When the Senate Was Great, and It Conspired against the People

Politico has a gushing story about The Last Great Senate, a book by a veteran Democratic congressional aide, Ira Shapiro, about “a golden era of modern American political history — a period where giants in both parties worked together to produce sweeping legislative achievements.”

Besides passing expansive, expensive laws, the other great thing about the Senate back in the golden days of the 60s and 70s was how senators from both parties worked together – to get reelected and to secretly do the opposite of what they were telling their constituents. For instance:

In the book, he recalls a night in 1963 when a stunned Sen. Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat in his first year in office, found himself aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia listening to Senate GOP Leader Everett Dirksen talk to him for an hour about how to get re-elected.

And my favorite part:

Shapiro tells how in 1979, Eagleton was chairman of the District of Columbia subcommittee and therefore a key player in deciding whether the newly-created Washington-area Metro system would receive the needed federal funds to expand.

“His staff advised him that it would be politically disastrous to find the money for the Washington, D.C., Metro at a time when federal funds for bus service in St. Louis and Kansas City were being slashed,” Shapiro writes. “Eagleton was torn, agreeing with their political judgment, but knowing how much the full Metro system would mean to the Washington region.”

Eagleton sought a meeting with Maryland Sen. Mac Mathias, a moderate Republican and the ranking member of the D.C. subcommittee with an intense interest in the capital region’s new subway. Both senators had been elected in 1968 and had worked together on D.C. home rule.

At the meeting in Eagleton’s office, the Democrat informed his GOP colleague he would oppose the Metro funding.

“Then it’s dead,” Mathias replied.

“’No Mac,’ Eagleton said hastily, ‘We’ve got a plan.’”

As Shapiro recounts, Eagleton said he’d lend his staff director to Mathias and Paul Sarbanes, the other Maryland senator, and enlist Michigan freshman Carl Levin to manage the bill. For public consumption, Eagleton subsequently criticized Metro as a “gold-plated subway system” and even gave his home state Republican Senate colleague John Danforth a heads-up so that their votes were aligned. But with Eagleton’s behind-the-scenes support, the others senators on the committee passed the legislation and found the money for Metro.

And the poor dumb schmucks in Missouri were none the wiser.