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Transcript: George Packer on ‘The Empty Chamber’

Audio of this interview can be found here.

TOM CASCIATO: A lot of people know you best for the work you’ve done reporting from Iraq, but those who really know your work know that you’ve been following American politics for a very, very long time. Can you tell me about your interest in the Senate, how it came about, how – how old you were when it first began?

GEORGE PACKER: I’ve been interested in American politics since I was eight. That was in 1968. It was an interesting year. I was a huge Eugene McCarthy supporter so I guess he was the first senator I really knew about and cared about. He went down to defeat, to my astonishment, since everyone I knew was a Eugene McCarthy supporter. But that was the year of, of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. It was the year of the Chicago convention and politics just got in my blood. It was already in my blood from birth because I was named after my maternal grandfather who was a congressman, not a senator, but in 22 years in the House of Representatives from Alabama. And I didn’t exactly drink it in with mother’s milk but certainly with dinner table conversations.

TOM CASCIATO: You write in your article about the history of the senate a little bit. Can you talk about that senate of your youth?

GEORGE PACKER: There was I think a golden age, from the ’50s to the ’70s, when there were senators who — some of whose names just stay with us, some of them are on the way to being forgotten. Certainly Humphrey, Birch Bayh, George McGovern, Frank Church, Howard Baker, Jacob Javits, Abe Ribicoff who really were serious thinkers, cared about public policy, valued the institution enough to learn its ways and master them so that the Senate became an incubator of some of the most important ideas of legislation in the 20th century. It was an, an actual — a tool of reform rather than, as has often been its history, of obstructing reform.

TOM CASCIATO: Ideas – ideas including?

GEORGE PACKER: Including, public housing, including civil rights which LBJ actually negotiated not just with the Democrats in the Senate but with Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader who was a key player in writing and passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For example, George McGovern, Bob Dole, and Jacob Javits were on a select committee on hunger and nutrition that held hearings in migrant labor camps in Florida. Imagine senators going to a migrant labor camp and holding hearings on hunger! And that led to the expansion of a nationwide food stamps program with bipartisan support. So it was just a time of remarkable thoughtfulness and activity and seriousness of purpose in which senators cared about the way the institution functioned, cared about making it solve problems rather than simply as a forum for giving speeches and creating a platform for themselves and their own careers. And in which bipartisanship was just a matter of course. There was no major bill from that period that did not have bipartisan sponsorship and support. It was the way things worked. It didn’t take any extraordinary effort. There were always coalitions of senators from both parties behind all the big bills.

TOM CASCIATO: Do those senators that you’re talking about reflect what the purpose of the Senate originally was and can you describe that purpose?

GEORGE PACKER: The Senate was an odd compromise between the founders and the early leaders of the republic who wanted a single house which was based on popular sovereignty representing the people and those founders who wanted two houses, the upper house, the Senate being the more aristocratic. It would have members with more wisdom and experience; perhaps more property and money and education and it would also solve the problem of the states. The smaller states were afraid that the larger states were going to swamp them in a single house and so in order to get their support for the Constitution the, the framers of the Constitution had to allow for a second house that would be represented with two senators from each state. Back then that was not such a, an undemocratic thing because the difference in population between Virginia and Delaware was nowhere near the difference in population today between California and, and Wyoming. But that is the system that we, that we’ve inherited. It was intended to be a place for statesmen where the passions of the moment that were reflected in the House would have time to cool. When Tocqueville toured America in the early 1830s while preparing to write “Democracy in America” he visited the Senate. And he was really amazed at the quality of the debate. But he also wrote in “Democracy in America” that the lofty thoughts, as he put it, that composed the Senate’s debate could easily turn to a tyranny of the, of the minority. So Tocqueville I think saw something of the future of the Senate even as he was praising what he saw in the 1830s.

TOM CASCIATO: A hundred eighty years or so later George Packer went to visit the Senate.

GEORGE PACKER: I wanted to approach this story as if I were reporting on a, a foreign country.

TOM CASCIATO: Like, like Tocqueville.

