Opinion: Why serve in today’s U.S. Senate?

Dear Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall:

As you anticipate serving in the 117th Congress and beyond, I’m asking you to think hard about why you have become a U.S. senator, one of 100 members of the world’s most powerful legislative body.

The easy answers are (a) that Kansans overwhelming elected you and (b) that you want to do your best for the state.

Beyond that, the question of why you are serving is a difficult, even existential, one. Indeed, why, in 2021, would you want the job? There’s the prestige, of course, the chance to accomplish some limited goals and the security of six-year terms.

But the job also includes a Pandora’s box of downsides.

Let’s be clear. The 21st century Senate is a hot mess for almost all members not named Mitch McConnell. Once reasonably labeled “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the Senate now discourages deliberation and crushes most legislative initiatives from rank-and-file members, whether Republicans or Democrats.

Almost without exception, GOP senators have deferred to Majority Leader McConnell, who has displayed no serious interest in addressing the nation’s most pressing issues, from COVID-19 to unemployment to climate change to income inequality.

What, then, are Republican senators to do, assuming their party maintains control in 2021? To be sure, all senators operate within their own policy and electoral contexts, so Jerry and Roger, you face different circumstances.

Jerry, you sit as a medium-seniority, safe-seat legislator who can hold your seat, up in 2022, for at least the next 14 years. You thus have the luxury of charting a path to becoming a major Senate figure in the next decade, especially if you exhibit some measured independence and initiative.

You are unlikely to become a Lisa Murkowski/Mitt Romney/Susan Collins kind of conservative centrist. Still, you might well emulate Nancy Kassebaum, the most influential recent Kansas senator this side of Bob Dole. Kassebaum understood the depth of her popularity and understood how this freed her, on occasion, to buck Senate leaders, including Dole. She could stake out a position and know that if she stuck to it, several other senators might join her, as she provided an umbrella for them. With good personal relationships, your stock-in-trade, you might well do the same, especially if you and your colleagues restrain McConnell just a bit.

The Senate offers many paths to influence, and becoming a Kassebaum-like legislator, coupled with an inevitable committee chair position, could allow you to exert real influence on major issues.

Roger, you’re yet to be sworn in, and you’re unlikely to become as popular as Jerry. But you’re a Republican senator from western Kansas, and that’s essentially a seat for life. This means, from day one, you can plot out what kind of senator you want to become.

There’s no road map, but I’d seriously recommend reading Richard Fenno’s insightful study of New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, “The Emergence of a Senate Leader.” Domenici entered the Senate and had to learn how to become influential within that body. Roger, you have the benefit of time and electoral security; take full advantage as you serve all Kansans.

In the end. Jerry and Roger, you’ve won the privilege to serve as one of 100 in a powerful legislative body. Please, on behalf of all Kansans, use this position of power wisely and well.

— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to reflect that Domenici was not a governor.


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