Lamar Alexander’s Advice for the Senate

Tennessee’s senior senator announced today that he’d be leaving the GOP leadership in January. He’ll remain in the Senate, and run for re-election. But he’s done with leadership, and he explained why.

The Senate was designed to be the forum for confronting the most difficult issues producing the biggest disagreements. I don’t buy for one minute the notion that such policy disagreements produce an unhealthy lack of civility. Those who believe that debates today are more fractious than before have no sense of American history. They have forgotten what Adams and Jefferson said of one another; that Vice President Burr killed former Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton; that on the streets of Washington, Congressman Sam Houston caned an Ohio Congressman who had opposed President Jackson’s Indian Policy; that a South Carolina congressman nearly beat to death Senator Charles Sumner; and that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge often said he hated President Woodrow Wilson. What of the venomous debates before and during the Civil War, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Watergate era, and the Vietnam War?  

The main difference between now and then is that now, because of so much media, everyone instantly hears or sees differences of opinion. But if you will notice carefully, most of the people you hear shouting at one another on television and radio and the internet have never been elected to anything at all. It would help to produce better results if we senators knew one another better across party lines. But to suggest that we should be more timid in debating the issues is to ignore American history and the purpose of the Senate. In fact, senators do our jobs with excessive civility.

After the speech, I asked Alexander what issues have been held up because of Senate dysfunction. “We’ve done better this past month,” he said – which seems overly sunny, but whatever. The first issues that came to mind for him were nuclear waste storage and health care spending.

What about the appointment process? I asked if intense partisanship was stopping, say, the Fed Board of Governors to work efficiently.

“The president needs to nominate some people that we can vote for,” he said.