GEORGE PACKER: Yes, like Tocqueville. Although what was in my head was the advice of a member of the Obama administration who had said to me you should report on Washington as if it’s Baghdad, like a foreign capital. And I thought that was good advice because our, our political reporting can get too close to the insiders. It can kind of assume too much knowledge. I wanted to almost disingenuously because I do know Washington to some degree. I, I wanted to pretend I knew nothing. So I went and asked people very basic questions. I, I asked senators how do you spend your day? How often do you have lunch with your colleagues? How much time do you spend raising money? When was the last time you set foot in the house of a member of the opposite party? Why aren’t there ever senators on the floor of the chamber listening to other senators giving their speeches? Why are they always alone when they give their speeches? When was the last time you saw an actual argument between two senators in which they were listening to each other and answering each other in a debate? What I began to learn was that they —the Senate had become, I think, a somewhat decadent place in which the last thing that senators did was deliberate and the Senate was always famous for being the world’s greatest deliberative body. More than one senator told me that’s not true and in fact they wince when they hear that phrase. They don’t deliberate. They don’t have time or means or even incentive to listen and argue and try in good faith to answer each other and come to some common conclusion about how to solve a problem. Instead, with C-Span cameras in the chamber, with lobbyists waiting outside, with trips home every few days to keep the constituents happy and to raise more money at home, they just — they, they are always on the go and they just — they don’t have time to think.

TOM CASCIATO: When you asked that question how do you spend your day what did the senators tell you?

GEORGE PACKER: They spend their day in 15-minute intervals.

TOM CASCIATO: By design?

GEORGE PACKER: And that’s just how busy they are. They don’t have time to — to see a constituent, for example, for more than 15 or at most, 30 minutes. They don’t have time to sit down with a reporter for more than 30 minutes. Although Tom Udall of New Mexico let me spend a day with him and see how he spent his day. And during the course of that day, we talked for several and he was very generous with his time. But for the most part, they, they give interviews to the cable news networks and to the handful of papers that cover Capitol Hill, and it’s sort of a small focus. It’s always about today’s legislative battle and what Harry Reid said and what Mitch McConnell said. So it’s a kind of fast-moving, 24-7 news pace that keeps them constantly having to feed the electronic and print media and also blogs and even Twitter. As if it weren’t busy enough, frantic enough, nervous enough, there’s this — this constant push toward faster and smaller and more. They spend a lot of time raising money. I asked Tom Harkin, how much time do you spend raising money and he said — of free time? In other words, Sundays and set-aside for other senatorial duties – about 50 percent or more. Tom Daschle kind of gave me a time line of how it goes over the course of the — the six years of a term, beginning less — 10 percent. But by the time you’re running for reelection, it’s well over 50 percent. And they’re all careful to insist that the money that they’re pulling in, an amazing amount of money that they have to raise has no effect on, on their votes. But as Tom Udall of New Mexico said, everyone knows that special interests control this place.

TOM CASCIATO: The power of special interests is certainly not a new story. It’s a very important story, but not a new one.


TOM CASCIATO: What I think was revelatory in your article was the nuts and bolts of the way the senators actually work or fail to work with each other.

GEORGE PACKER: Right. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a — a lunchroom, the Senate dining room, private dining room where members of both parties would go for lunch once or twice a week. And it was a place where they actually had to talk to each other and kind of find out what was going on and what people in the other party were thinking. That stopped because the week — the work week began to fill up with party lunches, caucus lunches where they would plot strategy, Democratic strategy, Republican strategies. As Lamar Alexander said to me, we basically sit around talking about what we’re gonna do to the other party. The basic place where they used to meet and relax a bit and drop the ideological armor is no longer available.

