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The U.S. Senate: Fundamentals of American Government

The U.S. Senate: Fundamentals of American Government

by Tom Daschle

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The second entry in the civics series clearly and concisely explains how the United States Senate works.

The U.S. Senate is the second book in the Fundamentals of American Government civics series, exploring the inner workings of this important part of the legislative branch. As with Selecting a President, this book is written for all audiences,


The second entry in the civics series clearly and concisely explains how the United States Senate works.

The U.S. Senate is the second book in the Fundamentals of American Government civics series, exploring the inner workings of this important part of the legislative branch. As with Selecting a President, this book is written for all audiences, but voiced toward high school seniors and college freshmen—or any citizen interested in a concise yet authoritative exploration of this representative entity. Written by former Senator Tom Daschle, and co-written by acclaimed journalist Charles Robbins, this compelling and digestible book carefully examines and explains exactly how the Senate operates. From its electoral process to voting procedure, historic beginnings to modern day issues—there is no area of this governmental body left un-revealed. Told with an insider's perspective there is not a more defining or easily accessible compendium detailing the U.S. Senate.

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From the Publisher

"A useful primer for a broader audience interested in learning about a government institution that is suffering from record-low approval ratings."—Kirkus Reviews
Kirkus Reviews
In the second in the publisher's Fundamentals of American Government series, former Senate Majority Leader Daschle (Getting it Done, 2010, etc.) and ex-congressional staffer Robbins collaborate to explain the Senate. The authors contrast the rules under which the two legislative branches operate to illustrate their separate functions. They explain why even without the current partisan gridlock, the House of Representatives and the Senate are frequently at odds and how this was deliberately built into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers as a way to temper direct democracy. As part of the checks and balances built into the system, the functions of the two branches are complementary. For example, the Senate bears responsibility for confirming declarations of war and treaties and for the acceptance or rejection of presidential nominations for federal office, but in the case of an Electoral College tie, it is the House that chooses the next president. The rules and traditional practices of the two branches have evolved over time but still reflect their differently perceived functions. Daschle and Robbins show how this is exemplified by the role of speaker of the house, as compared to that of the Senate majority leader. The House functions as a collective body in which majority rule prevails, and the speaker controls the agenda and floor time allowed to representatives during a debate. Senate rules guard the privileges of each senator, encouraging prolonged debate, including the filibuster, in order to achieve compromise, holds on legislation, etc. The authors cover a wide range of topics, including committee and subcommittee structure and the role played by congressional staffers in shaping legislation. Primarily intended for high school seniors and college freshman, but also a useful primer for a broader audience interested in learning about a government institution that is suffering from record-low approval ratings.

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St. Martin's Press
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Fundamentals of American Government , #2
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The U.S. Senate

Fundamentals of American Government

By Tom Daschle, Charles Robbins

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Tom Daschle and Charles Robbins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02755-9



When a newly elected member arrives in the Senate, he or she gets a number corresponding to that person's place in the line of all senators who have served since the body was created. As of this writing, 1,931 senators have served. Robert Morris and William Maclay of Pennsylvania — who grew to detest each other — got numbers one and two because their state was the first to elect its senators. The first group of twelve senators arrived at the same time, April 6, 1789. When I joined the Senate in 1987, I was both amazed and delighted at the number I was given: 1776, the year the American colonies declared independence from Britain.

From the moment a new senator first steps onto the Senate floor, most are powerfully aware that we are links in an extraordinary chain of history going back to the Founders, the heirs and guardians of a miracle. And that miracle is the ideal of the United States, which we embrace, and whose great freedoms we swear to protect.

Eight years after I arrived, the senators of my party elected me their Leader, and one of my strongest supporters and most loyal and dedicated friends, Dick Reiners, invited me to dinner back home in South Dakota. Dick, then in his eighties, was a farmer. Over meat and potatoes at Dick's farmhouse in Worthing, I asked him for advice. He paused and looked at me and said, "There are two things that I would hope for you. One is that you never forget where you came from. Come home. Remember us." Then he pointed to some photos on the wall that I recognized readily, of his grandchildren. He said, "You've held each one of those grandkids, as have I. Give them hope. Every day you walk onto the floor, give them hope."

We hugged, and I left. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I got a call that Dick had passed away.

I've never gotten better advice in all the years before or since, and it has stayed with me. From across America, since our country was founded, voters have chosen neighbors to represent them in the Senate, and sent them to Washington with great goals. A senator's challenge is to focus on those goals and not lose sight of them amid the daily bustle and battles. That can be particularly challenging in today's tough times.

One touchstone, in particular, helped me remember my purpose: the Senate Leader's desk, at the front of the chamber. The desks, made in 1819, each have an ink well and a snuff box. You pull open the drawer, and you see the names of all the Leaders carved in it, and other senators, all those who used the desk before you.

As they sit at those desks, senators take on the challenge to safeguard our freedom, the same challenge that American soldiers have met for more than two centuries, and for which more than a million men and women have given their lives in more than thirty wars.

