on being a senator -- 5/07/18

Today's selection -- from Playing with Fire by Lawrence O'Donnell. Being a U.S. senator today is far more complicated than it was in the 1950s:

"[Future president Lyndon] Johnson's rise in the leadership was fast. In 1951, his energy was rewarded with his election as his party's majority whip. When Gen­eral Dwight D. Eisenhower won the White House for the Republicans in 1952, Republicans were swept into power with him, capturing the majority of the Senate. With the loss of some senior members, Johnson became, at the age of forty-five, the most junior minority leader ever. Then, in 1954, with the return of a Democrat majority, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader. By [1958], Johnson had built a reputation as the ultimate political deal maker, a man who could steer bipartisan legislation through Congress. His biographer, Robert Caro, called LBJ the 'Master of the Senate,' but his command was based less on dominance than on a relentless search for compromise. ...

"Lyndon Johnson's Senate was a far simpler legislative body than it be­came in the last decades of the twentieth century. Senate procedure was simpler. Legislating was child's play compared to what it became in the 1970s, when suddenly Congress started counting the money. In LBJ's Sen­ate no one asked, 'How much does it cost?' And if that question somehow came up, Johnson could just make up a number. No one really knew. John­son never had to worry about how to pay for a highway or a post office he'd promised a senator. He never had to take away a highway or post office from another senator to pay for the promise he'd just made. The Senate Budget Committee did not exist until 1975, and with it came budget bills more complex than any document Johnson ever saw as a senator or presi­dent. Johnson never had to master the parliamentary intricacies of the budget rules. He never had to muster the 60 votes to override a budget point of order. He never had to worry about 'extraneous' matters being removed from budget reconciliation bills. LBJ could attach a minimum wage increase to a tax bill or to any legislation, something that became virtually impossible in 1975. The job of majority leader in Lyndon John­son's Senate was like flying a single-engine aircraft in good weather. Twenty years later it was like flying a jumbo jet in the rain. Now it's like flying a jumbo jet low on fuel in a hurricane.

"The personal lives of senators in Johnson's Senate were actually per­sonal. Private. They didn't have to reveal anything about what they did off the Senate floor. No one ever saw their tax returns. There was no such thing as financial disclosure. They could engage in all sorts of income­ producing activity outside of the Senate, including sweetheart business deals that no one ever had to know about. Campaign fund-raising and spending was not policed in Johnson's Senate. The Federal Election Com­mission was created to monitor campaign finances fifteen years after Johnson left the Senate. And, luckily for Johnson, the Senate Ethics Com­mittee was created five years after he left."

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Lawrence O'Donnell


Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics


Penguin Press


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