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Idea of the Senate | Senate “Folkways”

Political Scientist Donald R. Matthews, 1960
Image of Book Cover: U.S. Senators & Their World by Donald R. Matthews

In the years immediately following World War II, scholars and journalists took a searching new look at the workings of the United States Senate. One of the most influential among the resulting works, U.S. Senators and Their World, came from the pen of University of North Carolina political scientist Donald R. Matthews. Through an extensive series of off-the-record interviews with members and staff, which he conducted between 1947 and 1957, Matthews examined the culture of the Senate and the 180 individuals who served there at some point during that transitional decade. Through the period of his study, the Senate changed party control four times, but neither party was able to muster a strong, disciplined majority. This tenuous political environment promoted unaccustomed cooperation within and between the two parties as they sought to advance crucial postwar legislation.

Donald Matthews set out to ensure that readers would not dismiss his book as a lifeless scholarly tract. How could any book about the culture of the Senate be dull, he wondered? “The Senate is an exciting place, full of drama, conflict, and history.” He was well aware, however, of the challenges that waited any outsider seeking to evaluate the institution’s internal operations. One could read scores of books, examine piles of congressional documents, and interview dozens of members and staff without capturing the essence of the body. “[T]he Senate is so complex an organization that it can remain largely incomprehensible to some who have spent the better part of a lifetime in and about it.” He could not resist adding, “On the other hand, almost everyone who has spent more than a few days on the Hill thinks he knows how the Senate really works and is highly articulate about it.”

Haynes followed a circuitous road from graduate training to his landmark study of the U.S. Senate. In 1894 his Hopkins mentor, Herbert Baxter Adams, who was also Woodrow Wilson’s guide in producing Congressional Government, acknowledged the young scholar’s promise by publishing his doctoral dissertation, “Representation and Suffrage in Massachusetts, 1620-1691” in his Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science. Haynes then shifted his interest in the Massachusetts legislature forward two centuries.

Matthews examined the Senate at its most personal level. Rather than crafting a sweeping historical narrative, or preparing an analysis of how legislation is enacted, he simply took a close look at its members. Who were they? Where did they come from? What did they expect? How did service in the Senate change them? This led him to explore the Senate’s “unwritten rules of the game.” “How do those rules affect senatorial behavior? Who is influential in the Senate and why?” As Matthews developed his study, he identified six “folkways.” He labeled them “apprenticeship,” “legislative work,” “specialization,” “courtesy,” “reciprocity,” and “institutional patriotism.” “Only those who have served in the Senate, and perhaps not even all of them, are likely to grasp its folkways in all their complexity,” he concluded.

The most enduring portion of Matthews’ 1960 study is Chapter V, “The Folkways of the Senate.” He identified “apprenticeship” as the first rule of behavior. The Senate devised many ways to remind its new members of their junior status. These reminders included assignments to the least desirable committees and personal office suites, and back-row desk locations in the Senate Chamber. As one freshman senator acknowledged to Matthews, “Like children, we should be seen and not heard” in floor debate. When a newly arrived senator once joined other members in lavish floor speeches honoring a senior member’s birthday, the object of the good wishes quietly cursed the upstart’s temerity.

Every new member faces the basic choice of becoming a “show horse” or a “work horse.” In Matthews’ Senate, the surest route to collegial respect and legislative effectiveness was to “keep quiet and work hard.” As it is impossible to become an expert on the entire range of issues that come before the Senate, Matthews detected that successful first-term members focused on the smaller number of issues that came before their committees or immediately affected their constituencies. A vital lubricant to legislative effectiveness is the folkway of courtesy. New members are counseled never to let honest differences of political opinion degenerate into personal attacks. To maintain a climate of courtesy within a superheated legislative arena, Senate rules prohibit members from addressing one another directly or insultingly. Finally, Matthews set forth the two fundamental norms quoted here: reciprocity and institutional patriotism.

Reciprocity as a Senate folkway

Every senator, at one time or another, is in a position to help out a colleague. The folkways of the Senate hold that a senator should provide this assistance and that he should be repaid in kind. The most important aspect of this pattern of reciprocity is, no doubt, the trading of votes. . . .

To play this game properly and effectively requires tolerance and an understanding of the often unique problems and divergent views of the other senators. “No man,” one highly placed staff assistant says, “can really be successful in the Senate until he has adopted a national point of view. Learning what the other senators’ problems are and working within this framework to pass legislation gives him this outlook. If he assumes that everyone thinks and feels the same way he and his constituents do, he will be an ineffective legislator.” It demands, too, an ability to calculate how much “credit” a senator builds up with a colleague by doing him a favor or “going along.” If a senator expects too little in return, he has sold himself and his constituents short. If he expects too much, he will soon find that to ask the impossible is fruitless and that “there are just some things a senator can’t do in return for help from you.” Finally, this mode of procedure requires that a senator live up to his end of the bargain, no matter how implicit the bargain may have been. “You don’t have to make these commitments,” one senator said, “and if you keep your mouth shut you are often better off, but if you do make them, you had better live up to them.”

These are subtle skills. Some men do not have them in sufficient quantity to be successful at this sort of bargaining. A few take the view that these practices are immoral and refuse, with some display of righteous indignation, to play the game that way. But these men are the exceptions, the nonconformists to the Senate folkways.

Most institutions demand an emotional investment from their members. The Senate of the United States is no exception. Senators are expected to believe that they belong to the greatest legislative and deliberative body in the world. They are expected to be a bit suspicious of the President and the bureaucrats and just a little disdainful of the House. They are expected to revere the Senate’s personnel, organization, and folkways and to champion them to the outside world.

Most of them do. “The most remarkable group that I have ever met anywhere,” “the most able and intelligent body of men that it [has] been my fortune to meet,” “the best men in political life today”; thus do senators typically describe their colleagues. The Senate as an institution is usually described in similar superlatives.

A senator whose emotional commitment to Senate ways appears to be less than total is suspect. One who brings the Senate as an institution or senators as a class into public disrepute invites his own destruction as an effective legislator. One who seems to be using the Senate for purposes of self-advertisement and advancement obviously does not belong. Senators are, as a group, fiercely protective of, and highly patriotic in regard to, the Senate. 1

Nearly a half-century after its appearance, scholars writing about the modern-era Senate routinely continue to cite Matthews’ book as a point of departure for their own broad conclusions. Assessing his own work 40 years later, Matthews noted profound changes within the Senate and among scholars who study it. He lamented that the Senate of the early 21st century has become crippled by “extreme individualism and bitter partisanship,” which make “leadership and policymaking excruciatingly difficult.” Study of the Senate in the 1950s involved only a handful of scholars who worked independently without knowing much about each others’ research. By contrast, “Today, the circle of active congressional researchers is very large and an imposing infrastructure facilitates their work.” Study of the Senate, whether in the mid-1950s or in the early 2000s, is a challenging task.

Further Reading:

Matthews, Donald R. “Afterword: Reflections on Forty Years of the Senate.” In The Contentious Senate: Partisanship, Ideology, and the Myth of Cool Judgment, Colton C. Campbell and Nicol C. Rae, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

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1. Donald R. Matthews, U.S. Senators and Their World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), 99-102.