U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, holds one of 100 seats in what journalist George Packer rightly calls “The Empty Chamber.”
Packer’s magazine piece, a comprehensive indictment of Senate inaction in the August 9 issue of The New Yorker, details how, as he puts it, “senators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.”
Webb, one of the Senate’s younger and least partisan members, says he has not yet decided whether he will seek a second six-year term when his current lease on the seat expires in 2012. A journalist and author himself, Webb isn’t being coy or stalling for time or playing politics as much as he sounds genuinely undecided about a decision that fellow senators do not spend as much time pondering.
Some smart individuals still occupy the Senate, but partisanship dominates, a crusty veneer of civility fools no one and deliberations take place in party caucuses instead of the way the body once functioned with different sides actually talking with each other. Today, if a Republican senator eats lunch with Democrats, the secret meeting across the aisle is not revealed to protect the GOP member from party loyalists who guard against fraternization with the enemy, as each side treats the other.
Webb, a former Republican who served as Navy Secretary under President Reagan, came to the Senate convinced that he could work across the partisan aisle and has some notable successes, such as a new GI Bill giving education benefits to returning armed service members. But bipartisanship has so fallen out of favor that even senators comfortable trying to work the middle can find those attempts frustrating.
Two years before the heat of what could be a rematch with former Sen. George Allen, Webb has not yet geared up a re-election fund-raising effort. Allen also has not yet declared in language any stronger than saying “maybe” and could decide to run again for governor in 2013 if he foregoes a 2012 Senate election rematch.
“I won’t be asking people to contribute to a re-election campaign in a large way unless I decide to run,” Webb, the state’s senior U.S. Senator, said August 10 during a one-hour appearance on the public radio program “Evening Edition” aired on the Roanoke-to-Charlottesville stations WVTF and Radio IQ. “I am talking already to my family about that prospect and we will be making a decision fairly soon,” he said during a wide-ranging discussion in which he noted that this year’s highly contentious health-care legislation contains “a lot of good things” and many problem areas. “I am totally committed to fixing the things that are not good.”
Packer’s lengthy article in The New Yorker details many of the Senate’s traditions and how senators can twist rules to bring the legislative process to a grinding halt in an atmosphere of super-partisanship. Party-line votes are becoming as common as party-line lunches in a legislative body that once commonly featured friendships and dialogue between senators of different parties but now has placed a secret hold on bipartisan cooperation.
Packer calls the attempt to resurrect even a bipartisan lunch as dead as ex-lovers espousing friendship: “These efforts at resurrecting dead customs are as self-conscious and, probably, as doomed as the get-togethers of lovers who try to stay friends after a breakup,” he writes. “Ira Shapiro, a Washington lawyer and a former aide to Senator Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, put it this way: “Why would they want to have lunch together when they hate each other?”
Webb is an uncomfortable fit in too tight a partisan mold.
“I voted 17 times with Republicans on this legislation,” he said of the health-care legislative warfare in which he also blamed President Obama for failing to provide a “specific set of guidelines… . I’ve never been more frustrated in my life than the way this health-care reform bill was put in front of the Congress.”
One of only “maybe three senators with an engineering degree,” Webb said he told Obama last week at the White House that carbon emissions in the form of soot, can and should be tackled worldwide as they have been successfully in this country. Carbon emissions of particulate matter such as soot, rather than the more complex atmospheric effects of carbon dioxide gas, can be more quickly fixed, he said.
The melting of glaciers is caused more by these carbon emissions than by carbon dioxide levels rising, and 29 of the worst 33 metropolitan areas with polluted air are in China and India, Webb said. “This is an issue that is fixable,” he said with the kind of passion for tackling big problems that might just keep him trying to occupy a seat in a Senate.
He also prides himself in saying he is not a career politician and points to bipartisan support for both his GI bill serving 600,000 veterans and the effort to create a study of overpopulation of prisons in this country, which he said has five percent of the world’s population and yet locks up 25 percent of the people incarcerated worldwide.
“We have a very difficult time in the United States Congress right now,” he said of a choking off of bipartisan cooperation in which both sides share blame. “Part of it is the frustrations of the country” and part is related to the issues Obama put on the table, he said. “But also there are people betting on the  elections as some sort of statement that when you get a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress and you still can’t get anything done, then there’s an inability to govern.”
So will a journalist, engineer and Marine combat veteran such as Webb who shirks normal partisan labels and duties seek a second term in body that uses partisan energy as its dirty fuel?
He is not saying for sure yet. My guess is yes, but I wouldn’t bet the House on it.