“…in the House it’s kind of a majoritarian institution, but in the Senate a great power flows to the minority, to minority coalitions, to individual members…”
Interviewed by Senate historian Donald Ritchie, Martin Gold discusses the difficulty of educating people about the unique nature of the Senate and the enormous power that is held by each individual senator.
GOLD: Well, everybody has stories. My story is about Malcolm Wallop stopping three years of work, or nearly doing so, at the very last minute for a bill that passed 88 to 5. The only way that you could educate people about this is through stories like that. If you tell people: well, in the House it’s kind of a majoritarian institution, but in the Senate a great power flows to the minority, to minority coalitions, to individual members; they can understand the words but they can’t understand the meaning. They don’t know what that really means. What do you mean, great power? Power to do what? How much power? So if you say a single senator can block legislation that is desired by ninety-nine others because the requirements to overcome his objection are so cumbersome that there may not be time to address them, that is a little bit more illustrative. It will strike the average person as being tremendously anti-democratic and tremendously unfair, but that’s the nature of the Senate.
The power of the individual senator is lost on most people. I gave a tour this morning to a professional golfer and his family. We walked into the Senate chamber and later into the House chamber. Some of the differences were evident right away. Of course everybody knows there are shorter terms and more members in the House, and fewer members in the Senate, with longer terms. But that doesn’t begin to describe the difference. There are cultural differences that are far deeper than anything that would be suggested, because you could have six year terms in the Senate and have a hundred senators and have identical rules to the House. The apparent differences mask the real differences. People miss the true story of the huge cultural divide and why you not only have the checks and balances between the branches but within the branch itself. It’s not taught, as best as I can tell. I certainly never really got that in the formal education classes that I ever had, and certainly not even in law school legislation classes which focused on legislative drafting and not on legislative procedure. It is the goal, I would think, of things that I’m doing, and things that this historical office is doing, to help the public understand what the Senate institution is about.
RITCHIE: I think about somebody elected to the House of Representatives. When you walk in the door, even if you are in the majority party, you’re not going to be heard until you’ve acquired some seniority, or you’ve got to be part of a number, a very large incoming class, or whatever. But otherwise you’ve got to bide your time to get to a leadership position or a senior position where you have influence. A U.S. senator walks in the door on day one and they’ve got that plus, because they can say, “I object.”
GOLD: One of the reasons that I do a lot of procedure seminars with the freshmen is because I think that many of them don’t understand what they’ve got. It doesn’t mean that they will exercise their rights, but they do need to know their rights even if they don’t exercise them.
RITCHIE: And how to exercise them effectively.
RITCHIE: It’s possible to abuse those rights and make yourself obnoxious to your colleagues.
GOLD: Well, I’ve always believed that the Senate could tolerate one Metzenbaum but not many.
RITCHIE: There always seems to be somebody like that, there’s always got to be one person who wants to be the outsider and be a thorn in the system, and make it work for them.
GOLD: Look at the example of Senator William Proxmire. He came to Washington and tried to play the inside game for a little while, and wasn’t comfortable being there, and decided he just wanted to be an outsider. There are a number of iconoclasts and they are now from both parties, who relish the role of being the person that exposes all the hypocrisy.
RITCHIE: Wayne Morse for years.
GOLD: Wayne Morse. Paul Wellstone.
RITCHIE: James Abourezk. They often don’t last for very long, but there always seems to be somebody who’s going to play that role.
GOLD: One of the greatest political commercials I ever saw was a Metzenbaum commercial. It showed people who you could take to be lobbyists walking with finely creased slacks and highly polished shoes, but you only saw them from the knee down. They are plotting on legislation. “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that.” They start marching up the steps of the Capitol. “We’re going to do this and we’re going to do that.” They get about halfway up and somebody says, “But what about Metzenbaum?” And they turn and walk back down the steps. [Laughs]