The Day - Dodd's Closing Year One of Big Wins Among Small Conduct
Outgoing senior senator pleads for higher standards of behavior
The interview was scheduled for 12:30. But Sen. Christopher Dodd was running late.
Connecticut's longest-serving senator ever could have ducked out by now from his seat at the head of the Senate Banking Committee, where he was presiding over testimony about the wave of home foreclosures that continues to hobble the housing market and threaten the nation's economy.
It's the prerogative of any chairman, not to mention one with 30 years of seniority, to hand off the gavel eventually and slip out of the committee's back door. Perhaps when the testimony has slipped into its third hour, and down from the high points of tomorrow's headlines into the dreary technical realm being endured on this blustery Wednesday.
On this morning, probing questions elicited deepening jargon from witnesses. (Attempts to fix problems, for instance, became efforts to "remediate the process deficiency.") Aides slipped white cups of coffee to their bosses, who watched with chins cupped in palms, shifting in their seats. In the back right corner of Room 538 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a young man in a white oxford shirt struggled, ultimately in vain, to avoid nodding off to sleep.
But for Dodd, who has devoted most of his adult life to Congress, this was the last time: his final hearing as chairman of the Banking Committee, a position he assumed in time to face a crippling devolution of the U.S. economy, a near-collapse of the banking system, and a painstaking and combative effort to reform the regulations that are supposed to prevent such catastrophes.
So Dodd remained. He lobbed questions at one panel, which included Sheila C. Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., John Walsh, the acting comptroller of the currency, and Daniel K. Tarullo, a member of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System.
And he stayed on - like few of his colleagues on the committee - to question a second slate of guests, including law professors and executives from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders some blame in part for the nation's subprime mortgage crisis.
As the hearing came to an end, Dodd urged his witnesses, and those who will remain in the Senate after he departs at the end of this year, to continue this effort: to gather lending institutions, as he put it, "in a room like this, and have a conversation."
Then the chairman brusquely slapped his small gavel down.
"The committee will stand adjourned."
It was over.
The dimmest view of the U.S. Senate - the one currently ascendant among disappointed Democrats who bemoan the body's failure to help pass legislation on critical issues such as global warming and labor law reform - posits a calcified, somnolent supper club: 100 people, mostly men, virtually all white, whose elaborate rules and rituals provide for expansive speechifying, much mutual congratulation and little actual work.
The charitable view - that shared by Dodd, or the colleagues who heaped praise on his valedictory address last Tuesday on the Senate floor - is different in emphasis, but shares more than a few particulars. The double-underlined moral of Dodd's speech might have been shortened to, simply, comity matters.
All those speeches in all those long, six-year terms are critical, Dodd said then, to "build the social capital necessary to make the Senate function."
"After all, no other legislative body grants so much power to each member, nor does any other legislative body ask so much of each member," he said on the floor, as more than 50 other senators listened, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"Just as the Senate's rules empower each member to act like a statesman, they also require statesmanship from each member," he said. "But these rules are merely requiring from us the kind of leadership that our constituents need from us, that history calls on us to provide in difficult times such as these."
In an interview the next day, after the Banking Committee hearing concluded, the senator expanded on the notion, and continued to reject the idea that Senate rules should change - disappointment among liberal Democrats about watered-down legislation and blocked initiatives notwithstanding.
"As I was saying to someone this morning, when you filibuster everything, then you get remembered for nothing," Dodd said, a knowing reference to what Democrats say is the unprecedented frequency with which Republicans have used procedural filibusters to block the Senate from acting over the past two years.
But the system, he added, "can work."
It wasn't hyperbole to speak of a Senate that has broken, or at least broken down, he said, but the system is not "broken irreparably."
He offered contrasting examples, in the form of the two huge legislative accomplishments that have marked his final year in office - the health care reform bill he helped shepherd into law after taking the reins of the Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions from the stricken Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and the reform of the financial regulatory laws that he passed as chairman of the Banking Committee.
"The health care reform bill is a textbook example of how a bill ought not to become law," Dodd said. "Put aside whether you like the final result, but how you got there was awkward and cumbersome."
But the financial reform bill, despite vigorous objections to its final form from Republicans and banking interests wary of new scrutiny from the government, was passed exactly as it should have been, he said, with extensive Republican input, fierce debate and ultimately a bipartisan 59-vote majority in favor of the final bill.
