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The Idea of the Senate

George Mitchell, 1989

On April 6, 1989, Senator George Mitchell delivered a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of its first meeting. After Senators Wendell Ford and Mark Hatfield delivered addresses on the Senate of 1789 and 1889, Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Democrat from Maine, stood at his front row center desk in the chamber to speak about the Senate of 1989 and beyond. He began by observing that the modern Senate very much resembled the Senate as outlined in the Constitution, except that senators were now popularly elected and the Senate conducted its business in full public view, not just to the galleries but to television viewers across the nation. The Senate, he pointed out, had been created less to promote change than to temper it, “to moderate the speed with which the Nation hurtles into the future.”

George Mitchell first came to the Senate in 1962 as executive assistant to Senator Edmund S. Muskie, a Democrat from Maine. Born in Waterville, Maine, Mitchell was raised by a father who was a janitor and a Lebanese-born mother who worked in a textile mill. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1954 and then served in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps in Germany. After military service, he studied law at Georgetown University and briefly served as a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division before joining Muskie’s Senate staff.

Returning to Maine in 1965, he practiced law, chaired the state Democratic Party, and ran unsuccessfully for governor. President Jimmy Carter appointed Mitchell as U.S. attorney from Maine in 1977 and then as a U.S. district judge in 1979. When Senator Muskie became secretary of state in 1980, Maine’s Democratic governor appointed George Mitchell to the vacant Senate seat. Although there were some suspicions about his abilities to win an election, he campaigned vigorously and won election on his own in 1982 and reelection in 1988. He served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1986, the year the Democrats regained the majority in the Senate. This boosted his standing in the Senate and led to his selection as the Democratic majority leader in 1989, a post he held until his retirement in 1995.

As majority leader, Mitchell won notice for his “orderly, consultative style.” He promised the minority party’s leadership no surprises. At a time when partisan warfare was raging in the House of Representatives, the soft-spoken Mitchell wanted to bring more order to the Senate. Beyond Mitchell’s civil style and quiet tone, he proved himself a tough political fighter who frequently opposed the legislative proposals of Republican president George H. W. Bush. But he also encountered strong opposition from his Republican counterpart, Senator Bob Dole, who effectively marshaled his forces to prevent the Senate from overriding President Bush’s vetoes and to defeat a large number of cloture motions. The Senate operated in an era of political deadlock during Mitchell’s first year as majority leader, since the presidency and the majorities in Congress were held by different parties. Senator Mitchell pondered the ability of the Senate to take positive action to accomplish something rather than simply resist what it opposed. He questioned those rules and traditions that frustrated the will of the majority, pointing to the increased number of failed cloture votes as a sign of stalemate.

It was with these issues in mind that Senator Mitchell addressed the Senate on the occasion of its 200th anniversary. In a chamber filled to capacity with current and former United States senators and their guests, he posed the question of whether the Senate, created by a Constitution written in 1787, could address the pressing issues faced by modern American society. Could an institution that had changed so little respond to change?

The Senate of 1989 and Beyond

Can an institution devised to restrain change be creative in shaping the Nation for its third century? I say yes.

The Senate possesses a responsiveness and depth unmatched elsewhere in Government. Six-year terms and staggered elections make the Senate a continuing body with experience and renewal. Senators can and do serve with many Presidents through many different crises, foreign and domestic. They confront continuing internal reform and external threat. Each Senator, although only 1 of a body of 100, may take upon himself or herself the sole responsibility for halting an initiative of the whole body of the executive or of the House. Each Senator has that power and that responsibility. . . .

There are no easy parallels in history to 20th century America. Here in our Nation our economy is entering a postindustrial age where Americans compete in an international workplace. Medical technology offers new hope and longer life to millions and huge costs to all. Prosperity is high but leaves many untouched.

Change abroad is also unprecedented in scope and pace. Never before has mankind’s activity threatened the international environment.

Never before have the peoples of the world been so vulnerable to the actions of terrorists and madmen. Never before have the prosperous societies of the West seen first hand the tragedy of famine and deprivation in the Third World.

Can a 200-year-old institution respond to such change? We answer that question affirmatively every day. Throughout its existence, despite its built-in bias against haste, the U.S. Senate has been a revolutionary body. It has not become an aristocracy of birth or wealth, as many predicted. It has not paved the way for a parliamentary system, wholly deferential to the executive, as some feared. The Senate has become a guardian of tradition without becoming a barrier to change.1

He answered his questions in the affirmative, on the grounds that the Senate had not become the aristocratic upper house that had once been feared, that its membership had grown diverse along with the nation, and that it remained more open to bipartisan action than might exist in a parliamentary system. Although the Senate remained a “guardian of tradition,” it was not a barrier to change.

In 1994 George Mitchell retired from the Senate and took on a number of diplomatic missions for President Bill Clinton. Perhaps his most challenging assignment was to bring the warring Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland to the peace table. Five years after he retired—and a decade after the Senate had celebrated its bicentennial—he returned to the Senate to deliver a Leader’s Lecture. He told his audience that he had spent two years negotiating a peace among the British and Irish governments and the 10 political parties in Northern Ireland, and how difficult it had been just to get all 12 of the eligible parties into the same room. The discussions were long, contentious, and repetitious, and some delegates grew impatient with him for not imposing time limits on the speakers, but he explained he had acquired his political training in a legislative body that permitted unlimited debate.

Mitchell confessed that as majority leader he had often been frustrated by the ease with which the Senate’s rules could be used for obstruction, but he had gained valuable perspective with time and distance from his legislative duties. “So my first point is that the right of unlimited debate is a rare treasure which you must safeguard,” he told the senators. “Of course, it can be, and it is, abused. But that is the price that must be paid, and the privilege is worth the price. Although I didn't realize it at the time when I sat in the Senate Chamber and listened to very long speeches by several of the people here this evening, the Lord, in the mysterious ways in which He works, was preparing me for the Northern Ireland negotiations. But I have no doubt that my service in the Senate was extremely helpful to me in Northern Ireland.”2 Old rules and traditions still had a purpose and if used wisely could still bring about constructive change.

Further Reading:

Gould, Alberta. George Mitchell: In Search of Peace. Farmington, ME: Heritage Publishing, 1996.

Mitchell, George J. Making Peace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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1. Congressional Record, 101st Cong., 1st sess., 5693.
2. Trent Lott, Leading the United States Senate: The Leader’s Lecture Series (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 81-82.