I represented South Dakota, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate — the two bodies that comprise the U.S. Congress — and served my last ten years as Senate Democratic Leader, including stints as Minority Leader and Majority Leader, depending on which party held more seats. For twenty-six years, the people of South Dakota — and colleagues from across the country — allowed me to live my passion.

I was raised Catholic, and my Catholicism was a huge part of my life when I was young. For many, from ordained clergy to the millions who volunteer through faith-affiliated groups and activities, the church is a calling, a way of serving something beyond themselves, a way of helping others. I rode my bike to mass every morning before school, even in numbing South Dakota winters. For me, the one action that evokes many of the same sensations as walking into a church is stepping onto the Senate floor. The majesty, the richness, the history, and sometimes the hush of the Senate chamber are akin to that of a sacred place. It was my secular temple.

It's a rare privilege to serve in the U.S. Senate. It's not easy to get there, or to stay there. Before you can try to realize your goals and visions, though, you have to convince your neighbors that you can best represent their views and interests in Washington. Alben Barkley, a Senate Majority Leader and later vice president, was asked what makes a great senator. "To be a great senator," Barkley replied, "first you have to get elected."

But in America, you don't have to be rich or connected or go to "the right schools" to win a Senate seat, or even become Majority Leader. You can come from a farm family in a small Midwestern state, and be the first in that family to graduate from college, like me. You just need to be thirty years old by the time you take office, a U.S. citizen for nine years, live in the state in which you run, and make the best case to your neighbors why they should send you to Washington.

Once you're in, the Senate itself — the Capitol, the chamber, your colleagues, the desks, the statues, the art, the history — should channel what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" and buttress you. Mike Mansfield, the great and longest-serving Senate Majority Leader, said, "What moved Senators yesterday still moves Senators today. We have the individual and collective strength of our predecessors ..."



When I was a senator, Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's brilliant speechwriter, told me, "You make history every day." He was right. Every major issue eventually makes its way to the U.S. Senate, from birth on abortion and contraception to death on assisted suicide and capital punishment, and everything in between. The Senate ratifies treaties; joins in declaring war; confirms or rejects the president's nominees for the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and thousands of other posts; and convenes as an impeachment court.

I served in painful days for the Senate and the nation, challenging times of great potential consequence. As I said at the time, "Our responsibility ... is to put the good of our Nation first, to be guided in these difficult days by two things only: our history and our own individual consciences."

That approach, that premium on history and conscience, allowed the Senate to play key roles in holding our nation together and pulling it back together after it ripped apart in the Civil War and to a degree during the civil rights battles, and in arguably saving the judiciary and the presidency by placing principle above politics in two presidential impeachments.

As Senate historian Donald Ritchie insists, you can't say the country grew naturally or organically; it grew because people set out to do something, and fought battles in Congress. "A lot of what we take for granted today was the result of long-term, major battles that resulted in the legislation." Ritchie recalled:

When I came to Washington in the 1960s, you couldn't stand next to the Potomac River because it smelled so bad, and if you fell in, you needed to get a Tetanus shot, because it was an open sewer — all these little towns up in Maryland and Virginia were just dumping their sewage into it. Now, I go by the Potomac and I see crew teams, I see people fishing and kayaking in the river. And the river smells decent. It happened because they passed the Clean Water Act.

Passed in its current form in 1977, the Clean Water Act regulates quality and discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters.

Ritchie also cited the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that opens jobs, transportation, buildings, and communications to people with a disability, from blindness to deafness to activity-restricting diseases. That's why you see ramps on buildings, wheelchair lifts on buses, and TTY lines on phones. The legislation brought together a strange bipartisan (both Democratic and Republican) assortment of senators, Ritchie noted, with one thing in common — they all had relatives with disabilities. "They knew how awful it was, and they knew how hard it was to get public places to accommodate them."

Senators also devote enormous effort to directly helping people cut through the red tape of federal bureaucracy, replacing a lost Social Security check or enrolling a veteran for treatment or earned benefits. That "constituent service" in some ways offers the job's greatest reward. There's nothing like the thrill of a neighbor coming up and gushing that you saved his or her life.

George Mitchell was one of the most distinguished Majority Leaders in our nation's history, a former federal judge who later brokered the Northern Ireland "Good Friday" peace agreement, ending a three-decade civil war that claimed more than 3,200 lives. Through all of his accomplishments, the single most satisfying moment of Mitchell's public life occurred, he said, in a parking lot of Sonny Miller's restaurant in Bangor, Maine, when a burly man rushed up to him. Mitchell's first thought, he said, was that the man was going to hit him. Instead, the man hugged him and thanked him for saving his job, by saving a small paper mill in Maine. Tears were streaming down the man's face as he described how much Mitchell's actions had meant to him and to his family. For George, a son of immigrants who had worked his way through school as a janitor, it was a singular moment in a singular career.



The Constitution does not mention political parties. James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, warned in "Federalist No. 10" of the evils of "faction." Still, our new country adopted England's structure of two competing parties. In the 1720s, the Whigs and Tories crossed the Atlantic. The Tories began as the "court party," later the loyalists. The two parties evolved into Federalists and Anti- Federalists and eventually into Democrats and Republicans.

