05/05/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2013

Weep for the Senate

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Generations of United States Senators now past would view with dazed wonder at what the world's greatest deliberative body has become. Virtually all struggled to serve their and many struggled even more to stay there. Throughout the nation's history the prestige of such service was second only to the presidency itself, and some preferred the Senate over the White House.

By the time we reach the 2014 election, almost one-third of the current Senate will have resigned in the past three elections. Recent reports indicate that those formerly considered to be virtually automatic candidates are rejecting the opportunity to seek the vacated Senate seats.

A variety of explanations are offered for this extraordinary situation: the financial costs of campaigns; the viciousness of political attacks; the toll taken in self-respect and dignity; media sensationalism; polarization leading to paralysis in the Senate itself.

At least for the present, the United States Senate is neither what it traditionally has been nor should be.

An even more profound reason for this sad state may be given. It is corruption. Not corruption of money under the table. As Robert Caro's volume on Senator Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate, establishes, there have been sad cycles of money changing hands for votes.

But for our Founders, like classic Republicans since Athens, a more profound corruption was the greatest threat to the survival of the Republic. That was corruption of the Republican ideal upon which the nation was founded. And it was consistently defined as placing personal interest or the interest of a special group over the interest of the commonwealth -- the interest of all -- the common interest.

That is what American politics has become -- personal and special interest -- and it threatens our survival as it has every republic that preceded us. Unlike even 20 or 30 short years ago, it is commonplace, even routine, for former Senator to become lobbyists. This rarely happened in the Senate in which I served and the best Senators, and there were quite a few, would never have even considered it.

And those former Senators, who trade their titles for millions of dollars, raise massive amounts of money from their clients for campaign contributions to their former colleagues in exchange for access. This is the very definition of corruption of the Republican ideal and it characterizes our politics today. If there is widespread loss of confidence by the people in their government -- and it is happening -- it is because of this corruption.

This is not an argument against government so characteristic of the media-right. This is an argument against the kind of corruption that characterizes both the right and the left. Contrary to conservatives, the issue is not the size of government -- the issue is the integrity of government.

There is nothing wrong with our government that a restoration of integrity would not cure. That restoration of integrity is necessary if the people are to regain trust in their government. For if the confidence of the people in their government is lost, our Republic is lost.

The day must come, and hopefully soon, when the Senate becomes, as it was intended to be, the forum for statesmen and stateswomen who put the national interest and the common good above party, ideology and self-interest.