Today, they don’t know each other very well. Some of the older ones have made friendships that are deep, but that’s kind of the exception, rather than the rule. They all call each other, my friend. But when you ask, you know, how well — I asked Chris Dodd, how well do you know, Jim DeMint? He said, not at all. Jim DeMint has been there six years, Chris Dodd has been there 30 years. They’re ideological polar opposites and I asked him about DeMint ’cause I sort of knew that —that between Dodd and DeMint, there [LAUGHS] was no traffic. And in the, in the days of Jesse Helms and George McGovern, who were at opposite poles, may — they might not have liked each other much or they might not have respected each others’ views much, but they were willing to work together to some degree, and that’s what stopped. They don’t know and trust the people that they have to work with. And the key to the Senate is all about trust. It is a body of 100 people, it’s a very small chamber. When you sit in the press gallery, above the dais where the presiding officer sits and you look down at the concentric semi-circles of desks, these old mahogany desks — some of them are a couple hundred years old — you realize how intimate it is. It’s just a very small group of people. And because it — of its size and because of its rules, it’s a place where if they don’t trust each other, nothing will get done and it will become hellish and I think that’s what’s happened. They all claim to be friends. If they were sitting here, they would say I, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Mitch McConnell —after my piece came out, Mitch McConnell got up at the National Press Club and said I didn’t know what I was talking about, that he has lots of Democratic friends. But when I hear someone saying, some of my best friends are Democrats, it reminds me of other uses of that “best friends” which is usually a sign that it’s not true. So the Senate has become this terribly dreary, stagnant backwater of a place where they give long speeches for the benefit of the C-SPAN cameras. There are endless quorum calls, meaning pauses while they try to find enough Senators to come to the floor in order to conduct business. There are endless filibusters, so that bills are held in limbo for days and weeks. There are endless holds which means that nominees for the, the courts and the Executive Branch are kept in limbo for months at a time. And the basic function of legislating just doesn’t happen as it, as it should.

TOM CASCIATO: Let’s talk about the Senate Healthcare Reform Reconciliation Bill, which is something that you wrote about.

GEORGE PACKER: In late March, I was in the Senate press gallery watching the chamber for the first time and — and watching the reconciliation debate go on. And by that time feelings on both sides were so ugly that no one was going to make life easy for a member of the other party. And during the course of the day, I think Senator Carl Levin, who’s the Chair of the Armed Services Committee, wanted to hold a hearing that had been long scheduled with I think a general and an admiral who had to come from halfway around the world, Korea and Hawaii. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who’s the Chair of the Homeland Security subcommittee, also wanted to hold a hearing on the training of Afghan police. These are important national security matters. But because of Senate Rule XXVI, in order to hold a hearing after 2 pm, while the Senate is in session, requires unanimous consent of the Senate. And unanimous consent is a phrase you hear all the time and it’s an extraordinary phrase when you think about it. It means everybody has to agree. And imagine a body in which 100 out of a hundred have to agree before major things can happen. But that is the Senate. That’s why reasonableness is the oil that makes the Senate work. And if there is no reasonableness, it will grind to a halt. On that day, Republicans refused to give unanimous consent. They objected to the holding of those hearings, so that general and that admiral were told that they would have to come back another day and the hearings didn’t happen. And it struck me as being a kind of rock bottom of — of lack of comity, of lack of reasonableness if, just because they were angry about healthcare, the minority party was not gonna let the Senate hold hearings on important matters of national security, which is, is pretty extraordinary. But that’s a, a tiny moment in the course of months and years of deterioration in the relations between Senators. And afterward, Levin and McCaskill gave a little press conference in which they bemoaned both the lack of — of productive relationships and also the rules, which some Senators are getting tired of. Not all the rules, of course, but some of the rules whose original purpose seems to be lost in the mists of time and they can no longer understand why you can’t hold a hearing after 2 pm without unanimous consent.

TOM CASCIATO: If the Republicans retake the Senate and McCaskill and Levin find themselves in the minority, might they just as likely to use arcane rules for purposes of the Democratic Party?

GEORGE PACKER: Yeah, I think the Senate has seen a kind of arms race escalation of obstruction by both parties since let’s say, the late ’80s. If you graphed the use of the filibuster, which is the, the main weapon for stopping business in the Senate, — the vote that ends the filibuster, which is cloture was used about once a year all through the 20th-century until the ’70s. And then it increased to maybe 10 times. And then it increased some more in the ’80s. And by the ’90s, it was at a very high level. But the real spike occurred in 2007 when the Republicans went into the minority. And suddenly, the filibuster became an, an everyday tool of, of Senate business. So it’s, it’s exploded in the last decade or so.

