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Joukowsky Forum addresses U.S. Senate partisanship

Political consultant Ira Shapiro talks new book, criticizes Senate’s inability to curb executive power

Ira Shapiro, president of Ira Shapiro Global Strategies LLC, discussed the state of the U.S. Senate at the Joukowsky Forum in the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Wednesday. The panel, which featured Shapiro, University faculty and a guest from the American Enterprise Institute, considered themes from Shapiro’s new book, “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?”

“The Senate is ground zero for the failure of our democracy,” Shapiro said. “The Senate is supposed to be the place where the diverse interests of our society get reconciled … if you take that out of the equation, the Senate fails but then the whole political system seizes up. And that’s what we’ve seen happening over a long period of time.”

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Shapiro viewed the Senate as a “beacon of hope” and an institution that supports “progressive policies and ideas,” he said. By the 1990s, Shapiro saw senators become increasingly more engaged in “politics of political destruction” and “permanent campaigning” to stay in office — the beginning of a “long, gradual decline.” In the last decade, the Senate took a “deep dive” under the leadership of Senator Mitch McConnell, Shapiro said, citing McConnell’s fight against an Obama-era economic stimulus bill desperately needed by the American people.

“When it was possible to bring people together, when the country needed bipartisanship, (McConnell) … failed to do it,” Shapiro said.“He has turned the Senate into a partisan instrument.”

Around the time of the 2016 election, Shapiro began writing about the Senate’s need for reform in order for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to be successful upon election. But once President Trump took office, the book acquired a “new sense of urgency,” Shapiro said. He believes the Senate is ineffective in curbing the “real prospect of an overreaching authoritarian president,” he added.

Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute Norman Ornstein, who sat on the panel, pointed to the increasing polarization in recent years as reason for the Senate’s inefficacy. While the rule of the filibuster has been in place for four decades and traditionally was invoked by the minority only in moments of considerable national importance, it has become a modern “weapon of mass obstruction” under McConnell’s guidance, Ornstein said. The tendency of senators to engage in “tribalism,” or to vilify opposing party members and refuse to work across the aisle has also contributed to gridlock in the Senate, he said.

Ornstein warned that these “headaches” will only multiply as time progresses, in part because Senate seats are not allocated based on population. He estimated that by 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states — at that point, 30 percent of Americans will be responsible for electing 70 senators. “As our country becomes more urban, more diverse and younger, the Senate is going to become increasingly unrepresentative of the country,” Ornstein said.

Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs and Chair of the Political Science Department Wendy Schiller said that the Senate currently serves as a means for politicians to make their name by obstructing legislation. But this is not a new practice, Schiller said. Rather, what is novel is the increasing number of senators taking advantage of the institution.

Schiller wrote a review of Shapiro’s book in the Washington Monthly in which she critiqued his romanticization of the past.

“The problem with looking backward when things are difficult in the current age is that we tend to put a silk screen across everything we see, making it softer and prettier than it really was,” Schiller said. “The Senate of yesteryear was not representative either demographically or economically” of the American constituency due to its paucity of female, African American and Latino elected officials, she added.

She also affirmed that the Senate today is a far more diverse place demographically than it has been in the past. The Senate is comprised of 22 female senators, a cohort that includes one black woman, one Pacific Islander woman and one Latina woman.

Visiting Lecturer in Political Science Richard Arenberg cited the “necessary evil of money” and the “24-hour media cycle” that rewards “sound bites over substance” as contributors to the Senate’s decline.

Looking forward, Shapiro said that a small, bipartisan group has the potential to change the dynamic of the Senate body. But Schiller believes that voters will ultimately be the ones to change the Senate most.

“Elect people who have demonstrated some capacity to govern, who care about government and are willing to cross the aisle on some things,” Schiller said.

Correction: An earlier version of the photo caption accompanying this story stated that Norman Ornstein is a member of the University faculty. In fact, Ornstein is not a member of the University faculty. The Herald regrets the error.

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