11 January 2016

The Years of Lyndon Johnson (10)


The third volume of Robert Caro's Years of Lyndon Johnson is the longest of the four published to date (including notes, it spans 1191 pages).  This volume deals with ten of Johnson's twelve years in the United States Senate (1949 – 1958).  Johnson's tenure as Leader of the Senate Democrats seems to represent to Caro the one of the apexes of Johnson's political life, a time when his unique talents were perfectly suited to the office he held, and his personality was able to do the most to transform political institutions into instruments of personal power.  Master of the Senate is an incredible book, not only for the reason shared by all the volumes of this series — because it is a compelling and finely detailed biographical narrative — but also because it paints a portrait of the United States Senate as one of the great moderating institutions of the United States Government, an element of aristocratic oligarchy which preserved the American democracy from the violent tides of public opinion and offered a conservative bulwark for the interests of minorities against those of the states with the most people and money.  This volume stands on its own as an incredible study in the purpose and operations of the Senate.


The first hundred pages of Master of the Senate are about the Senate itself.  Caro gives an outline of the Senate's history, focusing on the peculiarities of the institution, its governing ethos, and the major controversies and personalities that have occupied its attention since 1789.  The Senate was envisioned by the founders as a moderating force in the national legislature.  Because elections are held for all the seats in the House of Representatives every two years, and because representation in the House is proportional to the population of a given region, the House tends to be more sensitive to the chaotic motions of public opinion, and more subject to the imprudence of the masses.  The Senate was designed to counterbalance both the instability of the House and its inherent populism, being made up of fewer delegates, appointed by state governments (and therefore not popularly elected), for long, six-year terms.  Additionally, because representation in the Senate is equal for each of the individual states, regional minorities are given a stronger voice, making it possible for states with smaller populations to resist objectionable legislation from larger states — legislation which would pass easily in the House.

Of course, the issues of slavery and race relations were the central regional controversy in the United States for most of its first two centuries, meaning that the Southern States — which were in the minority by population — depended on the Senate for protection against Northern intervention.  Thus the Senate was, until the 1960s, traditionally associated with the North-South divide in the U. S., and its peculiar features functioned as a shield for white southern interests.  The Senate was the South, and many of the great political crises of the 1800s are simply battles over control of the Senate, and the protection it guaranteed to the South.  (In time, the West would join the South, not in its racist politics, but in its concern for the protection of regional minorities against the power of the large eastern states.)

The chief distinguishing peculiarity of the Senate as a legislative body is its lack of a rule limiting debate.  The fact that at any point during the legislative process the floor can be taken and held (and held, and held...) by one or several Senators intent upon preventing a piece of legislation from proceeding to a vote, swings the structural politics of the Senate even further in favor of minorities, and makes it an extremely powerful conservative force.  Until the introduction of cloture (through which debate could be terminated by a 2/3s majority vote) in 1917, a small minority of senators could coordinate to thwart the progress of a bill offensive to them, obstructing the legislative process until the urgency of other business prompted the Senate to drop the offending measure and move on.  Even after cloture was introduced, the filibuster was seen as sacred to many Senators from the South and West, and held as a safeguard to protect the unique interests of their states from interference.  After 1917, the 2/3s majority became the crucial question in any sufficiently controversial measure, and the vote for cloture was less a matter of party loyalty than desire to protect the filibuster.

The other distinguishing feature of the Senate, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, was its strict adherence to a seniority system and lack of unitary leadership.  Seniority, coupled with long terms and high rates of re-election, added to the conservatism of the Senate.  Caro describes the legislative body as an extremely solemn club for old men, a gerontocracy.  One would be assigned to a committee upon taking office, and stay on that committee, possibly for decades.  All power in the senate regarding legislation was held by the committee chairmen, who were the oldest men in the room, and who administered committee business.

I am not doing Caro's portrait of the Senate justice here, but I will conclude as he does with a few notes on the role of the South.  In the century after 1876, when the post-war period of reconstruction ended, the main concern of the South in national government was to protect a racist social arrangement from interference from the North.  Because the destruction of the South's strong grip on the Senate, and the end of the racist social settlement was one of the main achievements of Johnson's political career, Caro plays the issue up, and gives it some drama.  Civil rights legislation was not an invention of the 1950s and 1960s.  Northerners had been trying to pass civil rights laws since the Civil War, and (aside from the first ten years following the conflict) had failed continuously.  Caro lays responsibility for this fact on the high rates of re-election among southern senators, and their mastery of Senate procedure, and ability to use that mastery ruthlessly to outwit and outmaneuver their opponents.

Much more could be said about Part One, which contains a large quantity of condensed history, but I will end my summary here.