TOM CASCIATO: So nothing can happen.

GEORGE PACKER: It’s very hard to make anything happen. It’s become routine that you — you don’t need 50 votes to do something in the Senate. You need 60 votes. And even if it’s a — even if it’s a bill that in the end could get some bipartisan support or for example, a nominee who might end up passing 96 to zero, because of the cohesiveness of the parties in their bitter enmity, because they’re so polarized and so determined to be loyal to their team, senators will filibuster a nominee who then will end up passing unanimously. So it’s as if they’re voting against their own preferences and values because they have to stick with the team. That’s the — that’s what’s replaced the creative and bipartisan work that animated, you know, the, the best years of the Senate. There’s only so much time in the calendar and the — the strategy of the minority has been to fill up that time as much as possible with procedural votes and with filibusters and delays, so that the clock is sort of run out, and that’s what they tried to do with, with the healthcare bill. They knew they were gonna lose that vote, but they were gonna — they were gonna make it as difficult as possible on the majority. The Democrats wanted to vote on the healthcare bill and go home before Christmas. Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership decided they were gonna do everything they could to push that vote as close to Christmas as possible, just to make it painful. And one thing they did to push it as late as they could was to filibuster the Defense Appropriations Bill, which was kind of on a legislative collision course with the healthcare bill. Thad Cochran, who is the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee and is famous for bringing home the military pork to Mississippi, had told his long-time colleague, Daniel Inouye that he would not join the filibuster on the Defense Appropriations Bill because defense is his lifeblood and because he didn’t think defense should be subject to that kind of, you know, political tactic.  But Cochran came under such pressure from Republican leadership, and he admitted this later, that he had to end up going against his word and joining the filibuster. And that showed observers just how much power there is in the — in party discipline and in the imperative to stick with your team. It means you’re gonna vote against your own wishes, more than a few times.

TOM CASCIATO: Your piece doesn’t ask whether or not the Senate is broken. Your piece asks how broken is it.

GEORGE PACKER: It’s a cliché that the Senate is broken and like most clichés, it’s true. Some people could argue that, you know, this past Senate has passed some major legislation. The biggest stimulus bill in history, the first comprehensive healthcare reform bill in history and a major piece of financial regulatory reform, all true.

TOM CASCIATO: I was about to make that argument.

GEORGE PACKER: And I’ll make it for you. I would answer yes, all those passed and their passage nearly killed the Senate. The Senate is so frail, its arteries are so clogged that to do big things is almost beyond its capacity. And it required three things, I would say. One, major presidential leadership, two, a super majority of one party – in this case the Democrats who for most of that time had 60 votes, and three, a – a national crisis, which was the financial crisis and the recession. Without those three — if, if it were 55 to 45 in the Senate, if there were a president who was not willing to essentially gamble away his presidency on a healthcare bill, if there were not a financial crisis, we would not have major legislation. Which is why, those were the first really major pieces of domestic reform legislation since the ’60s. The Senate has been a backwater for a couple of decades now and it stumbled across the finish line of some major bills this year. But it did it, you know, wheezing for breath and, and lay there panting and still hasn’t gotten up since the last of the three big bills.

TOM CASCIATO: You – you speak of a Golden Age in the Senate. I would argue to anyone that the Golden Age of the National Basketball Association was the 1980s with Dr. J and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Moses Malone, later Isaiah Thomas.

GEORGE PACKER: Michael Jordan at the end of the decade.

TOM CASCIATO: Michael Jordan at the end of the decade. And yet, to make that statement, you’d have to look at today and say well, there’s Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and what about those guys? Who are the giants of the Senate today? If there was a Golden Age, who — who are the Kobe and LeBron and the Dwight Howard?

