On the heels of the Orlando massacre and with the Fourth of July recess in the near future, House Democrats sought to “seize the moment” to bring about strict gun control. Thus, on Wednesday, July 22, 2016, they orchestrated and executed a twenty-five-hour sit-in on their chamber’s floor. In light of these events, the temptation is to focus on partisan politics while drawing comparisons to the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. Thoughtful citizens, however, might wish to turn to a consideration of the history of the legislative branch and the duty of its members lest they fail to uphold the principled governance of our Founding Fathers. Senator Ben Sasse offers an example of such consideration in his maiden speech to the Senate on November 4, 2015.
I want to talk today about the purpose of the Senate, about some of the historical uses of the Floor of this special body, and about what baby-steps toward institutional recovery might look like.
Before doing so, let me explain briefly why I chose to wait a year since Election Day before beginning to fully engage in Floor debate.
I’ve done two things in my adult work-life: I’m a historian by training and a strategy guy by vocation. Before becoming a college president, I helped over a dozen organizations find strategies to get through some very ugly crises. One important lesson I learned over and over is that when you walk into any troubled organization, there is a delicate balance between expressing human empathy and yet not passively sweeping hard truths under the rug. On the one hand, it is absolutely essential to listen first, to ask questions first, to learn how a broken institution got to where it is—because there are reasons. Things drift and fray for reasons; people rarely set out to break special institutions they inherit.
Still, empathy cannot change the reality that a bankrupt company is spending more to build its products than customers are willing to pay for them; a college with too few students is not only out of money but out of spirit; a charity that cannot persuade enough donors to invest in its cause might not have the right cause.
This is the two-part posture I have adopted in my rookie year. Because of this goal of empathetic listening first, of coming to sit and privately interview many of you—and also because of a pledge I made to Nebraskans in deference to an old Senate tradition—I have waited.
But please do not misunderstand: Do not confuse a deliberate approach with passivity. I ran because I think that the public is right that we as a people are not tackling the generational crises that we face: We don’t have a long-term foreign policy for the age of jihad and cyber war; our entitlement budgets are completely fake; we are entering an age where work and jobs will be more fundamentally disrupted than at any point since hunter-gatherers first settled in agrarian villages. And yet we don’t really have any plans. I think the public is right that we, as a Congress, are not shepherding the country through the serious debates we must have about the future of this great nation.
I will outline the key observations from my interviews of you another day. For now, let me flag the painful, top-line takeaway: No one in this body thinks the Senate is laser-focused on the most pressing issues facing the nation. No one. Some of us lament this fact; some are angered by it; many are resigned to it; some try to dispassionately explain how they think it came to be. But no one disputes it.
And if I can be brutally honest for a moment: I’m home basically every weekend, and what I hear—and what I’m sure most of you hear—is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess. To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that. To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions. To the Democrats, who did this body harm through nuclear tactics: Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all.
And why is this? Because we’re not doing the job we were sent here to do. The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.
I, therefore, propose a thought experiment: If the Senate isn’t going to be the most important venue for addressing our biggest national problems, where is that venue? Where should the people look for the long-term national prioritization? Or, to ask it of ourselves, would anything be lost if the Senate didn’t exist? Again, this a thought experiment, so let me be emphatically clear: I think a great deal would be lost if the federal government didn’t have a Senate—but game out with me the question of “Why?” What precisely would be lost if we had only a House of Representatives, rather than both bodies? The growth of the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, is increasingly hollowing out the Article I branch, the legislature—and many in Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers. So would anything really be lost if we doubled-down on Woodrow Wilson’s impulses and inclinations toward administrative efficiency by removing much of the clunky-ness of the legislative process?
Or, we could approach this thought exercise from the inside-out: What is unique about the Senate? What can this body do particularly well? What are its essential characteristics? What was it built for? Consider its attributes:
- We have six-year terms instead of two-year terms (and the Founders actually considered lifetime appointments to the Senate);
- We have proportional representation of states, not of population counts—reflecting a federalist structure where we are supposed to be especially attuned to the distinction between agreeing that government might have a role to play in tackling certain kinds of problems—and yet guarding against a routinized assumption that only a centralized, national government can ably tackle problem X or Y;
- Third, we have rules designed to strengthen the hand of individual senators, not to the end of obstruction, but rather to ensure full debate and engagement with dissenting points of view—for the Founders had less concern with governmental efficiency than with protecting minority rights and culturally unpopular views;
- Fourth, we had no formal rules acknowledging political parties until as late as the 1970s; we had merely a twentieth-century convention of acknowledging to speak first the leaders of the two largest party blocks;
- Fifth, we have explicit constitutional duties related to providing the executive with advice—chiefly on the building of his or her team and on the long-term trajectory of foreign policy.
