“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.”
Those were the words this past week of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, during his first speech on the Senate floor. By Senate tradition, a new member does not speak on the floor for the first year after election. While that tradition has not been followed as much lately, Sen. Sasse pledged during his campaign to respect it. (It’s not that he has nothing to say, either: Sasse graduated Harvard, has a Ph.D in History from Yale, and at age 43 was the youngest university president in the country before his election.) Instead of talking, Sasse listened. He took these past twelve months to observe the proceedings, engage and interview other senators privately, and focus on his committee work. He then took the opportunity of his first speech to make an honest assessment of the problems plaguing the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” the United States Senate.
I was elected the same day as Sen. Sasse, just over one year ago. Listening to him decry the partisanship and “lazy politician speech” that has gripped the U.S. Senate, he just as easily could have been describing the Illinois House.
Here’s the thing about Sen. Sasse: he ran for office as a conservative. He wasn’t unclear about his principles or his willingness to advocate for them. But when he arrived in the Senate, he chose the desk of the late-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York. Sen. Moynihan was known as a strong liberal, but he was a deep thinker—one who would question every assumption and bring scientific data to bear on every issue. Sen. Moynihan went where he believed the facts and logic led, not where the political pundits pointed.
The conservative Sen. Sasse then laid out a compelling bipartisan vision that Sen. Moynihan, the liberal lion, would have endorsed:
“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 24-month election cycle and the 24-hour news cycle.”
There’s much more to the speech, and I was so moved by it that I’ve linked to the video and text on my website at votebreen.com/sasse. I can’t recall a clearer, more thoughtful assessment of why our U.S. Senate and our politics generally are so broken in America today. Every high schooler should watch or read this speech as part of their civics education. Every American of voting age will receive benefit from this speech, as well.
While Sen. Sasse’s assessment of the problems plaguing our Senate and our political institutions is distressing, his message is one of hope, what he calls “not naïve idealism, but aspirational realism.” Imagine the difference in our political life if elected officials and voters agreed that, “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.”
This kind of vigorous robust debate is how the world’s great enterprises—whether businesses, organizations, or government—succeed and flourish in times of crisis. And it’s how we can turn Illinois around, too.