Everyone at the table
Republicans who have worked with Dodd agreed with that.
At a reception in Dodd's honor Wednesday night in the grand hall of the Library of Congress, McConnell joked that Dodd was "terribly misguided politically" but a "classy guy" and genuine working partner.
In a phone interview last week, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., praised Dodd's work on three critical pieces of legislation in the past two years: health care reform, the financial regulatory reform and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which Gregg said was necessary to preserve the banking system against collapse in 2008.
"That bill was a reflection of Congress working in crisis in a cooperative, bipartisan way to address and relieve the crisis, which we did," Gregg said.
"We met for four days straight, 24 hours a day," he said. "He kept everybody at the table, and focused on the critical issue, which was the fact that the financial system was about to melt down and take all of Main Street America with it, along with the rest of the world. And it was his seriousness of purpose, really, that kept everybody focused. And it's not easy when you're dealing with a lot of disparate individuals, all of whom have large egos."
Gregg also embraced Dodd's warnings to those who would change Senate rules to allow the quicker passage of bills with majority support.
"People come into the Senate from other experiences and find it to be a difficult place to work because it's slow, it's ponderous, people get their say," Gregg said. "They either don't understand the purposes of the Senate or they should have run for the House."
Rather than scrapping rules, Dodd spent his final days calling for a new crop of senators - nearly half of those seated in January will be serving their first terms - to revive a tradition of cooperation and conciliation.
Such paeans to Senates past are not convincing to all.
While Dodd aimed his pitch to retain existing filibuster rules at new colleagues who have never served in the minority, similar calls for reform have come from other longtime senators, most notably Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
"Dodd gave an eloquent farewell address, and it moved both sides of the aisle," said Larry Sabato, a longtime congressional observer and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He's a popular member of the Senate and, party aside, will be missed by most colleagues.
"Having said that, nostalgia for a more cooperative past in the Senate won't change the modern reality. We live in a deeply polarized era, and the members' floor votes are predetermined by their party identification."
Also frustrated are fellow Democrats in the House, like Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who have watched their own proposals pass the House and languish for months or longer without action in the Senate.
"Look, how do you argue with a guy who's been there 30 years and obviously has a love and knowledge of the institution that few people will ever come close to," Courtney said in an interview in his Washington office. "Having said that, I think it's important to remember that that rule is not in the Constitution.
"At some point I don't think it's too much to ask that people who use the filibuster have to show that they're really winning the argument on the merits," he said. "At some point you don't get to just arbitrarily block consideration of a bill."
Dodd will not give. "I think they're wrong," he said, laughing, when reminded of Harkin's support for reform. And Democrats should have long memories about the useful tools the minority can wield.
"Back in the '80s the things we stopped that the Reagan administration wanted to do saved the country, in my view, from a lot of things that could have been harmful to the nation," he said.
History gives perspective
Dodd won't say what's next, and not because he's hiding anything.
Leaning back in a chair in his office, Dodd relates the message he got from former Sen. George Mitchell, after Dodd announced in January that he wouldn't seek re-election: Don't say yes to anything for a while. Get your bearings, take your time.
He is weighing options, would consider Connecticut but also Washington - the Dodds have houses in each place, and their young daughters, Grace and Christina, are in school in the capital.
Dodd refuses to share in the hand-wringing happening among some Democrats about the drubbing his party took in November. Long experience gives perspective.
"In 1975 there were literally serious people at higher levels of the Republican Party who thought of a change in the name of the party after the '74 Watergate debacle," Dodd said. "Of course, six years later Ronald Reagan sweeps the country. And six years later the Democrats take back the Senate.
"I'm so sick of every election being described as historic," he said. "I say the only way you can define an election as historic is what the Congress does in the wake of that election."
The legislation, he said, will endure.
"Child care is here to stay - that was (Utah Sen.) Orrin Hatch and I doing that," he said, rattling off others, like the Family and Medical Leave Act and pharmaceutical coverage for children.
"Financial reform is here to stay," Dodd said. "Health care is here to stay."
The hard-won accomplishments of his giant year, his last year, he summed up this way: "It's a great beginning."