Six-year terms; representation of states, not census counts; nearly limitless debate to protect dissenters; no formal rules for political parties. What then is the answer to the question: “What is the Senate for?” Possibly the best shorthand is: “To shield lawmakers from their obsession with short-term popularity to enable us to focus on the biggest long-term challenges our people face.”
Why does the Senate’s character matter? Precisely because it is meant to insulate us from short-termism. This is the point of the Senate. This place is built to insulate us from opinion fads and the short-term bickering of twenty-four-hour-news-cycles. The Senate was built to focus on the big stuff. The Senate is to be the antidote to sound bites.
I have asked many of you what is wrong with us. And, as in most struggling organizations, there is a high degree of agreement in private about what ails us—about what incentivizes short-term over long-term behavior:
- The incessant fund-raising;
- The ubiquity of cameras wherever we talk;
- The normalization over the last decade of using many Senate rules as shirts-and-skins exercises;
- Constant travel (again, often to fundraise) meaning that sadly, many families around here get ripped up.
This is not to suggest that there is unanimity among you in these private conversations. The divergence is most pronounced at the question of what comes next, whether institutional decline is inevitable: Some of you are hopeful for a recovery of a vibrant institutional culture, but more of you are pessimistic.
The most common framing of the worry is this: “Okay, so this might not be the Senate’s finest hour. But isn’t the dysfunction in here merely an echo of the broader political polarization out there?” It’s an important question: Isn’t the Senate broken merely because of a larger “shattered consensus” of shared belief across our land?
Surely, this is part of the story. But there is more to say.
First, the political polarization of the country (outside Washington) is often overstated. We could talk about the Election of 1800, the run-up to the Civil War, the response to Catholic immigration waves, the bloodiest summers of the Civil Rights movement, or the experiences of returning soldiers from Vietnam if you want to talk about high-water marks of polarization.
Second, civic disengagement is arguably a larger problem today than is polarization. It isn’t so much that most regular folks are locked into predictable Republican and Democratic positions on every issue; it’s that they are tuning us out altogether. And despite the echo chambers for those of us with these jobs, are we aware that the Pew Research Center notes that the total twenty-four-hour viewership of CNN, Fox, and MSNBC is only between 1.8 and 2 million? That’s it.
Third, one of our jobs is to flesh out competing views with such seriousness and respect that we should be mitigating, not exacerbating, the polarization that does exist. This is one of the reasons we have a representative, rather than a direct, democracy.
Fourth, surveys reveal that the public is more dissatisfied with us than they are scared about the intractability of the grand challenges we face. Consider this contrast:
- Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans think the country is headed in a bad direction; that the experiences of their children will be less than the experiences of their parents. That’s really bad.
- But consider this: Only one in ten is comforted that Congress is doing a decent job.
- Let’s be clear about what this means: If the voters were given a choice to fire everyone in Congress, does anyone have any doubt what they would do?
There are good and bad reasons to be unpopular. A good reason would be to suffer for waging an honorable fight for the long-term that has short-term political downsides—like telling seniors the sobering truth that they’ve paid in far less for their Social Security and Medicare than they are currently getting back.
But we all know deep down that the political class is unpopular not because of our relentless truth-telling, but because of politicians’ habit of regularized pandering to those who already agree with us. The sound bite culture—whether in our ninety-second TV stand-ups in the Russell rotunda, in our press releases, in the habits honed in campaigns—is everywhere around us.
This is the very reductionism—the short-termism—that this institution was explicitly supposed to guard against. The “Senate” is a word with two meanings—it is the 100 of us as a group, a community, a “body” (that’s an important metaphor); and it is this physical chamber. The Senate is what we call this special room in which we assemble to debate the really big things.
But what happens in this chamber now is what is most disheartening for a newbie like me. As our constituents know, something has gone awry here. We—in recent decades—have allowed the short-termism of sound bite culture to invade this chamber, and radically reduce so many debates to fact-free zones.
Mr. President, I mentioned that I’ve done two kinds of work before coming here: historian/college president and crisis turn-around guy. While they might seem quite different, both depend on a certain kind of deliberation, a kind of Socratic speech.
Good history is good story-telling. And good story-telling demands empathy; it requires understanding different actors, differing motivations, competing goals. Reducing everything immediately to good and evil is bad history—not only because it isn’t true, but because reductionism is unpersuasive; it is boring. Good history, on the other hand, demands that one talk Socratically—that one can present alternate viewpoints, not strawman arguments.
