In early January, Vice President Biden, fulfilling his duties as the president of the Senate, swore in the newly elected senator and posed for family photos. Because Biden is Biden, he appeared to be having a terrific time, which the VP didn’t want to end. Towards the end, during a lull, Biden jokingly asked the people on hand for the event, “Anybody else want to be sworn in as a senator today?”
Looking back, part of me wonders how many folks might have seriously replied, “No.”
Regular readers know I’ve been fascinated of late by the recent exodus of sitting senators from the chamber. All told, the World’s Most Deliberative Body is poised to lose at least 42 of its members since 2009 – and 25 of those 42 are voluntary retirements. What’s more, most of those 25 were members who could have won re-election with relative ease, but just didn’t want to be there anymore.
But there’s another angle to this. Sitting senators are suddenly eager to do something else, which has created a slew of vacancies. Clearly, that creates exciting opportunities for ambitious politicians, right? Actually, not so much.
The dearth of candidates for an open Senate seat reflects what former and current senators and those who once aspired to the office say is a sad truth: rarely has the thought of serving in the Senate seemed so unappealing.
Once considered an apex of national politics second only to the presidency, the “greatest deliberative body in the world” is so riven by partisanship and gummed up by its own arcane rules that potential candidates from Georgia to Kentucky, Iowa to Montana are loudly saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Add to that the cost of getting there – which can include fighting off special interests and “super PACs” from your own party, exhausting criticism from the increasingly partisan news media, and prohibitive campaign expenses – and a Senate seat no longer seems so grand.
Consider the recruiting developments of just the last few days.
Over the weekend, Rep. Steve King (R), expected to be a leading Senate candidate in Iowa, said he’s decided not to run. Other top Iowa Republicans, including state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, said they don’t want to run in the open-seat contest, either.
In Alaska, the Republican Party had high hopes about Gov. Sean Parnell (R) running for the Senate next year, but he announced over the weekend that he’s also not interested.
The AP reported on Friday that Republicans have a credible shot at reclaiming the Senate majority in the 2014 midterms, but in “a potentially troubling sign,” the party is “struggling to recruit strong U.S. Senate candidates.”
Mitch McConnell was supposed to get a credible primary challenger in Kentucky, but that hasn’t happened. Mark Udall and Al Franken were supposed to be major GOP targets in 2014, but no one’s eager to run against them, either. Democrats were supposed to have a deep bench in West Virginia, but there’s still no top-tier candidate in the race.
To be sure, as the New York Times noted, the “reasons for choosing not to run involve many personal factors,” and “vary from politician to politician.” But consider this comment from Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R), who was pushed to run for the Senate but declined: “I don’t know that you’d find any legislative body in America – or the world – that’s as dysfunctional.”
I don’t agree with Dardenne on much, but this assessment is more than fair. The pitch on the brochure is far from enticing: “Join the Senate, where procedural abuses and the abandonment of traditional norms make it all but impossible to actually pass legislation. And in those rare cases you might approve a bill, the radicalized House majority will probably kill it anyway.”
Maybe members should give institutional reforms another look?