GRIDLOCK IN THE SENATE Why can't our senior solons get their job done? The notorious ''$2,000 quickie'' is only part of the answer.
By ROBERT LUBAR ROBERT LUBAR, formerly managing editor of FORTUNE, recently edited The World of Time Inc.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It is not much of a secret that the U.S. Senate is in serious trouble. Designed by the country's founders to be a parliamentary body of unique distinction, one in which fundamental questions would be addressed squarely by legislators of high purpose, it increasingly resembles a squabbling and ineffectual chorus of prima donnas. In other words, it resembles the House of Representatives. The sad decline of the Senate is a story told in fragmentary form in every morning's newspapers. An inside perspective on the decline is offered in James A. Miller's Running in Place: Inside the Senate (Simon & Schuster, $17.95). A journalist now based at CBS, Miller got his chance to report this story when he did a 27-month tour of duty as a speech writer and special assistant to Howard Baker of Tennessee, then Senate majority leader. Miller has chosen to tell his story by zeroing in on a typical Senate workweek -- the one he landed on was April 25-29, 1983 -- and keeping an extensive diary of everything consequential that happened during the period. The format generates a lot of seemingly irrelevant detail, and Miller often seems short on analysis. And yet the book is broadly successful in evoking the feel of the Senate and suggesting the scope of its problems. Three issues dominated the news about the Senate during the week Miller picked: U.S. policy in Central America, the federal budget, and immigration reform. The Senate has had a lot of experience in trying to grapple with all three issues but hasn't looked very masterful in the process. Not that these particular issues were the problem. ''Any week in the Senate is a week of chaos,'' Miller writes, and you soon enough see why. Part of the problem is that Senators don't know much about the issues they are obliged to deal with. They have simply been overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of information they are supposed to absorb. They rely increasingly on their hugely expanded staffs not only to research issues for them but to supply them with questions to ask at committee hearings. Miller has a wonderful portrait of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey preparing for Senate banking committee hearings at which Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker will testify. Lautenberg is then a new boy in the Senate but is lucky in having Mary Jane Checchi, a veteran of several Senate staffs, to help him prepare for Volcker. Before the hearings the Senator gets a detailed briefing book with covering memos that not only identify the issues to be discussed -- they mainly concern regulation of the financial services industry -- but explain which lobbyists, Senators, and White House officials are committed to which positions. Lautenberg's interests plainly range beyond the issues. His main interest seems to be getting on camera with Volcker, whose presence guarantees lots of cameras (even though he must compete that morning with opera star Beverly Sills and Dallas Cowboy wide receiver Drew Pearson, who have been somewhat improbably cast as expert witnesses needing to be heard by the Labor and Human Resources Committee). Lautenberg is lucky. He has an exchange with Volcker in which the Fed chairman refers in passing to an insurance company in New Jersey, presumably Prudential, that also owns an investment house. Lautenberg cracks, ''They also own New Jersey,'' which gets a big laugh and maybe (Miller doesn't seem quite sure) makes the networks. Senators need a lot of media exposure because, contrary to the intent of the Founding Fathers, most of them are now running for reelection from the moment they arrive. The shadow of these future elections is one of the reasons so many Senators feel poor and are forever looking for ways to supplement their $75,000 salaries. The Senate has a bizarre conflict-of-interest rule limiting to $2,000 the amount members can get from any one speaking engagement -- but not limiting the number of allowable engagements. The effect of this rule has been to create a phenomenon known as the $2,000 quickie, a term referring to a brief appearance by a Senator at, say, some trade association luncheon in Washington. Miller offers an amusing close-up portrait of his boss Howard Baker on the quickie trail but notes that in 1982 Bob Dole of Kansas held the record: he earned a total of $90,000 from speeches. The author views the Senate today as almost beyond management. ''In the past ten years,'' he says, ''the Senate has grown into a gigantic conglomerate -- out of touch with its subsidiaries and stockholders . . . Bloated, overburdened, and increasingly polarized . . . the Senate is drawing America toward a true legislative crisis.'' Two opposing tendencies work to prevent the institution from getting its legislative job done. One goes back to the original constitutional design, which contemplated unlimited debate and made filibusters inevitable. The Senate today has cloture procedures that enable it to shut off debate when three-fifths of those voting agree. But cloture is enormously time consuming, and when the Senate is under severe time pressure -- when, for example, only a few days remain until recess -- the threat of a filibuster can be devastating, and the prima donnas and ideologues who make such threats are an endless problem. Miller describes how James Allen of Alabama and Howard Metzenbaum have used these threats to force the Senate leadership to rearrange its agenda and deal with their own concerns.

But the major problem is rooted less in the Constitution than in the massive breakdown of authority in the Senate. The Senate is, of course, more democratic (small d) than it used to be, which most reformers have viewed as desirable. And surely it is desirable for the business of the Senate to be less closely controlled by a small group of granite-faced octogenarians who had ridden the seniority principle to the chairmanships of a few vital committees. But democratization has also meant a dissolution of the informal rules, traditions, and arrangements that made the Senate governable for so many years, and the leadership has still not figured out what is supposed to replace them. THE POINT is illustrated by a leitmotif that runs through Miller's account of his sample week in 1983. Then, as now, the Reagan Administration and Congress were locked in noisy combat over U.S. policy in Central America. Against this background a freshman Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd, made a most extraordinary proposal: he demanded a closed session of the Senate at which all other business would be put aside and, after the Senate floor had been ''swept'' for bugging devices, the Administration would brief the entire body on U.S. policy in Nicaragua. Under Senate rules, Dodd had every right to ask for such a session, even though the head of his own party, not to mention the chairman of the intelligence committee, was opposed to it. Miller seems to feel that Dodd was on some huge ego trip. But the Senate's elders never could talk him out of the closed session, and in the end it went on as he had demanded. Just as the leadership had predicted, it had no effect at all on the chamber's thinking about Central America. Teapot tempests like the Dodd incident are an apt symbol of the leadership's loss of authority. Majority leader Howard Baker had about as much real power as Lyndon Johnson had in his right-hand index finger when LBJ was Senate majority leader in the Fifties. Baker comes across as shrewd and decent, but in the repeated challenges to his leadership he could rely only on affability and patience to get his way; in the Eighties a majority leader has nothing else to fight with. You come away from Running in Place with a clear understanding of why he left the Senate to go into private business.