Four years ago, the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University released a study showing most Americans were “busy and bored” with the 2000 presidential race. The “permanent campaign,” commencing early and lasting too long, exacerbates voter apathy and declining participation, according to the report. Fast forward to today and we see premature elections have other, less widely understood injurious effects on another part of the body politic — they are crippling the Senate.
By design, the Senate is a place where one person’s lack of cooperation can bring the entire institution to a grinding halt. Over the past few months, the campaign travel schedules of the four Democratic senators running for president — John Edwards, Bob Graham, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman — increasingly competed with their responsibilities in Washington. Speaking at fish fries in New Hampshire and pig roasts in Iowa replaced participating in the world’s greatest deliberative body. The result: rising inefficiency and frustration on the part of those trying to complete thecongressional agenda for the year.
Typically, the norm of senatorial courtesy means blending legislative business with lawmakers’ travel plans. Yet, appeasing the demands of a presidential campaign and the Senate’s work schedule are easier said than done. “It used to drive us nuts every time even one senator missed votes,” said a former Senate leadership aide. “You would cancel things and legislation would get backed up — it became real mess.” Now, multiply that situation by four. “Figuring out how the absence of these four affects the Senate schedule literally influences every scheduling decision we make,” said a current Senate leadership aide.
Senate Democratic leaders have not consistently used all of the tools in their procedural arsenal to block votes until everyone’s schedule cooperated. This led to bigger than expected victories for Republicans in the past several months in a closely divided Senate. “We won some amendments by larger than expected margins because the four Democrats were absent,” a Republican aide said. Yet ,on matters salient to their core constituencies, the Democratic leaders insisted that the key votes occur only when the presidential candidates were in town. The so-called Harkin amendment on the Labor/HHS Appropriations bill, which blocked the Bush administration’s attempts to implement a rule giving employers more flexibility on the use of overtime, was a recent example. The Labor/HHS Appropriations bill took the Senate nearly two weeks to complete because of absenteeism and delays in reaching agreements on scheduling votes.
Travel demands of the presidential campaign have reduced the level of participation in the Senate in a variety of ways, but missed roll call is the most visible indicator. Mr. Kerry missed a whopping 60.9 percent of roll votes this year; Mr. Lieberman was away for nearly half (49.9 percent); Mr. Graham was absent for 35.8 percent; and Mr. Edwards is the closest to perfect attendance, absent for nearly a third of the votes (29.5 percent).
Four Democratic senators running for president creates unique problems for the upper body. “It would not be a big deal if four House members were absent,” said one administration official. The House rules allow the majority party to schedule votes whenever they want. But the Senate is different. “We either have to accommodate their schedules or we can’t finish the legislation,” one Senate staffer said.
Moreover,, the sheer number from one party is a further aggravation. “I can’t recall the last time we had four senators from one party all announced as presidential candidates.” (The 1972 and 1976 Presidential races each included four Democratic senators, but it was an era of less hyper-partisanship).
True, these senators have to pay homage to the vagaries of modern presidential politics. Campaigns in general are starting earlier; this year is no exception. For example, at this point in the campaign cycle in 1991, more than a year before the 1992 election, Bill Clinton had not yet even announced his candidacy for the presidential contest that he ultimately won.
Going forward, the Senators/presidential candidates have to reconcile their presidential ambitions with responsibilities to their constituents and colleagues. In 1996, when Bob Dole was seeking the Republican nomination, he stepped down both as majority leader and resigned his Senate seat. For three of the four — Messrs. Kerry, Lieberman and Graham — resigning would likely mean their state’s Republican governors could add another vote to the GOP majority.
Yet, the Democrats’ appetite for the White House should not lead to the political equivalent of having their cake and eating it too. Presidential campaigns should not hold the Senate hostage to White House ambition. Messrs. Edwards, Graham, Kerry, Lieberman and their party leaders in the Senate should ensure that their absence neither stalls the people’s business nor cripples the institution to which they were popularly elected.