Similarly, can you imagine a business strategist who presents just one idea, and then immediately announces that it is the only right idea, the only plausible idea? How would companies respond? They would fire that guy. A good strategist, by contrast, puts the best construction on a range of scenarios; and outlines the best criticisms of each option, including especially the option he or she wants to argue for most passionately. And then one assumes that your competitors will upgrade their game in light of your opening moves. This is, again, a kind of Socratic speech.
But bizarrely, we don’t really do this very much here. We don’t have many actual debates. This is a place that would be difficult today to describe as “the greatest deliberative body in the world”—something that has often been true historically.
Socrates said it was dishonorable to make the lesser argument appear the greater—or to take someone else’s argument and distort it so that you don’t have to engage their strongest points. Yet here, on this Floor, we regularly devolve into bizarre partisan-politician speech. We hear robotic recitations of talking points.
Well, guess what: Normal people don’t talk like this. They don’t like that we do. And, more importantly, they don’t trust us because we do.
It’s weird, because one-on-one, when the cameras are off, hardly anyone here really believes that senators from the other party are evilly motivated or bribed or stupid. There is actually a great deal of human affection around here—but again, that’s in private, when the cameras aren’t on.
Perhaps I should pause to acknowledge that an introductory speech like this makes me nervous. Talking about the recovery of more honest, Socratic debate runs the risk, I fully recognize, of being written off as overly Romantic, as naïve idealism. To add to the discomfort, I’m brand new to politics and ninety-ninth in seniority.
But talking bluntly about what is not working in the Senate in recent decades is actually not naïve idealism, but aspirational realism. Here’s why: I believe that a cultural recovery inside the Senate is a partial prerequisite for a national recovery. I don’t think that generational problems like the absence of a long-term strategy for combating jihad and cyber-war; like telling the truth about entitlement over-promising; like developing new human capital and job retraining strategies for the emerging era of much more rapid job change—I don’t think these long-term problems are solvable without a functioning Senate. And a functioning Senate is a place that rejects short-termism, both in substance and in tone.
The Senate has always had problems—it’s a human institution populated by sinners. But it hasn’t always had today’s problems. There have been glorious high points when the Senate has flourished, and I believe a healthier Senate is possible again—but it will require models and guides. To that end, I have been reflecting on three towering figures of the last half-century who used the Floor differently than we usually use it today, and who thereby have much to teach us.
Before naming them, though, let me clarify my purpose: I do not think there is any magic bullet to restore the Senate. My purpose in speaking today is basically just to move into public discussions I’ve already been having in private as I try to define a personal strategy for how to use this Floor. I want advice. I am opening a conversation and soliciting input on how to contribute to the broader team—and there are many of you who want an upgrading of our debate, our prioritization, and our seriousness about the bigger challenges.
Two weeks ago, in a discussion about this with one of you, I was asked: “So you are going to admit our institutional brokenness and call for more civility on the Floor?” No. While I am in favor of more civility, my actual call here is for more substance.
This is not a call for less fighting but for more meaningful fighting. This is a call for bringing our A-game to the debates on the biggest issues here, with less regard for the twenty-four-month election cycle and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. This is a call to be for things that are big enough that you might risk your re-election.
So let’s name three folks who can instruct us because they brought a larger approach to this Floor:
First, I sit quite intentionally at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s desk, the New Yorker who cast a huge shadow around here for a quarter century famously cautioned that, while each of us has a right to our own opinion, we most certainly don’t have any right to our own set of facts. He read social science prolifically and sought constantly to bring data to bear on the debates in this chamber. Like any genuinely curious person, he asked lots of questions so you couldn’t automatically know what policy he would ultimately advocate just because he asked hard questions of everyone. He had the capacity to surprise us.
Second, in a time when circling the partisan wagons and castigating the opposing party can feel reflexively easy, we could all benefit from reading again Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech on this Floor from June 1950. The junior senator from Maine was a committed anti-communist, sometimes called the first female cold warrior. And for her, that meant not knee-jerk opposition to competing views but rather the full-throated defense of what she called “Americanism,” defined as “The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought.” Senator Smith was rightly worried about Alger Hiss and the infiltration of the State Department by spies, and that meant that grand-standing and lazy character smears were not only dishonest, they were distracting and therefore dangerous. And thus, the freshman senator—and at that point the only woman in the body—went to the Floor to demand publicly what she had previously asked for unsuccessfully in private: Was there any evidence for all of Joe McCarthy’s scandalous claims? Because a committed truth-teller challenged someone in her own party, on an issue on which she had ideological alignment with him, to reject strawman arguments and disingenuine attacks, the Senate would—four years later—censure McCarthy and banish McCarthyist tactics from this place.
