The writer served as governor of Nebraska from 1991 to 1999 and as a U.S. senator since 2001. With his final Senate term ending soon, The World-Herald asked him for his thoughts on his years in public service.
“Lincoln” is a popular movie today, and perhaps the most famous and oft-repeated quotation from one of our greatest presidents has as much relevance today as it did in 1858 when it was uttered at the Republican Convention: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I have always believed this premise and tried to bring this philosophy into government, both as senator and as governor.
Recognizing that urban and rural interests often differed, I created a “One Nebraska” policy to bring both sides together to work out differences and move Nebraska forward. My hope was always to bring together competing interests in Washington to create “One Nation” to bring both sides together to work for the common good.
It worked for a time in the Senate, where I had hoped we could carry the “One Nebraska” theme and turn it into a “One Nation” theme where opposing sides would work together. Over the years, however, the atmosphere of multiplication and addition turned to an atmosphere of division and subtraction.
My concerns have always been about getting the best legislation possible to help the most people and to benefit Nebraska. That requires working with others and not just taking the partisan solution.
That made it very difficult, indeed, to accomplish anything. As someone who is willing to reach across the aisle and listen to other points of view, I found it more than disappointing when the camaraderie became poisoned by partisanship.
I would often think of the words of John F. Kennedy when he admonished those on Capitol Hill to work together. He would say, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
Sadly, that attitude no longer prevails in Washington. Politics has gone from being a contact sport to actual combat. Today, too many are willing to bring this country to its knees just to make a point. It’s driven by special interests more than anyone can remember. Obstructionism is the very thing that has made this country further divided.
It was always my hope that Congress could do as the Founding Fathers did when they wrote the Constitution, which was sometimes referred to as The Great Compromise. We had some successes during my dozen years in the Senate and some setbacks. Sadly, for some, “compromise” has become a dirty word.
Early on in my term, I worked with 13 other senators to form The Gang of 14, which broke the political logjam on judicial nominations without erasing the rules of the Senate to protect minority views. Sitting together by state, regardless of political party, during the State of the Union address was another success in bringing different factions together.
In 2001, shortly after my arrival in Washington, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought all sides together. Party labels weren’t important. Instead of Democratic senators or Republican senators, we had United States senators. We were all in this together, from the anthrax-laced letters sent to elected officials, the media and others, to the waging of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was one of several senators, from both parties, who toured the battlefields, met with foreign leaders and, perhaps most importantly, met with members of our military who voluntarily put their lives on the line for God and country. They weren’t concerned about politics. They were concerned about proper management of the war.
Our mission was to learn how best to proceed, not for the good of one party or the other but for the good of the country. And we worked on it together.
While we remain at war in Afghanistan and are ever vigilant of the possibility of more acts of terrorism, the lessons we learned early on have gone by the wayside. The foxhole conversion of working together toward a common goal has fallen to political ideology not only where war is concerned but on most any other issue you can name.
I have always been a staunch advocate for Nebraska. A representative of a rural state with a relatively small population needs to work hard in Washington to make sure our needs are not overlooked. Many of the bureaucrats in Washington think “rural” is the drive from D.C. to Baltimore. They just don’t get it when it comes to rural states.
That’s why I always fought hard to make sure Nebraskans were not overlooked when it came to protecting agriculture and the environment and funding important projects all across our state, including roads, bridges, water and sewer projects and other infrastructure.
My priorities in the Omaha area included upgrading StratCom’s aging headquarters and improving Offutt Air Force Base with a new runway and child development center to ensure they will remain in Nebraska. That’s important because they are enormous economic engines for the state as well as integral components of our national security. Working with the military and local leaders, we were able to secure the necessary federal funds to accomplish the mission. We also were able to provide funding for a new VA hospital in Omaha.
Other funding was secured in the Omaha area with the help of local leaders, including funds for sewer separation projects in Omaha and Plattsmouth, the Blair bypass, the widening of west Q Street in Omaha to four lanes and the lead-based paint hazard control program.
Nearly $75 million went to UNMC and UNO for projects like the Durham research tower and cyber counterterrorism research; the University of Nebraska Center for Biosecurity; and research on emergency medical treatment for troops while still in the battlefield.
For Omaha’s most vulnerable population, we secured funding for the Charles Drew Health Center, the Boys and Girls Club drug prevention program, the Visiting Nurse Association’s child abuse program and Heartland Family Service.
Nebraskans send their tax dollars to Washington, and they deserve to get some of them back for worthwhile projects. I always worked with local and state officials who sought help with these and other projects. All of my earmarks, including the names of those who requested them, were listed on my website so everything was above board. There were no “bridges to nowhere” among those earmarks.
Another thing that was done above board was my vote on the Affordable Care Act, which has become known as Obamacare. The offensive and unfair term “Cornhusker Kickback” became a nasty political attack on me personally and on anyone who supported making our health care system affordable and available to all.
The so-called Cornhusker Kickback was designed to benefit all the states, not just Nebraska, in order to avoid an unfunded federal mandate to increase costs of Medicaid.
The facts are that Nebraskans are already benefiting from health care reform and will continue to benefit even more as it continues to fully take effect in the future.
There have been some positive signs in Washington that both sides are at least attempting to come together, and I sincerely hope they will because I, like most Nebraskans, want this country to succeed. My hope is that they will heed the words of Henry Ford: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Another favorite quote of mine was put on invitations for events held across Nebraska as kind of a going-away party from the Senate. The quote sums up my feelings for public service.
The quote, by author Heidi Willis, says simply: “We can choose to be affected by the world, or we can choose to affect the world.”
Nebraskans share any effect I had on the world because I never acted without working closely with my fellow Nebraskans. I think we did that during my two terms as governor and for at least part of my two terms as senator.
Nothing would have been possible without the help of the people of Nebraska. We worked together and thus were able to make a positive difference on Nebraska that makes me very happy and proud.