Tag Archives: U.S. Senate

Leahy’s Memoir Captures the Essence of the Man, and That’s Not an Entirely Good Thing

Nearly perpetual senator Patrick Leahy published The Road Taken, his doorstopper of a memoir last fall, and boy is it ever true to the character and career of the man. Straightforward, earnest, circumspect, and, above all, eternally loyal to the institution of the U.S. Senate, which he unironically calls “the conscience of the nation.”

Myself, I’ve never met the institution I could characterize as anyone’s “conscience,” and that includes organized religion. The real consciences of a society are usually the outsiders, not the insiders; the prophets, not the priests or kings. To me, legislative bodies in general, and senior chambers in particular, are less conscience and more granfalloon, defined by Kurt Vonnegut as “a proud and meaningless collection of human beings.” So I approached Leahy’s book with, shall we say, a measure of cynicism.

Still, I can understand his point of view. Leahy entered the Senate at a particular moment in time when it was living up to its billing. He took office mere months after Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency thanks, in no small part, to the urging of three top Congressional Republicans who put the interests of country over party.

Quaint, isn’t it?

The combination of Watergate and the collapse of the Vietnam War placed the Senate at the heart of existential issues about American government. And the Senate responded well — in that moment.

And that was the moment that cemented the fresh-faced Pat Leahy’s affection for the chamber. Well, that and crusty old segregationist John Stennis being nice to him.

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Leahy re-ups; a mixed blessing

So the news comes by way of VPR’s Bob Kinzel that Patrick Leahy will seek re-election in 2016. It’s not too much of a surprise, although if (hahaha, when) he wins an eighth term in office, he will be closing in on 77 years old. But he’s in good health, and I’m sure he sees the opportunity for the Democrats to regain the majority in the Senate; Republicans will be defending seats won in the Tea Party sweep of 2010, and will be hard-pressed to repeat that success in a Presidential year. If the Dems win back the Senate, Leahy gets back his beloved Judiciary Committee chairmanship.

On balance, Leahy’s continued presence in the Senate is a good thing. He’s reliably one of the more liberal members of the Senate, for one. Also, his seniority means influence, and he does bring home the bacon on a regular basis. (The most recent example: generous federal funding for the Lake Champlain cleanup.)

But, as universally beloved as St. Patrick is in Vermont liberal circles, I see some downside to his announcement.

First, he’s been in the Senate for 41 years, and he sometimes shows a dismaying loyalty to the clubby mores of our most hidebound deliberative body. When he chaired the Judiciary Committee, he made it harder for President Obama to get judicial nominees confirmed because of his adherence to the Senate’s “blue slip” tradition, which allows a single Senator to sideline a nomination.

Second, his continued presence will exacerbate the logjam in the upper reaches of liberal politics, and keep the glass ceiling pressed firmly on the aspirations of liberal women. We’ve never sent a woman to Congress, which is downright shameful. And it doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon; there are a lot of experienced, connected, talented men at the front of the line, waiting for their shot at higher office.

Finally, there’s the generation gap: add up the ages of our three members of Congress, and you get 215 years. That’s an average age of just under 72. Not that there’s anything wrong with being old; I myself aspire to a long and active elderhood. Still, I’m vaguely bothered by the lack of diversity in our admittedly small group: all men, all white, all senior citizens.

On balance, I’m happy with our Congressional delegation. Individually, they’re all fine. Collectively, though, they’re too old and homogeneous. Leahy’s announcement means it’ll take that much longer to get some new blood into Congress.