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U.S. Senators and Their World

October 1, 1960

Following World War II, scholars and journalists took a searching new look at the U.S. Senate. They saw the Senate as a counterbalance to a presidency whose powers had been sharply inflated under the guise of wartime emergency. Of the resulting books, one of the most influential was entitled U.S. Senators and Their World. It was published 46 years ago in 1960, by University of North Carolina political scientist Donald Matthews.

Matthews approached the Senate like an anthropologist discovering a new civilization. Beginning in 1947, he conducted dozens of off-the-record interviews with members. “How did senators think?” “In what ways did service in the Senate change them?” This led Matthews to explore the “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 said, “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.” Here is what Professor Matthews had to say about the folkway he called “reciprocity.”

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. [Reciprocity] demands an ability to calculate how much “credit” a senator builds up with a colleague by doing him a favor of “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.”

U.S. Senators and Their World is now considered a classic. It is worth reading as a reminder of how much the Senate has changed over the last half century—and how much it has stayed the same.