The problem with the Senate

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 14, 2000

The House Republican leadership has done so well this Congress. With the closest margin of any Congress since 1926, they have managed to pass much good legislation. Moreover, they have done comparatively little harm. Of course, I wish there were issues they had tackled which they haven’t. And I wish they had showed more courage on a variety of fronts. But given the fact that there are about 30 to 40 liberal Republicans who threaten to revolt and vote with the Democrats on everything which comes down the pike, Speaker Dennis Hastert and his team have all but performed miracles in the House.

I wish I could say the same about the Senate. True, the rules are different and it really requires 60 votes these days to pass anything in the upper chamber. Still and all, so much of the good work produced by the House simply dies in the Senate or gets modified there beyond recognition.
Despite the differences between the House and the Senate, having worked in the Senate for eleven years for two Members of the Leadership, I am confident in saying that things could be a lot better in that body.

The question is why?

I began to ponder the situation and then it came to me. In the House, the right leaders are in the right positions. Denny Hastert is the right man for Speaker. He is a leader without pretending he knows it all. He inspires his troops and sometimes pushes them, but he seldom angers them.

Dick Armey makes an excellent Majority Leader under Hastert. He was not as good under Speaker Newt Gingrich because he was always forced to deal with Newt’s overblown rhetoric and underdelivery in the promise department. Now it is a different ballgame and Armey has risen to the occasion.
Tom DeLay is perhaps the best Whip either party has had in modern history. He is just made for that job. His first deputy, Roy Blunt, is also extremely able. He occupies the post that Hastert had before becoming Speaker.

Chris Cox, the egghead Congressman from California, is in the right post as Policy Committee Chairman and so it goes. It is a team that works.

Trent Lott

Contrast that with the Senate. Trent Lott was a terrific Whip in both the House and the Senate. But he has made a poor Majority Leader. He is far too eager at times to compromise at the lowest common denominator. Other times he gets far in front of his Caucus, with a strong majority against him, and he refuses to listen to them or to back down. He is the Democrat’s favorite Republican leader.

Don Nickles, the Whip, was a great Policy Chairman. He is an issues man. But as the Whip, his heart just isn’t in it. Compared with Nevada’s Harry Reid, who has the comparable job for the Democrats and is always visible on the floor, Nickles goes to the floor only when he has to and seems to be in pain when he does so.

Larry Craig, the current Policy Committee Chairman, is a misfit in that position. He is fully capable of being, and ought to seek, the position as Majority Leader. He is a born leader but in the Policy post really can’t exercise his abilities.

Connie Mack is Conference Chairman. Thank God he is departing. Nearly everyone across the spectrum of Republicans thinks he has done a lousy job in that position.

Paul Coverdell, who was stuck with the third string job as Conference Secretary until his recent death, should have been Conference Chairman. He had the real communications skills for that job. But the Conference Secretary position is an inside-the-Senate job, and he seldom got to use them. He also had the energy to provide real leadership on policy questions, but he lacked the platform from which to operate. At 61, he still had the time to move up and provide leadership, but we will never know just how effective he could have been.

So there is a good part of the problem with the Senate. The leaders are just not in the positions they are best suited for. If they would step back and take a long hard look at the situation they would do the following: Larry Craig would announce for Majority Leader. Trent Lott would swallow hard and go back to being Whip. Don Nickles would return to being the Policy Committee Chairman. We would have to find a new Paul Coverdell for Conference Chairman (perhaps a Richard Shelby or a Mitch McConnell), but that is a team that would function correctly. It wouldn’t solve the 60-vote problem in the Senate, but it would go a long way toward creating the kind of harmonious leadership the House has managed to create.

Will it happen? Almost certainly not. Lott, no matter how many mistakes he makes, manages to secure the loyalty of his Senators. To run against him, Craig would have to give up the leadership post he has now with the probable outcome that he would lose.
Nickles, even though he showed forth brilliantly in the Policy post and even though his service as Whip is tortured, would no doubt ever consider going back to Policy a step backwards, even though it would help his team immensely.

The fact is the leadership team in the Senate is mismatched. Were the right people in the right slots in the Senate, as is the case in the House, you would see a whole different spirit in the upper chamber.

If only these senators were like pawns on a chessboard. I know we could produce a winning game by moving a few of them around. Oh, well. It’s nice to dream about.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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