This election will mark only the third time in the nation’s history that a president will ascend directly from the Senate to the executive. (The others who didn’t take a detour to another office or appointment were John F. Kennedy and Warren G. Harding, both of whom left the White House in a casket.) The high-chamber lineup of 2008 has sparked plenty of spin-room speculation over whether or not any of these effete, executively challenged senators can take the reins of a hulking government bureaucracy. A better question might be whether any of them will be able to play ball on their old stomping grounds.
“The Senate,” the American Prospect notes (March 2008), “is where ambitious presidencies die.” Instead of tempering the House’s hotheads with lengthy, thoughtful debate—as was the founders’ intention—the Senate now uses “a cluttered toolbox of little-used procedures” to put on ice even the most reasonable legislation. Take, for example, a bill the House passed in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, designed to better identify would-be gun buyers deemed dangerous because of mental illness. The American reports (March-April 2008) that the legislation—backed by the National Rifle Association, by the way—languished for months because one senator placed a hold on it. These sorts of holds have become ubiquitous in recent years, as have easy threats of filibuster.
The American suggests lowering the threshold for unanimous consent, making all holds public, and returning on occasion to the days of true filibusters that froze all business and had senators sleeping on cots. These fixes, however, would rely on senators becoming their own reformers. Since that’s unlikely, the American Prospect urges the next president not only to take a tip from onetime senator Lyndon Baines Johnson and master the art of building cross-party coalitions with former colleagues, but also to learn from Ronald Reagan, whose coattails shepherded 12 new Republican senators into office, and who devised new procedures to game the system.