend the next 364 days repudiating every bit of advice old George offered in his splendid valediction.

It's no surprise that James Miller is a former Senate staffer. For that same maddening disregard for history taints his Running in Place, billed as an insider's diary of a typical week's work in the world's greatest deliberative body.

Miller's vantage point is ideal: he served as a special assistant to ex-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. Though this locus of Senate action affords a relatively panoramic view of the institution, Miller concentrates on five senators and their staffs: Baker, Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R–N.M.), former Bianca Jagger escort Chris Dodd (D–Conn.), resident wit Alan Simpson (R–Wyo.), and nonentity Frank Lautenberg (D–N.J.).

The form is descriptive, occasionally colorful, never pedantic. But Miller's message is clear. Through alternately tedious and illuminating recountings of budget disputes, publicity seeking, and personality clashes, Miller paints a Senate paralyzed by inaction, much to the frustration of senators whose job becomes an exercise in "running in place." (Frustrating, yes. But note that 17 of the 18 senators first elected to the body in 1980 are running for reelection in 1986. The other one is dead.)

Miller's villain appears to be the breakdown of what political scientist Donald Matthews once labeled the Senate's "folkways." No longer are new senators content to serve a silent apprenticeship, imbibing wisdom from the body's elder statesmen. The relentless glare of the media, combined with a series of majority leaders over the last 20 years unable or unwilling to discipline their troops, has produced a body of free-lancers who abuse the freedoms the Senate's lax rules provide them. (For instance, Senator Dodd forces the Senate into a rare secret session on Central America—a brazen ploy so contrary to the old folkways that it "would never have been allowed 20 years ago," complains Barry Goldwater.)

Miller is also displeased that the dilatory tactic of the filibuster, or threat thereof, has come into its own over the last decade. Its finest current practitioner, Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D), uses the threat of a filibuster at the end of every Senate session to prevent the more egregious pork-barrel bills from slipping through. The Senate establishment (and, I take it, Miller) hates Metzenbaum. Yet in demanding debate on these foolish give-away bills, Metzenbaum is transporting the Senate back to the character the Founders desired for it—"the source of a more deliberate, more knowledgeable, longer-run view of good public policy," in the words of the luminous congressional scholar Richard Fenno.

The strength of Miller's book is its emphasis on the enormous role that Senate staffs play in the governing of our nation. Since the first full-time clerks were hired in 1856, congressional staff size has increased exponentially—to 7,000 by 1960 and 18,000 today, a ratio of 33 Indians to every chief. Most of the Senate's important business occurs not on the floor but in its 15 committees, whose real work is done by a cadre of staffers. The committee staffs write the bills, compose the speeches, and orchestrate the hearings, often with minimal direction from senators. The groundwork thus laid, the Great Men show up; zap—they legislate; then down the hall they run, to another committee meeting or caucus or maybe just to catch 40 winks after a rough night.

Although Miller describes one staffer who "hatches his own ideas and tries to force them on Baker," factotums who work at cross-purposes from their boss seldom last long. The real problem with Senate staff isn't so much their independence; it's just that there's so many of them, scurrying about, searching every nook and cranny of the policy universe for schemes to advance their boss's career. The result is that a senator often tackles dozens of issues he knows nothing about, usually to the detriment of the liberties of the people.

Of course, being a Senate staffer is a heady job, the more so if one works for a powerful senator like Baker or Domenici. But the price of the ticket is steep. Staffers, notes Miller, quickly learn "to have no ideology at all, or to purge oneself of whatever ideology one does have." Living testaments to this political abnegation stride purposefully through this book, ideological eunuchs who've sold their manhood for the chance to be a powerful man's minion. It's a pathetic sight, really, to see grown men and women drawing their own sense of worth from their employers' stature. (Indeed, it's striking how many House staffers refer to their boss as "my member"—though perhaps we're treading here on psychosexual ground best left untrod.)

At all events, Miller offers no solutions to Senate gridlock, his presumed purpose being simply to sketch the problem. The tepid reforms he touches on—restricting the right to filibuster, cutting staff size—miss the forest for the trees. The Senate is "in crisis" (as the book's flap warns us) because its purview has expanded far beyond what its creators ever envisioned. Raising and spending $1 trillion a year, determining which interests shall profit from the ceaseless plunder of the taxman, advising the executive in the bloody and byzantine affairs of the American Empire—these are jobs quite beyond the capability of a republican institution that places a premium on the prerogatives of individual legislators.

Two alternatives to the status quo recommend themselves: either adopt the drastic reforms that have given the Soviet Central Committee its crisis-free reputation, or return the federal government to its handful of original functions. The latter, though preferable, may be impracticable. As Luther Martin understood two centuries ago, the natural tendency of legislators is to identify their interests with the state's interest; the legislator's power increases as the individual's liberty decreases.

One hopes that Running in Place is the first droplet in a spate of books marking next year's 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention. No doubt we're in for one hellacious celebration, with the most-clamant cheering coming from that group of men and women whose prospects center in the favors and emoluments of an omnipotent government. Maybe the rest of us, though, can step back from the parade and do some good hard thinking about the state of the political institutions bequeathed us by our forefathers. We can try to figure out just what went wrong; and we can determine how we might go about setting things right again.

Former Senate staffer Bill Kauffman is REASON's Washington editor.