The Boys In The Back Room

The Senate Establishment

by Joseph S. Clark. other Senators
Hill & Wang, 138 pp., $3.50 cloth

This slender book is a document of the melancholy year 1963. It memorializes the occasion when Joseph S. Clark, the exceptionally spunky Senator from Pennsylvania, finally said out loud that though democracy may reign in the Senate, a conservative oligarchy rules. His speeches over a three-day period (February 19-21) were free of pious fakery and packed with illuminating detail. Yet most of his colleagues were either annoyed or indifferent and the press tended to bury the story amid the shipping news.

That was in February. By November there was exasperated agreement that the 88th Congress was among the worst on record. A liberal President could not get the courtesy of a vote on either of his two major domestic proposals—the civil rights bill and tax-cut legislation. Nine of thirteen basic appropriation bills were lost somewhere in the labyrinth, even though the fiscal year they were intended to cover had begun the previous July. The mood of defeatism and lethargy impelled a normally clubbable Senator, Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, to lapse from grace by telling his brethren off. Coincidentally, the Baker scandal implicated the Senate as an institution and (alas) made even so unappealing a hack as Allen Drury look like a model of Balzacian discernment.

By November, events had sustained Mr. Clark’s indictment, then, on Black Friday, gave it a supremely ironic twist. With the succession of Lyndon B. Johnson, a politician who personified the Senate Establishment became President of the United States. Senator Clark’s analysis, intended to throw probing light on processes of power in the Senate, suddenly also became a description of the system that produced Lyndon B. Johnson.

What is the system? In brief, it is the mechanism that turns liberal majorities at election time into a mandate for conservatism on Capitol Hill. By Mr. Clark’s plausible count, out of 67 Democrats in the 100-member Senate, a minimum of 40 are supporters of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration. The Republican minority is far from being a black lump of reaction; at least ten GOP Senators can be counted on to vote for generally liberal legislation. Indeed, the Senate of the 88th Congress is probably more “liberal” in purely numerical terms than any Senate we shall live to see.

But the numerical predominance is thwarted by the Senate Establishment, which as Mr. Clark sees it “after a relatively brief sojourn here—I am now in my seventh year—is almost the antithesis of the democratic process. It is not selected by any democratic process. It appears to be quite unresponsive to the caucuses of the two parties, be they Republican or Democratic. It is what might be called a self-perpetuating oligarchy with mild, but only mild, overtones of plutocracy.”

Informed Americans are familiar with two main props of the ruling Establishment in the Senate and House—the safe district (usually rural) and the seniority system. Since power in Congress derives in part from years of service, those members from one-party areas can accumulate priceless tenure and …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.