Now, after two centuries, our two major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, have shaped the U.S. political system at both the state and federal levels. They use devices such as filing fees and petitions to restrict ballot access to others, whom they dismiss as "third" and "fringe" parties.

Our two political parties are fundamental to American government and politics, and to the Senate. The Senate chamber itself, the sanctuary, has a center aisle that divides along party lines, spawning the phrase "crossing the aisle" when you work with somebody from the other party. Each party has its own "cloakroom," with a door into the Senate chamber. The political parties assign their members to committees and select their leaders, the Majority and Minority Leaders, who manage legislation on the floor.

Democrats and Republicans have different, competing philosophies. President Franklin Roosevelt offered as succinct a definition of the difference between liberals and conservatives — essentially, between Democrats and Republicans — that I've ever seen, a definition that is as accurate today as it was back then. Liberals, FDR said, believe that "as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them." Conservatives, he said, believe that "there is no necessity for the government to step in." President Ronald Reagan, a conservative in office during the 1980s, liked to say that government is the problem, not the solution. That, even more than FDR's definition, sums up the difference between the Republican and Democratic ideologies that have evolved in the past thirty years, and the schism between the two views in American politics.

In 1991, as cochair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, I was tasked with crafting my party's agenda for the 102nd Congress, which would run the next two years, in FDR's spirit of government duty. I visited each Democratic office to survey senators' views and to collect ideas. Everybody I spoke with wanted health care reform at or near the top of our agenda. And so I helped launch an effort that would become a cornerstone of my career, and a cornerstone of two administrations.



When I was first elected to Congress 1978, the Senate was "a bipartisan liberal institution," as Senate historian Ritchie described it. By bipartisan, he meant that Democrats and Republicans cooperated and compromised to achieve results. In a masterful portrait of the Senate in The New Yorker magazine, George Packer noted, "Every major initiative — voting rights, open housing, environmental law, campaign reform — enjoyed bipartisan support."

Today, the Senate is a vastly different place. The Senate's modern, fractious era grew from the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. In his 1969 inaugural address, President Richard Nixon urged civility, as the Vietnam War and the counterculture revolutions raged: "We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another."

When I arrived in Washington in January 1979, the Senate had just begun its decline. Packer traced the slide to 1978.

The Senate's modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. ... Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished.

When the system works, senators can disagree without being disagreeable, as the saying goes. In a healthy democracy such as ours, it is not only the right, but the duty of the "opposition party" to fight for what it believes in. You hope to end up with principled compromise, to find common ground. Everett Dirksen, the great Senate Republican leader and namesake of a Senate office building, said, "I live by my principles and one of my principles is flexibility."

But sometimes there is sacred ground, and that's when you agree to disagree. It is out of the process and discipline of reasoned and rigorous debate that strong and sound legislation and policy are shaped. Such debate is at the heart of the system of government created by our Founding Fathers.

Some partisanship is healthy, organizing the Senate and cohering substantive agendas, and bringing a competition of ideas and philosophies, and national dialogs and debates. Republican Leader Bob Dole, invoking former Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, called principled partisanship the lifeblood of democracy.

When most people think of the phrase "checks and balances," they think of the separate branches of our government — the presidency, Congress, federal and state governments, the judiciary. But the phrase also pinpoints a minority party's duty in the Senate — in the Democrats' case, when I was Minority Leader, to check and to balance, wherever we thought it necessary, the legislative intentions of the Republican Party and the Republican White House. The Republicans pursued the same goal, through different means, during the Clinton presidency.

A political party has rarely achieved a big enough majority in the Senate to simply steamroll the minority to pass its legislation. Most recently, Democrats captured those numbers during the Great Depression, when they shepherded through New Deal legislation, the sweeping federal programs that helped lift America out of the depths of the financial crisis and carried us through World War II and beyond; and in the 1960s, when they passed Great Society programs, to attack poverty and encourage social justice.


Excerpted from The U.S. Senate by Tom Daschle, Charles Robbins. Copyright © 2013 Tom Daschle and Charles Robbins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author

TOM DASCHLE is a former U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader from South Dakota. He is currently a Senior Policy Advisor to the law firm of DLA Piper and a member of the Health Policy and Management Executive Council at the Harvard School of Public Health.
A former daily newspaper reporter and editor, CHARLES ROBBINS ran press shops for two Congressmen, a Senator, a gubernatorial campaign and a presidential campaign. Robbins has co-written three nonfiction books with U.S. Senators.

Tom Daschle is a former U.S. Senator and Senate majority leader from South Dakota. He is currently a special policy advisor at the law firm Alston&Bird LLP, a visiting professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

CHARLES ROBBINS served as Senator Specter’s communications director in his Senate office and on his presidential campaign. He is the author of the forthcoming novel The Accomplice as well as coauthor, with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, of the forthcoming The U.S. Senate, and coauthor of Senator Specter’s Passion for Truth. A former newspaper reporter and Navy reserve officer, he is a graduate of Princeton University, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and the master of fine arts program at Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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