The Rock of the Republic

On Friday, November 22, 1963, just minutes before President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas, Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., stood on the floor of the Senate in Washington, D.C., and asked unanimous consent that he be recognized to address his colleagues on the following Monday. Mansfield planned to respond to criticism of the Senate’s legislative record and the way in which he managed the institution as its majority leader. Yet in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, the majority leader decided not to deliver his speech as planned. Mansfield instead asked unanimous consent on the following Wednesday (November 27) that it be inserted into the Congressional Record.

Mansfield’s speech is of interest to us because it articulates clearly his theory of leadership and the concept of senatorial equality on which it was based. When juxtaposed with more recent speeches given by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Mansfield’s address highlights the extent to which present-day leaders think about the Senate differently than their predecessors. This suggests that much of the Senate’s present dysfunction can be attributed to how its leaders manage the institution. 

The Senate and Its Leadership

Mansfield begins his speech by defending the Senate’s record while acknowledging its shortcomings. He does so while affirming the right of all senators to criticize his performance as majority leader. However, Mansfield argues that senators should voice their criticism openly, in debate on the floor rather than behind closed doors.

“We need no cloakroom commandos, operating behind the swinging doors of the two rooms at the rear, to spread the tidings. We need no whispered word passed from one to another and on to the press.”

Throughout his address, Mansfield stresses the importance of action and hard work to resolving disagreements between senators.

“At one time in the recollection of many of us, we debated a civil rights measure 24 hours a day for many days on end. We debated it shaven and unshaven. We debated it without ties, with hair awry and even in bedroom slippers. In the end, we wound up with compromise legislation.” 

Mansfield believed that hard work was needed because the Senate was comprised of “100 independent men and women.” More importantly, Mansfield recognized that as majority leader, he did not possess more power than his rank-and-file colleagues. That meant that he was unable to compel them to act in certain ways.

“The [Senate’s] record is no less a record because it has taken 10 months of work to achieve. It is no less a record because it has been produced by cooperation, because the leadership wields no whip and seeks no whip to wield.” 

Mansfield’s humility here is striking when compared to the Senate’s more recent leaders.

“I do not presume to look down upon any man from some Olympian height of a superior morality.”

This is because Mansfield did not see himself as being in charge of the Senate. He did not think of the institution’s leaders as factory foremen.

“It will be of no avail to install a timeclock at the entrance to the Chamber for Senators to punch when they enter or leave the floor.”

Mansfield did not think of the Senate as a factory. He did not believe that its job was to produce widgets. Mansfield instead believed all senators to be equal. And he strove to manage the Senate in accordance with that belief.

Mansfield closed his speech by underscoring this concept of senatorial equality on which he based his theory of leadership. It is quoted in full below.

“And, finally, within this body I believe that every Member ought to be equal in fact, no less than in theory, that they have a primary responsibility to the people whom they represent to face the legislative issues of the Nation. And to the extent that the Senate may be inadequate in this connection, the remedy lies not, in the seeking of shortcuts, not in the cracking of nonexistent whips, not in wheeling and dealing, but in an honest facing of the situation and a resolution of it by the Senate itself, by accommodation, by respect for one another, for mutual restraint and, as necessary, adjustments in the procedures of this body.”

 “I have been charged with lecturing the Senate. And perhaps these remarks will also be interpreted in this fashion. But all I have tried to do is state the facts of this institution as I see them. The constitutional authority and responsibility does not lie with the leadership. It lies with all of us individually, collectively, and equally. And in the last analysis, deviations from that principle must in the end act to the detriment of the institution. And, in the end, that principle cannot be made to prevail by rules. It can prevail only if there is a high degree of accommodation, mutual restraint and a measure of courage- in spite of our weaknesses- in all of us. It can prevail only, if we recognize that, in the end, it is not the Senators as individuals who are of fundamental importance. In the end, it is the institution of the Senate. It is the Senate itself as one of the foundations of the Constitution. It is the Senate as one of the rocks of the Republic.”

A Senate of Shortcuts and Cracking Whips

Mansfield’s humility, his egalitarian view of the Senate, and the superior quality of his leadership in troubled times are even more impressive when juxtaposed with speeches given by the Senate’s current leaders. For example, McConnell and Schumer recently delivered dueling addresses in which they articulated their views of the Senate and how it should be led. The speeches were prompted by the Republicans’ decision to use the nuclear option to break the rules to change the rules. 

Schumer spoke first in opposition to Republicans’ decision to use the controversial tactic to speed up the confirmation process for some judicial and executive branch nominees. (Video of the full speech is below.)

 McConnell then spoke in defense of his decision to go nuclear. (Video of the full speech is below.)

While the two speeches reflect opposing views on the nuclear option, they both nevertheless reveal an underlying agreement between McConnell and Schumer on how the Senate should operate and the role its leaders should play. Whereas Mansfield saw an egalitarian institution comprised of 100 equal senators, the remarks of McConnell and Schumer suggest that they see a factory comprised of workers. And where Mansfield saw his job as facilitating the participation of all senators in the legislative process, the McConnell and Schumer speeches suggest that the two leaders see their job as factory foremen. 

Mansfield understood the Senate to be a physical place where senators gather to act on behalf of the people they represent. In contrast, the leadership styles of McConnell and Schumer suggest that they see the Senate as a factory floor on which senators’ activities must be controlled so that they can produce widgets.