Commentary Magazine


Congress: The Sapless Branch, by Joseph S. Clark; and The Senate Establishment, by Joseph S. Clark & Others

Non-Legislative Arts

Congress: The Sapless Branch.
by Joseph S. Clark.
Harper & Row. 268 pp. $4.95.

The Senate Establishment.
by Joseph S. Clark and Other Senators.
Hill and Wang. 144 pp. $3.50; paperback, $1.50.

The word “reform” should be understood as a slogan—much as we have witnessed the word “poverty” becoming a slogan in the past year or so and taking over the role “reform” once played. But “reform” will soon achieve its former eminence again because it is more hallowed historically and because its underlying terms are much more serious. As a matter of fact, with a little reform accomplished here and there, we might be able to discuss and legislate improvements in the use of our wealth and the condition of our population without cramming these comprehensive subjects into a sentimental 19th-century handkerchief box.

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“Reform” is the generally preferred word for a formal shift in power relations to reflect already (or mostly) accomplished historical shifts. It is preferred because it seems always to imply something rather nobler than that. For this writer, however, there is hardly anything nobler that we human beings ever attempt or manage to attain than the bringing of our formal relations more into line with the changed facts of our situation—especially if we also manage not to mess up the whole works in the process. But most people—educated middle-class people in particular—disagree: for them, the biggest thing is to stop doing wrong and start doing right, thereby making our lot much better—right now.

Not Senator Clark. To be sure, as one of the staunchest all-around liberals in either chamber and a politician with a large educated middle-class constituency, he could hardly be expected to avoid all claim to the nobility lying easily at hand. The patrician Senator from Pennsylvania (where you have to fight to stay in office) began his second term by taking on the Senate bosses in public on the issue of committee assignments (he has for long wanted one on Foreign Affairs). This was not mere noble posturing, however; it was a calculated opening assault in what he knew would be a long and dangerous campaign that he could begin effectively only by putting his own career in jeopardy—which he did. Moreover, he did not take his fight to the hopeless floor of the Senate, or to the public through these two books, until he had lost decisively on the inside—and lost on an issue so (practical and personal that he would have to launch the public battle under the accusation, so bloodcurdling in America, of sour grapes.

The Senate Establishment is a transcript of Senator Clark’s speeches and exchanges with other senators during four days in February 1963, when he undertook to complain in detail about the decisions of the Democratic Steering Committee concerning the assignment preferences of the greatly augmented liberal bloc of Democratic senators (Clark’s group, which made out badly). The issues and considerations become complicated and even obscure at times; but The Senate Establishment is still inside talk of a very revealing kind—James MacGregor Burns in his Foreword calls it “a superb case study.”

While Clark was supported on the Senate floor by Douglas, Proxmire, and some others, it would be stretching matters to call this action a debate. As usual, only a handful were present. The Majority Leader, Senator Mansfield, participated (“I really dislike to wash our dirty Democratic linen in public, but I suppose it has to be done every once in a while”), but only to defend his own past effort to be fair; Senators Byrd and Russell, the hearts of the matter, were absent. Only one member of their clique, Senator Long of Louisiana, spoke at all—and he limited himself to pointing out that he didn’t get everything he wanted either at the beginning of his career in the upper chamber.

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Senatorial discourse, of course, is burdened with incredible politeness. But what emerges, even through this veil, is: (1) that the big committees—Finance, Appropriations, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary—are controlled by the conservative bi-partisan establishment and defended by every means against encroachment of any kind; (2) that these means include invoking or ignoring seniority, as this purpose may be served; (3) that members from whatever area who vote against amendment of the cloture rule tend to do conspicuously better on committee assignments, legislative favors, etc., than those who vote for it; and (4) that the conservative, mostly Southern Democratic members of the Club, or Inner Sanctum, or Establishment, do about as little as their Republican allies to help provide liberal senators with the kind of record which could be expected to assist in their re-election. (The big liberal Class of ’58—particularly at issue here—just went to the voters this fall.)

