America’s 10 Best Senators: 04/16/06
Those who make a difference in the U.S. Senate
By Massimo Calabresi and Perry Bacon Jr.
By law, just about anyone can be a U.S. Senator. The Constitution requires only that you have reached your 30th birthday, reside in the state you represent and have held American citizenship for nine years. But if the framers made qualifying for the job easy, they made excelling at it difficult. James Madison called the Senate a “fence” against the “fickleness and passion” of public opinion, and the rules of the place ensure that it is as cumbersome and restrictive as that sounds. Any of the 100 members can try to change, or completely hijack, another member’s bill as it comes up for a vote. And any one of them can bring the place to a halt with a filibuster. Mastering a powerful institution that relies on comity but requires confrontation takes a special kind of talent.
Or talents. There is no fixed journey to greatness in the Senate. Instead there is a whole variety of skills that America’s Senators have developed over 218 years to help them raise and spend tax dollars, oversee the operation of government and, in the case of the best among them, pass laws that benefit their constituents, their country and the world. Time spoke to dozens of academics, political scientists and current and former Senators to pick the 10 best of the 109th Congress. One made it because he puts unsexy but important issues on the national agenda, another because his backroom negotiating turns conflict into consensus. A third got on the list for his diligent bird-dogging of Enron, Homeland Security and the Pentagon. Then there’s the prodigious across-the-aisle dealer, the fierce defender of her constituents and the expert who sees around corners. As with any all-star team, we sought a broad range of gifts rather than settling on 10 great pitchers or middle linebackers.
They say the Senate is the world’s most exclusive club. But the real elite is made up not of those who break in but of those who make a difference once they get there. Here are 10 who do.
Carl Levin: The Bird-Dogger
No one would accuse Carl Levin of looking like Hollywood’s version of a U.S. Senator. He’s pudgy, balding and occasionally rumpled, and he constantly wears his glasses at the very tip of his nose. Still, the Michigan Democrat has gained respect from both parties for his attention to detail and deep knowledge of policy, especially in his role as a vigilant monitor of businesses and federal agencies. In 2002, a subcommittee he led hauled in Enron’s board of directors to question them about the company’s shady accounting practices; in hearings a year later, he was one of the chief challengers of large accounting firms that had created illegal tax shelters. Congress passed laws in the wake of both scandals in an effort to prevent the abuses from happening again.
Levin, 71 and first elected in 1978, says he considers congressional hearings a critical part of his job, spending as much as 20 hours prepping for each one so an evasive witness won’t outwit him. The former civil-rights lawyer is known for forcing embarrassing admissions from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other Bush Administration officials through his precise questioning. “You’ve got to be very blunt and truly listen so you know when the b.s. is flying,” Levin says.
Although admired by many Republicans for his diligence, Levin rarely sides with them. He opposed the Iraq war, and as the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has become one of his party’s leading voices in criticizing President Bush’s conduct of the invasion, arguing that the Administration didn’t have enough troops in the early stages and, more recently, hasn’t focused enough on training Iraqi troops. But his carefully researched, thoughtful remarks carry great weight with his colleagues. “Nobody in the Democratic Caucus says anything on national-security issues without talking to Carl Levin,” says a top Democratic Senate staff member.