On Tuesday, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse delivered a floor speech critical of the hyper-partisan nature of Congress.
It was the freshman senator’s maiden floor speech, which he had waited to deliver until one year after he was elected. It’s an old tradition no longer followed by many new senators, but Mr. Sasse insisted on adhering to the old way of doing things, back when freshman senators were seen but not heard. He is the last of his incoming senate class to deliver their maiden speech.
And it will no doubt go down as the most memorable of the bunch.
“No one in this body thinks the Senate is laser-focused on the most pressing issues facing the nation. No one,” Mr. Sasse said. “Some of us lament this; 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.”
He said that when he returns home from Washington, his constituents tell him the same thing: “A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess.”
And with Congressional approval rating hovering in the single digits, it’s not just Mr. Sasse’s constituents who feel that way.
“The people despise us all,” he said.
Later in his 30-minute speech he touched on why that is.
“It’s weird, because one-on-one, when the cameras are off, hardly anyone here really believes that senators from the other party are evilly motivated—or bribed—or stupid,” he said. “There is actually a great deal of human affection around here—but again, that’s in private, when the cameras aren’t on.”
This, I think, was the saddest statement he made. To know that behind the scenes the men and women of the senate can speak to each other respectfully and maybe even agree on some things, but when the cameras turn on the gloves come off?
It’s what leads to gridlock. I’ve always gotten so frustrated when a bill comes to the floor that is almost entirely agreeable, but one provision becomes controversial and the entire bill is tanked. That one provision can never be removed or altered to make the bill palatable to everyone—no, the controversy and the headlines that generates is more important.
“Each of us has an obligation to be able to answer our constituents’ question: why doesn’t the Congress work? And what is your plan for fixing the Senate in particular?” Sasse said. “And if your only answer is that the other party is fully to blame, then we don’t get it, and the American people understandably think that we are part of the problem, not the solution.”
With Americans more politically polarized than ever, it’s looking less and less like true bipartisanship will ever be possible again. Politicians appear to be more concerned with soundbites that make their opponents look bad than actually creating substantive policies.
Part of it comes from the desire to “do something” whenever an alleged national crisis arises. Politicians of both sides seek to score political points by passing a bill that would solve an alleged problem, yet rarely consider the consequences of such a bill.
Take the gun control debate. Any time there’s a mass shooting, senators and congressmen preach about “commonsense gun laws” that need to pass. What’s never mentioned is that those “commonsense” laws are already on the books and wouldn’t have stopped the tragedy the politicians are responding to in the first place. There’s no honesty in the debate anymore.
Mr. Sasse’s maiden speech was nothing new. Politicians and pundits have been harping on the adversarial nature of Congress for decades. But we’ve reached a point were nothing gets done, and what is getting done isn’t helpful. I’m all for Congress doing less (we don’t need thousands of new laws a year), but it needs to make sure that what it is doing is actually helping the country.
And that can’t happen if the men and women of Congress are more concerned in playing for the cameras than doing something good for the country.