GEORGE PACKER: Well, I sat down with Harry McPherson, who was LBJ’s aide in the ’50s and then in the White House in the ’60s and asked him that question — who are, who are the whales, that was LBJ’s term for them. He divided his colleagues into whales and minnows. The whales were the guys who you needed to get things done. And McPherson went through the list of the hundred Senators and just said, I am having a hard time finding them. I think he named some eventually and you could name some… I would say Chris Dodd — especially in the last two years, he’s been in the thick of every major bill from credit card reform, financial reform, healthcare reform. Carl Levin is a powerful committee chair — Armed Services — and a serious legislator. Judd Gregg is an example on the Republican side, Orrin Hatch is an example on the Republican side. And there’s a lot of —Lamar Alexander.


GEORGE PACKER: No, I don’t think so. John McCain never saw the Senate as an end in itself. I think for him, it was always a place where he created a national platform for himself and — and ran for president a couple times. Not that that’s such a terrible thing but —

TOM CASCIATO: And yet he’s behind key legislation.

GEORGE PACKER: Campaign finance reform was his big contribution. But I would argue that the ease with which McCain has abandoned a whole series of positions that he once held, shows that the, the legislation itself was never the most important thing. There are also some impressive newer Senators. People like Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The question is, will they want to stay long enough to actually achieve things because the daily life of a Senator is so unpleasant now. But to, to focus on individuals is a little bit misleading. The real problem is our political culture, which is profoundly venomous and bitter. It seems to value noise more than illumination, is drenched in money and is sort of driven by this frenetic media with its 24-7 news cycle. And the Senate has become a, a reflection of that. It’s — if I were to explain why this has happened, what is my, you know, single unified field theory for it — and this is gonna sound partisan, but in the last 20 or 30 years, there’s been the rise of a really powerful political force which says that we have too much government — that we need to get government out of people’s lives and that we need to lessen rather than increase regulation of business, etc., etc. All of that is a force for the Senate doing less and a reason why, in the end, although both parties can use the filibuster, I think in the end, it’s more the friend of the Republican Party because the Republicans really want government to do less. And so the filibuster is their chief way of doing that in the Senate, whereas the Democrats generally are trying to use government for the public interest, for national purposes, which requires legislation.

TOM CASCIATO: And yet, it was Bill Clinton who helped his own presidency immensely by announcing the era of big government is over.

GEORGE PACKER: That was a defensive tactic, he had to. He just had —

TOM CASCIATO: But whether he had to or not, he did it.

GEORGE PACKER: He had just lost the Congress to the Republicans. He knew that it was their time, that to be an activist Democrat was of the past, maybe of the future but certainly not of his moment, and so it was a rear guard action and he was very successful at playing defense throughout his, his presidency. With the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress, a lot of people thought that there was going to be a, a turning to a new era in which government activism was more possible. And I’d say there — there was some evidence for that in the last year-and-a-half but it’s come very hard. And the Republicans have been very skillful at using all the tools of the Senate rules and procedures to — to slow it down, and in some cases, to stop it.

TOM CASCIATO: Reading your piece, the word that kept coming back to me was “emptiness,” and, of course, your piece is called “The Empty Chamber.” That was metaphorical, certainly, but also physical.

GEORGE PACKER: Well, I’d never been in the Senate chamber until I began reporting this piece. I’d seen it on C-SPAN and like many a C-SPAN viewer, I imagined that while a Senator was standing there giving a speech at a lectern and there were maybe 10 or 20 or 30 of his fellow Senators listening to him. How else did they know what e — each other thought? And how, how else did they debate things? I got to the Senate chamber and found that, in fact, for the most part there is only one person in the Senate at a time, plus the presiding officer who’s up at the presiding officer’s chair. But he’s not really listening either. He’s scrolling through his BlackBerry or reading The New York Times.

TOM CASCIATO: The one person.

GEORGE PACKER: The guy presiding.

TOM CASCIATO: So who’s the other person?

GEORGE PACKER: The other person is the guy giving the speech and maybe there’s a third person who’s getting ready to give a speech and who’s getting his lectern in place and going through his speech. Probably hasn’t seen it before because it was not written by him, it was written by aides. It’s his turn so he’s gonna be on camera next, as soon as his colleague finishes. And so they read one speech after another for the benefit of the cameras and the record.

TOM CASCIATO: In an empty room.

GEORGE PACKER: In an empty room.

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