The Decline of the Senate Armed Services Committee

State of the Union update is near. In the meantime, this dispatch from Charles Stevenson, a long-time Senate staffer, former professor at the National War College, and author of a standard text on the job of the secretary of defense. He is referring to the polarization, grandstanding, and threats of filibuster that have emerged over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as SecDef:

I despair. I worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee for ten years and have followed it closely ever since. We had big fights - over Vietnam, ending the draft, the B-1 bomber and MX missile - but members always recognized that they needed to compromise in order to pass a defense authorization bill, which the committee has now done for an amazing 51 years in a row.

My bosses sometimes put holds on nominations in order to get more information from the executive branch, and we even threatened filibusters a couple of times. But nobody abused those tactics. Sometimes the committee even voted against a presidential nominee, but still reported the nomination to let the full Senate decide - by simple majority vote. SASC members always put the institution ahead of party or politics.

The one glaring exception to that committee comity was over John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense. But the opposition to the former SASC chairman was bipartisan, over moral and character issues, and not to embarrass the president or fight administration policy. The SASC voted 11-9 to reject the Tower nomination but still sent it to the floor, where the Senate voted it down 47-53. No filibuster, just a simple majority vote. [JF note: to be clear, 53 members of the Senate, an absolute majority, voted against Tower. This wasn't like what we've become accustomed to and is in prospect in the Hagel case: a 40-something vote minority blocking the nomination by filibuster or other procedural obstacle.]

The behavior of some of the new members on the Hagel nomination is way over the line - disgraceful! They show no respect for the institution and are likely to poison its ability to work in a collaborative way. They are also hurting the institution of the office of Secretary of Defense and thus undermining our system of civilian control.

I still want to reserve the filibuster for rare and special cases, but the Hagel opponents are making it harder for us defenders of the Senate's unique character to support our own case
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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