BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Upper House’

THE UPPER HOUSE: A JOURNEY BEHIND THE CLOSED DOORS OF THE U.S. SENATE
By Terence Samuel
Palgrave McMillan, $26
255 pages

While the Senate has long fancied itself the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the public perception of the chamber is quite different. Many people perceive it as operating at a snail’s pace and populated by prima donnas who are more interested in scoring political points than passing legislation.

Fortunately, those who want to understand both the rules and the personalities that shape the modern-day Senate have a new resource available to them, “The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate.” Former U.S. News & World Report congressional correspondent Terence Samuel has produced a concise, engaging and readable take on the subject.

Mr. Samuel focuses on the experiences of several of the senators elected in the 2006 elections that gave the Democrats’ their current majority. He also discusses the leadership style and ideology of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, though the discussion of Mr. Reid, which contains several digs by the leader at his GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, would have been strengthened by comments from Mr. McConnell or his allies.

The narrative’s emphasis is on showing rather than telling and there are numerous examples of how the rules - which require 60 votes to accomplish almost anything - thwarted the efforts of many of these lawmakers to affect change.

He chronicles in great detail the unsuccessful efforts of Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, to persuade his colleagues to pass an amendment that would have required the Pentagon to give servicemen and women home leaves at least as long as the deployments. He also writes about the the behind-the-scenes maneuvers and Senate debate over the proposed amendment. Ultimately, the amendment received the support of a majority of lawmakers - 56 - but not the 60 needed to end the filibuster.

Mr. Samuel notes that “the tedium and gridlock of the Upper House are seen for what they are - tedium and gridlock.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t acknowledge the arguments of those who argue that gridlock isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there is something to be said for making it difficult to pass legislation.

In the possibly apocryphal story, George Washington is credited with explaining to Thomas Jefferson (who was in France while the Constitution was drafted) that “we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”

The Senate’s arcane, anti-majoritarian rules have put the brakes on misguided efforts backed by those on both the left and right side of the political divide. Mr. Samuel, whose politics lean left of center, sympathized with the frustrations felt by many Democratic lawmakers whom he profiled. One suspects that the next time the chamber is controlled by Republicans he will view those same rules rather differently.

Mr. Samuel focuses on the contemporary Senate without spending a great deal of time on its history. Readers desiring an expert account of the chamber’s evolution would do well to read the first 150 pages of “Master of the Senate,” the third volume of Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

While the book has a heavy dose of politics and policy, Mr. Samuel also goes to great lengths to humanize his subjects. We learn, for example, that Mr. Reid knows more than most people about the life and work of folk singer Woody Guthrie and is also a movie buff.

This prompts the author to note that the “one thing that movies provide that the Senate does not is an ending, a resolution, whether happy or sad. Whatever happens, the movie is over in two, two-and-a-half hours. Nothing happens in the Senate in two hours,” he writes.

The more interesting personal portraits come when Mr. Samuel accompanies some of the senators to their home states. We see Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, explaining arcane policies to constituents and fixing a faulty motor on his farm’s tractor. Readers also get a side view of Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s encounters with the constituents and foods at the Minnesota State Fair.

These vignettes give readers a more complete version of the lives of senators and the influences that shape their approach to lawmaking. Mr. Samuel’s use of those stories, combined with an elegantly written analysis of the Senate’s workings, make the book eminently worthwhile.

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