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George Packer and Tom Udall on the Senate’s ‘empty chamber’

We wonder if some of the first-time candidates running for Senate this year had visions of taking to the floor and delivering old-fashioned barn burners to their colleagues, making passionate, moving and persuasive speeches that ended in thunderous applause and praise from a grateful nation.

If so, some of those winners may be in for a disappointment.

Because when you’re watching C-SPAN — yes, we know some of you do — and you see a senator giving an emotional speech about some urgent matter, he or she is very likely speaking to an empty room. ”Speechifying,” that is, just for the benefit of the TV camera.

If you had no idea that’s what they do, you’re not alone. Neither did the New Yorker’s George Packer, a longtime Senate watcher — and enthusiast — who earlier this year went to Washington to examine the institution he loves. He arrived just as the health care bill reconciliation debate was in full swing. And while the senators tried to reconcile the bill, George Packer tried to reconcile the Senate of his childhood with what he believes the Senate has become.

There are those who like the Senate the way it is — who really do prefer government by gridlock. But for those who share George Packer’s frustrations, we can tell you that there are remedies possible, even with a new, more divided senate. In addition to Packer, Need to Know’s Jon Meacham spoke with Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico about new rule changes he’ll be proposing in the next Senate.


An extended interview with George Packer about his New Yorker article, “The Empty Chamber”


  • buyo

    Democrat had a 60 votes before the election. If gridlock, then it because of Democrats. Please be more accurate PBS.

  • ric o’shay

    buyo – thanks for the firsthand example – part of the problem – not part of the solution.

  • Pwesto

    grown men acting like spoiled children its his fault no its his fault, they are all to blame and nothing is done to help the people of this country. it takes comprise and making the other party look bad is not the way to run America.

  • ric o’shay

    Exactly Pwesto! And now for the bad news: we’re paying them to do it!

  • Anonymous

    This was a great piece. Sounds old fashioned, but it’s time for some discipline. Mandatory attendance, don’t be late, do your homework, no sleeping, Campaigning is not the job of an elected official. I’ve ssen the Senate Chamber empty when it should have been packed. Candidates seem to be motivated by all the wrong things. Simply put, they are not doing their jobs. It’s time for the voters to take this very seriously and to make some basic demands of the people they vote for. Right about now, we’re looking very foolish and the politicians all have full social schedules at our expense. That has to change.

    Thank you,


  • Denest

    If you want to blame one side over the other, then you are part of the problem. Not the solution.

  • Derp

    This is no way to manage a country. How well would a business run if every meeting in upper management was attended by only a few people and the few who were there just argued. This theatrical nonsense is no way to manage a country. Congress needs to manage the nation but how do they do this when the only way to keep their jobs is to keep doing nothing but arguing and playing blame games. Really makes me sick. People want drama and conflict so that’s what they get. Instead of an elite group of representatives, put up by the people in order to take on the task of managing a wealthy nation of millions, we get partisan bullshit and a squandering of the immense potential of the USA. Truly saddening but I guess it’s the human condition. When you have the kind of wealth and power we have had for so long, people forget that they aren’t talking about money when they say “freedom isn’t free”. It takes a lot of work and engagement from the people and their elected representatives. Instead people just like to complain and fight for their own little scraps. Truly sad.

  • Jorisrose

    I cannot help but notice that the dictator, General Julius Caesar, won ultimate authority because of the internecine strife of the Roman Senate–a bitter hostility, involving not merely murder and mayhem, but–far more important–disregard for the Populus of the Senatus Populusque Romanus. It is not a matter of being out of touch with the American people, but of being dishonest and un-human in the moral sense. Too many of the Senators (now and then) have showed themselves out of touch with their own humanity.