Congress: The Sapless Branch incorporates much of the general material in The Senate Establishment, but it extends and deepens the analysis considerably by including characterizations of the House and of the relation of Congress to the Presidency and congressmen to constituencies; it also provides a long schedule of internal and external reforms. All in all, it is a good, clear, comprehensive exposition of the problem of Congress—although it contains a rather embarrassing liberal instant-history of the United States along with a very suggestive capsule history of congressional reform. The latter is particuarly useful for demonstrating that Congress always changes, purposefully as well has haphazardly, and that “reform” is therefore not the exclusive pastime of political science professors. (Their exclusive pastime is Proposed Rational Reform, which is another matter.)

Senator Clark is, after all, a politician, and the reader pays for the consequent authority of experience by having to listen to an occasionally heavy public voice. Yet there are also some bright insights and basic shrewdities—the description, for instance, of how the archaic atmosphere on the Hill generates a mystique for befuddling the new Member, whose befuddlement is essential to the continued prosperity of the whole system: the biggest danger to the established powers, perhaps the only real danger, was, is, and probably always will be the threat of a Young Turks’ revolt. And in both of these books, the Senator returns in his ruminations about reform to two of the great examples of such revolts: the dethroning of Speaker Cannon in the House by a Progressive-Democratic coalition, and the ruthless capture by the President’s men of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, which paved the way for the first two years of Wilson’s administration. But I ask the reader (and the Senator) to speculate also for a moment on the relation between Wilson’s unique two years of peacetime parliamentary rule and the following summary statement of the Senator’s thesis:

In the absence of crisis, Congress cannot and will not act affirmatively except under a strong President who has a clear mandate from the people, not only because of the separation of powers and the way Congressmen and Senators come to office, but also because of the congeries of rules and customs which favor inactivity.

Yet Wilson had no clear mandate from the people, being a minority President; he was able to be a strong President for a while only because of the Young Turks’ revolt in the House which had been led by Norris (a Republican) two years before Wilson’s election. My simple point is that there must be a great deal else involved in the occasional functioning and the ordinary malfunctioning of our weird system than merely the determination of a Chief Executive to be “strong.”

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No, Senator Clark. As you well know (and will, I hope, some day write about), the real problem is the Democratic party. When we are all done analyzing Congress, including “the rules, parliamentary procedures, practices or precedents of either house of Congress, or the consideration of any matter on the floor,” it becomes clear as crystal that Congress was molded, both in its origins and development, by the South; and that today the last stronghold of the South is not merely in Congress but more essentially in the Democratic party—and is preserved in Congress mostly through the Democratic party. Obstruction was developed to the level of a high art, utilizing any passing procedural debris—like the Parisian art of objet trouvé and the collage—by the Southern Democrats and only by them. Others are merely imitators—like the post-Civil War Republicans who adapted Southern premises and techniques to enforce non-rule for the benefit of the plutocrats.

The purposes, of course, may change: at one time, a Republican will perfect his control by destroying an element of Southern obstructionism—as with “Reed’s rules” in 1890. Later (we are still living with it today) he will, failing of full control and becoming himself a minority obstructionist, join with the Southern parliamentarians in a new collaborative work of anti-legislative art. Be that as it may, the primary problem remains party; the details of reform are secondary. And behind party is money, including the patronage Senator Clark disdains. But as the history of the Reformers in New York suggests (and a patrician like Senator Clark ought to take note), only neutral, decent, rentier money can, initially, save us from the unpleasantness of “patronage.”

The famous revolt against Speaker Cannon, in which Senator Clark places so much stock, reformed the House by separating the considerable powers of the Speaker from the even greater powers of the Rules Committee: the Speaker was forbidden even to be a member. Today, the most piercing cry for reform is to subject the powers of the chairman of the Rules Committee to the party leadership—first among whom is certainly the Speaker. So, back to the beginning. What then, in perspective, is “reform”?

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