Bob Dole is not the first Senate majority leader to be frustrated by the strains of the job. Though he is the first leader to walk away from the Senate midterm, most of his predecessors were driven to dramatic words or deeds by the pressures they faced.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., summed up the job this way in April 1980: "It is extremely difficult to deal with the wishes and needs of 99 other senators, attempting to schedule legislation, because almost in every case, at any time it is scheduled, it inconveniences some senator. ... I often say, when I am to fill out a form and the form says `occupation,' I should put `slave.' "The Senate's majority leader is now a high-profile figure in American politics, but the job didn't exist until early this century. The Constitution calls for a Speaker of the House, but it says nothing about who should lead the Senate.
Massachusetts' Daniel Webster referred to his chamber as a "Senate of equals" who bowed to no master. Legislative business was conducted by a shifting cast that included committee chairmen, sectional coalitions pushing for a particular outcome on the issue at hand and factions loyal to one or another of the Senate's more prominent and influential figures, such as Henry Clay of Kentucky. A colleague once said of Clay, "When that senator shakes his head and says, `I hope not,' we know how the yeas and nays will stand as well as if they had been taken and counted."
The impetus for establishing the position of leader was a desire by progressive Democrats to enact an ambitious legislative agenda following their success in the 1912 election. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency that year, and Democrats expanded their majority in the House and captured control of the Senate.
Wilson wanted to move on his "New Freedom" priorities before the opposition had time to regain its footing. In the Senate, Democrats elected John W. Kern of Indiana as their caucus chairman, and he took charge of working with the White House to set the Senate's agenda. Kern was just in his third year as a senator, but he had a national reputation as a leader among progressive Democrats, and soon newspaper accounts of the Senate's work began identifying him as "Majority Leader Kern."
Congressional scholar Walter J. Oleszek said the Indianan "employed cajolery, humor, one-on-one bargaining and personal rapport, rather than any `iron fist' approach, to implement whatever plan" he and Wilson had devised.
By the early 1920s, both parties were electing formal leaders, and by 1937 the practice was established that the parties' leaders would occupy the opposing front-row center-aisle seats on the Senate floor an acknowledgment of their responsibility for determining the chamber's agenda and the right of the majority leader to speak first (and the minority leader second) in debate.
The list of Senate majority leaders includes some people who had considerable impact on their times, including Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., in the 1920s, Joseph T. Robinson, D-Ark., in the 1930s, and Barkley and Robert A. Taft, R-Ohio, in the 1940s and early '50s.
But most scholars single out Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, as the majority leader whose force of personality and legislative skill gained him an unmatched degree of influence.
As majority leader from 1955-61, Johnson seemed to understand instinctively what motivated members, and he was determined to have his way. In the famous Johnson "treatment" of a colleague, he played both parts of the "good cop, bad-cop" routine: He would threaten and plead, browbeat and bargain, and usually get what he wanted.
Enhancing Johnson's clout was an informal network of intelligence-gatherers and political operatives who kept him apprised of senators' needs and problems. Also, throughout his tenure as leader he enjoyed the advantage of having a close home-state ally, Texan Sam Rayburn, in the House Speaker's chair.
Yet even Johnson chafed at the difficulties of bending the will of the Senate. In a 1960 interview, he said, " ... the only real power available to the leader is the power of persuasion. There is no patronage, no power to discipline, no authority to fire senators like a president can fire his members of Cabinet."
Years later, at the conclusion of a lengthy speech on the history of party floor leaders in the Senate, Byrd mused about the "often exasperating and tension-filled role" of majority leader. "I suspect," he said, that the job "is in some ways more difficult than that of the president of the United States."
With his exit from Congress, Dole hopes to strengthen his chances of making that comparison first-hand.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)