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Learn More About the Senate With This Guide

“The American Senate” should be required reading for anyone new to the chamber: interns, staffers, even senators. There’s unlikely to be another single volume quite as comprehensive anytime soon, a fact that can probably be attributed to the authors.

Neil MacNeil was chief congressional correspondent at Time magazine for 30 years, and Richard A. Baker spent longer than that as Senate historian. MacNeil died in 2008, leaving Baker with extensive notes to bring about a finished product.

The two men opted to divide the book into subject areas, rather than running through a history of the Senate from 1789 to the present day. The result is that each segment tells its own story and thus can largely be read independently from the others.

MacNeil and Baker demonstrate knowledge of both the serious and the absurd. Sure, there are detailed explanations of the caning of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner and the first cloture vote (in which senators sustained a filibuster of the Treaty of Versailles). But the volume also features references to more recent esoteric incidents, like the posthumous election of Mel Carnahan, D-Mo., in 2000 — which the authors call “a tactic without precedent” — and the “diagnosis” of Terri Schiavo by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Follow the Money

That the authors choose to begin with campaign finance is somewhat instructive. It seems that they made a conscious decision to set forth the importance of money in politics from the outset, from the early years through the bribery and sale of Senate seats that led up to the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators by the voters of each state. Up until that point, it had been the oft-corrupt state legislatures and party bosses making the selections.

Speaking of the 1970s campaign finance debates, the authors make one of many points that still rings true today.

“Quarreling over campaign funds and election law had long been a regular feature of Senate debate and a matter of grave concern to both political parties. The two parties had differing constituencies and, consequently, differing sources of financial support. In this, Republicans had an obvious advantage from their ties to business interests that were better off than the labor unions that formed a key sector of the Democrats’ base,” MacNeil and Baker write. “The Democrats generally tried to limit campaign money, while Republicans fought such restrictions.”

From there, the book weaves through the subsequent decades of attempts to change campaign finance law, through enactment of the McCain-Feingold campaign overhaul and the Supreme Court challenge led by current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“Today, senators who wish to keep their options open for another term must labor for six full years under the preoccupying urgency of amassing the many millions of dollars that such a campaign will be certain to require,” they write. “More than at any previous time, these money-driven elections are discouraging otherwise promising potential candidates and distracting members from optimal participation in the Senate’s day-to-day legislative responsibilities.”

Of course, MacNeil and Baker dedicate a substantial number of words to the Senate’s seminal debates over slavery and civil rights. That included going beyond the well-documented history of the “Great Triumvirate” of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, Kentucky’s Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (he of New Hampshire and Massachusetts lore).

“Clay and Webster and Calhoun gave the Senate its fame — and its power — but there were others of almost equal talent. Among them were [Thomas Hart] Benton, a formidable parliamentarian despite his unmatched egotism, and New York’s Silas Wright. They had great subjects to debate, almost all involving the interpretation of the Constitution, and they, rather than members of the House of Representatives or those in the executive branch, debated them at length,” the authors write, before adding that, as remains true today “debates, of course, did not pass legislation. Far more than eloquent speeches was needed to persuade senators how to vote on any pending question.”

The book gives the expected treatments to the myriad efforts to break through the Southern blockade of civil rights legislation of the 1950s and ’60s, along with the key role that filibusters played in protecting the prerogatives of segregationists such as Richard B. Russell.

A Contemporary Hook

Publication comes in the midst of the latest talk of retooling the rules to advance the majority’s agenda, in this case President Barack Obama’s executive and judicial nominations, with the threat that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., might use the “nuclear option” to effectively change the Senate’s rules by procedural means with a simple majority vote. The move would eliminate the ability to block nominations by filibuster.

It’s to some extent a reprise of 2005, when Frist seemed prepared to make the same move until the emergence of the “gang of filibuster judicial nominations,” they write.

Of course over the past few years, the roles have reversed, with McConnell making arguments that could pass for 2005 Democratic talking points.

The book ends just after a January 2011 rules standoff came to resolution with Reid and McConnell working with colleagues to bring about a resolution that included incremental procedural changes like the formal end to the ability to hold up nominations and legislation in secret, along with a colloquy about an ill-fated handshake deal between Reid and McConnell that Baker called “extraordinary for its expression of interparty good will.”

“History moves in cycles and so does the Senate,” the book says in an afterword. “As long as the US Constitution — the world’s oldest continuing written charter of government — remains in effect, the fundamental structure of the Senate will stand unchanged. There can be little doubt of that.”

Still, the authors attest to the great changes that have happened in chamber operations, which will no doubt continue. At the end of the day, anyone who intends to pass through the Senate for more than a fleeting second ought to read this book.