Finally, and for my purposes today most importantly, I would like us to recall Robert Byrd, one of the larger figures in this body’s two and a half centuries. As a historian, I have long been a student of the West Virginian, troubled though he was.
We sometimes conceive of our role today as merely policy advocates—as those who argue for our respective party’s position on some short-term policy fight. And that is sometimes important, but that is only one of our roles. We don’t have a parliamentary system—and that choice was on purpose.
With Moynihan and Margaret Chase Smith, we also need to contextualize our debates about our largest national challenges with facts and data; we need to agree on what problems we are trying to solve before we begin bickering about which programmatic levers might work more or less well; we need to challenge those in our own party not to construct lazy strawman arguments of those we are debating.
But there is something else we need as well. Beyond policy advocating and policy clarifying, we need an overarching narrative. We need to pause to regularly recall the larger American principles that bind us together—our Constitutional creed, our shared stories, and our exceptional American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all 320 million of our countrymen.
We all know in our marriages that sometimes the only way to navigate through small and medium disagreements is by pausing to embrace again our larger, shared commitments and our history. We need more of that here. We need to be able more often to agree on some big things before we get to the work of honorably disagreeing about some smaller policy fights.
One of the important legacies of Senator Byrd (and again, this is no commentary on other aspects of his messy past) is that he forced the Senate to grapple with its history, specific duties, and unique place in the architecture of Madisonian separation of powers.
To return to our thought experiment: Do we think the Founders would have regarded a nine percent Congressional approval rating—a stunning level of distrust in representative government—as an existential crisis? Do we? Is it conceivable that we can get away with just drifting into the future, or is it essential that we fix this?
Count me emphatically among those who think we need to fix it. We should not be okay with this. And if we are going to restore this place, part of it will center on recovering the executive/legislative distinction. The American people should demand more of us as legislators, and they should demand more of the next president as a competent administrator of the laws that we pass. That is only possible if we again have some identity commitments that are about the Constitution’s Article I (the legislature) in tension with the duties of the Article II branch (the executive). Everything cannot be simply Republicans versus Democrats. We need Democrats to speak up when a Democratic president exceeds his or her powers. And I promise you that I plan to speak up when the next president of my party exceeds his or her proper powers.
Despite all his other failings, Robert Byrd labored hard to mark those non-partisan lines. We should too.
To that end, in the coming months, I plan a series of Floor speeches on the historic growth of the administrative state. This will not be a partisan effort; it will not be a Republican senator criticizing the current administration because it is Democratic. Rather, it will be a constructive attempt to understand how we got to the place where so much legislating now happens inside the executive branch—for this kind of executive overreach came about because of a great deal of symbiotic legislative underreach. Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for grabbing more power when they have the presidency; and Republicans and Democrats are both to blame in the legislature as well for not wanting to lead on hard issues and take hard votes, but rather to sit back and let successive presidents gobble up more authorities. We can and we must do better than this. And the century-long look at the growth of executive branch legislating over the next many months will be an attempt to contribute to the efforts of all here, both Democrats and Republicans, who would like to see the Senate recover some of its authorities and some of its trustworthiness.
Each of us has an obligation to be able to answer our constituents’ question: “Why doesn’t the Congress work? And what is your plan for fixing the Senate in particular?” And if your only answer is that the other party is fully to blame, then we don’t get it, and the American people understandably think that we are part of the problem, not the solution.
This institution wasn’t built just to advocate for new policy X versus new policy Y for next month. We must also serve as a forum for helping the nation understand and navigate our hardest debates. Our ways of speaking should mitigate polarization, not make it worse. As was well said around here recently: “We will not always agree—not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated…I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us.”
Again, saying we should be reducing polarization doesn’t mean we should be watering down our conviction. Quite the contrary. We do not need fewer conviction politicians around here; we need more of them. We do not need more compromising of principles; we need clearer articulation and understanding of competing principles so that we can actually make things work better, not merely paper over the vision deficit.
We should be bored by lazy “politician speech,” bored by knee-jerk partisan certainties on every small issue. We should primarily be doing the harder work of trying to understand competing positions on larger issues. Good teachers don’t shut down debate; they try to model Socratic seriousness by putting the best possible construction on arguments, even—and especially—if one doesn’t hold those positions. Our goal is not to attack strawmen but to strengthen and clarify meaningful contests of ideas.
Representative government requires civic reengagement. Our people need to know that we in this body are up to the task of leading during this time of nearly universal angst about whether this nation is on a path of decline. I think we can do better—and I want to labor with all who want to figure out how.
Thank you, Mr. President.
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