The central working theory of American government today is that the system is dysfunctional, ineffectual and increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Americans. “Broken” has become both a favored description and a general-purpose diagnosis of all the ills that afflict our government and politics. The theory of brokenness is so universal that it shapes and frames every debate about how we choose our leaders, govern ourselves and resolve our differences. The consensus is that we no longer do any of these things well and, in all likelihood, we do them worse than ever.
Ira Shapiro’s new book, “The Last Great Senate,” buys into the dysfunction argument to present us with an extended and lovingly rendered reminder that the U.S. Senate, like the American system of governance itself, was once something great but that its time of greatness has passed.
The book is a tour-de-force meditation on the kind of high-powered policymaking and intricate legislative needlepoint that once seemed to define the Senate’s work. For example, Shapiro describes the contentious 1978 debate over how the United States would officially recognize the People’s Republic of China while keeping its pledge to protect Taiwan. The end of that debate was a triumph for President Jimmy Carter and a badge of honor for the Senate, but Shapiro concludes despairingly: “Of course, it was a different time. This was how the Senate worked in the era when it was still great.”