He Waited a Year to Give His First Senate Speech: Then Ben Sasse Cut Loose
Used to be, freshman senators kept their mouths shut on the Senate floor, deferring to their elders. That tradition has faded, but Ben Sasse just revived it. This week, after patiently waiting a year after his election, he took to the floor for the first time to tell his colleagues exactly why, in his words, the American people "despise us all"...and what can be done about it. [See video below. Please. Seriously.]
What the Senator from Nebraska said is as important as anything I've seen since The Federalist Papers, and it holds the keys to "cultural change" in the Senate which he calls a "partial prerequisite for a national recovery." In preparation for his inaugural address, Sasse devoted time in the past 12 months to interviewing his fellow senators, 98 of whom outrank him in seniority.
"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." -- Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska
Sen. Sasse spoke in a way that only an historian and an organizational turn-around specialist would. In fact, he spoke in a way that almost guaranteed he'll be ignored by the 24/7 news hounds, and even by many of his ambitious colleagues. But I heard him, and you will hear him, and we can share this message with our fellow Americans until someone else listens.
[Full Disclosure: I knew almost nothing about Ben Sasse before I watched this speech (twice) and read it. I didn't even know what he looked like. His name was vaguely familiar, and I knew he had run for office, but would have failed a quiz about which office.]
His thesis boils down to a basic management axiom: Every system is perfectly organized to get the results it's now getting. If you don't like the results, you have to change the system.
The Senate is broken because it has forgotten why it exists, Sasse said. It has abdicated its legislative role to the executive branch, and settled for unseemly, disingenuous partisan squabbling about inconsequential policy scraps, along with desperate non-stop efforts to get re-elected to an increasingly-useless body.
In private conversation some of Sasse’s colleagues -- who, when off camera, get along with each other just fine -- blamed the state of the Senate on the political polarization of the country at large.
Sasse said that’s no excuse, because...
- We've been more polarized in the past: read some history.
- The real issue is citizen disengagement, not hyperpartisanship. A mere 2 million viewers, in a nation of 320 million, tune into the 24/7 news channels.
- The Senate was designed to mitigate polarization through substantive, respectful debate about big-picture issues.
- People are more angry with their representatives than exercised about any actual issue, or ideology.
So polarization in the country is not the problem, and if it were, the Senate should apply the balm of legitimate civic dialogue.
While this may sound like another weary plea for civility and compromise in Washington, Ben Sasse says he's actually calling for more conviction, more cleaving to principle, and more substantive debate. Let's have real fights, with real data, and real integrity over the big issues that really matter.
"We all know deep down," Sasse said, "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...This is the very reductionism – the short-termism – that this institution was explicitly supposed to guard against." He added, "A six-year term is a terrible thing to waste."
The framers of the Constitution created the Senate to become the world's greatest deliberative body, and a bulwark of federalism, by giving senators long terms, and by vesting their appointment with the state legislatures (an innovation tragically scuttled by the misbegotten 17th Amendment). The framers intended to ensure vibrant, thoughtful debate and most importantly, to protect minorities against the stampede of temporary majorities. In addition, despite the partisan atmosphere that now prevails, Senate rules, until the 1970s, gave virtually no formal recognition to political parties. They still imbue each senator with the remarkable power to filibuster.
Yet as Sasse has learned from chats with his colleagues in the past year, senators fritter away their six-year term with perpetual fundraising, and waste their time on the floor robotically spouting partisan talking points. Rather than engage their opponents' best arguments, presented in the best light, they act like hack bloggers, demonizing their rivals and battling strawmen.
"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." -- Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska
He offered as analogy the absurd scenario of a corporate officer telling his board that there is one, and only one, solution to our problem, and if you disagree with me you're both ignorant and evil. That person, he said, would receive a well-deserved termination letter.
"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." -- Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska
This is the Senate that Sasse envisions — above the day-to-day fray, vigorously debating the proper role of government (if any), the proper branch and level of government (if any), and the proper legislative remedy (if any).
He faults presidents and Congress members in both parties for transferring Constitutional power from the legislature to the executive. Consequently, a powerful, unaccountable administrative state fills the vacuum, achieving and exceeding President Woodrow Wilson's wildest dreams. Both branches must reclaim their Constitutional heritage, and remain restrained by the strictures of freedom’s charter.
A couple of years ago, I ran for local office in my county, not merely because a Republican-led board had allowed a 16% tax-hike for a profligate Democratic County Executive, but because the balance of power enshrined in our Home Rule Charter had skewed toward the executive, away from the board — making the latter a passive appendage, and a flaccid, superfluous debating society.
Ben Sasse has done something extraordinary. He has run for office to reform the institution. In his speech, he promised to deliver a series of Senate addresses on the growth of the administrative state. He knows that without the balance of enumerated powers, and without a properly-deliberative Senate, this Constitutional republic cannot stand.
If we fix the process, the product takes care of itself.
As I finish writing this, the YouTube video of Sen. Sasse’s inaugural speech from the Senate floor has a paltry 766 views, a day after posting. My fellow Americans, if you want to help this foundering ship of state to right itself and to sail boldly toward a rising sun, please share this little essay and/or video with as many as you dare.