Sunday, December 8, 2013
BRUNSWICK - When Sen.-elect Angus King flew to Washington earlier this month, he took "Master of the Senate," Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, in his carry-on luggage.
Sen.-elect Angus King, shown announcing that he will caucus with the Democrats, says he has been warmly received by colleagues from both major parties.
File photo/The Associated Press
Sen.-elect Angus King speaks to campaign staff earlier this month before closing his campaign headquarters in Brunswick. As a member of the Rules Committee, he hopes to help rein in use of the filibuster.
Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
As the Eastern Seaboard scrolled beneath him, King re-read the first two chapters of the book, widely regarded as one of the most masterful sketches of the history of the U.S. Senate ever written. Caro describes how the aristocratic institution had, by the mid-20th century, atrophied into a reactionary and inflexible body incapable of leading itself but entirely effective at blocking anyone else's initiatives.
Caro was setting the stage for LBJ's arrival in the chamber in 1949, a freshman senator from a distant province who would successfully bend the most unbending of legislative bodies to his will. King, who will be sworn in on the Senate floor Friday, was looking for insights into an institution he hopes his presence can help change.
In a two-hour interview at his campaign headquarters in Brunswick, King, 68, shared some of his experiences in recent trips to Washington and his desire to reform filibuster rules, the banking sector, campaign finance and gun laws after he joins the Senate this week, a chamber he last served in 40 years ago as a junior aide to then-Sen. William Hathaway, D-Maine.
Having been warmly received by new colleagues from both parties, King says he is hopeful he can help serve as a bridge between them.
"The Senate was designed to slow things down," King says, before reciting a story recounted in Caro's book in which George Washington compared the Senate to a saucer in which to cool the passions pouring forth from the House of Representatives. "I heard that story five times when I was in Washington this month. But I also happened to be in the Senate gallery when Tom Udall, the senator from New Mexico, was speaking about it and said the purpose of the Senate is to cool things down but not to put it in a deep freeze."
FIXING THE FILIBUSTER
Part of the problem, he says, is the filibuster, the technique by which 41 of the 100 senators can block most procedures, votes or bills. "Lyndon Johnson in six years (as Senate majority leader) faced one filibuster. Harry Reid in the last five or six has dealt with 386," King says. "It's become the norm that any piece of substantive legislation has to get 60 votes, and that's not the way the Constitution was designed."
The filibuster is a rule created by the Senate itself, not the framers of the Constitution, who in balancing the powers of government specified in various articles what proportions of votes were needed to pass laws or treaties or impeachments. It's a graft that came later, he adds, and one that's thrown off the balance, making it difficult for the government to take action on pressing issues.
That said, King isn't advocating its repeal but rather wishes to scale back the situations and manner in which it is used. Senators should have to actually stand, speak, and hold the floor continuously to maintain the filibuster, as they once did, he said.
"If they have to stand there and read the New York phone directory, it will be much more apparent to the public who is doing the blocking and what lengths they are going to," he says.
Senators should have an opportunity to filibuster a bill, he argued, but not the procedural motions to bring a bill to the floor or to send one that's been passed to a conference committee to reconcile it with the House version.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada talks with Sen.-elect Angus King on Capitol Hill last month after King announced he will caucus with Democrats, adding to the party’s voting edge. King says he will remain independent.
File photo/The Associated Press