WASHINGTON — One year after Nebraskans sent him to Washington, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse on Tuesday delivered a scathing assessment of the Senate as a forum dominated by sound bites, partisan talking points, pandering to the political base and myopic fights over small-bore policy issues.
“The people despise us all,” Sasse told his colleagues. “And why is this? Because we’re not doing our job. We’re not doing the primary things that the people sent us here to do.”
Sasse has generally kept his head down this year. Tuesday was his first address on the Senate floor, and it came many months after all of his fellow freshmen senators had delivered their own maiden speeches.
Sasse said he waited so long partly out of deference to past Senate tradition that new senators wait a year before they spoke on the floor, and partly because he wanted to spend time interviewing his new colleagues about what they believe ails the institution.
Senators often find themselves addressing a near-empty chamber, but more than one-third of the senators, including ten Democrats, were in their seats to listen to Sasse. That included fellow rookies and longtime veterans.
Sasse criticized Republicans who would use the floor as a platform to grandstand for “outside pursuits” — a line that was widely interpreted as a shot against senators running for president. He hit Democrats for harming the institution in the past with bare-knuckled tactics.
In theory, Sasse said, the Senate’s unique characteristics — such as six-year terms and individual senators’ rights — should insulate it from “the bickering of 24-hour news cycles.” But he said that has broken down over time in the face of incessant fundraising demands, the increasing ubiquity of cameras and constant travel requirements.
“We — in recent decades — have allowed short-termism and the sound-bite culture to invade this chamber, and to reduce so many of our debates to fact-free zones,” he said.
He paused at one point to note that he was nervous his speech would make him sound like a naive idealist.
“To add to the discomfort, I’m brand new to politics, 99th in seniority and occasionally mistaken for a page,” Sasse said.
He stressed that he was not decrying a lack of civility on the Senate floor, but rather a lack of substance.
“This is not a call for less fighting,” he said, “but for more meaningful fighting.”
He had a list of suggestions for baby steps that could improve the situation. He also cited three senators from years past as guideposts for restoring the Senate:
» Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who famously said, ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” Sasse, who intentionally sits at Moynihan’s old desk in the Senate chamber, said national debates must rest on sound data.
» Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican who showed her willingness to take on her own party when she called out fellow GOP senator Joe McCarthy for his tactics. Sasse called for less tolerance of straw-man arguments in Senate debate, even if that means criticizing members of one’s own party.
» Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who was devoted to the Senate, its history and its powers. Sasse called for the Senate to grapple more with its specific duties and unique role.
Sasse said each senator has an obligation to answer when constituents ask why the Senate isn’t working.
“And if your only answer to this question is to blame the other party, then you don’t get it,” Sasse said, “and the American people think you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
As he concluded his half-hour speech, the other senators applauded. Many approached him with an encouraging handshake and slap on the back.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stood and commended Sasse for an “extraordinary maiden speech.” He said Sasse’s decision to wait so long before delivering his first speech had built up some suspense about what he would say.
“I suspect most people would not have predicted that the best lesson we were to hear about what’s wrong with the Senate and what needs to change would have come from somebody who just got here,” McConnell said.
Sasse said after the speech that he felt a little like “a skunk at a garden party” delivering his pointed remarks, but he intended it to be a humble commercial for how he plans to approach floor debates.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who recently cast his 12,000th vote in the Senate, said he appreciated Sasse’s “scholarly” speech.
Said Grassley: “It had a lot of good points about what the Senate has evolved into.”
The easy thing to do is just to keep playing shirts-and-skins exercises. I’m not going to do that."