Our country needs a United States Senate to work across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues, creating laws that most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept.
In the 1930s we needed a Senate to create Social Security. After World War II the United Nations, in the 60s Medicare, in 1978 to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty.
In 2013, more recently, to tie interest rates for student loans, to the market rates, saving student borrowers hundreds of billions of dollars in the last several years.
In 2015, to fix No Child Left Behind. That bill had 100 alligators in the swamp. The Wall Street Journal said when we finished that it was the largest devolution of power from Washington to the states in 25 years. When President Obama signed it, he said it was a “Christmas miracle” because in the end 85 senators voted for it.
In 2016, as Senator McConnell mentioned, the 21st Century Cures Act, moving medical miracles faster into patients’ cabinets and doctor’s offices. That bill went off to track every two or three days. On one of those days I called the Vice President, Joe Biden, and I said “Joe, I’m stuck in the White House. I’ve got the president’s personalized medicine in this. I’ve got your cancer moonshot, Senator McConnell’s regenerative medicine proposal, Speaker Ryan worked out a way to pay for it. But I can’t get the White House to move. I feel like the butler standing outside the Oval Office with a silver platter and nobody will open the door and take the order.” And Joe Biden said, “If you want to feel like the butler, try being Vice President.”
Well, in the next few weeks, the Senate rules literally forced us to come to an agreement, and in the end we almost all voted for it. Senator McConnell said then as he said today, it was the most important legislation of that Congress. And today it is helping to create vaccines and treatments in record times.
And most of them were enacted during divided government, when the presidency and at least one body of Congress was of different political parties. That offers an opportunity to share the responsibility, or the blame, for doing hard things, like controlling the federal debt.
That’s why our country needs a United States Senate, to thoughtfully and carefully and intentionally put country before partisanship and personal politics to force broad agreements on controversial issues that become laws that most of us will vote for and that a diverse country will accept.
More than ever, our country needs a United States Senate to turn “pluribus” into “unum,” to lead the American struggle to forge unity from diversity.
Now, some advocate operating the Senate in a different way. End the filibuster. The Senate’s best-known tradition.
Presidents would like that. They’ve said so. They would get their way more easily if we allowed the passions to roar through the Senate like they roar through the House of Representatives.
So if the Democrats are in charge, we could abolish every Right to Work law, repeal all limits on abortion, and pass restrictions on guns. Very appealing — for the moment.
But what about if the train roars in the other direction? And Republicans say let’s impose a Right to Work law on every state, and pro-life laws, and gun rights laws.
Is such back and forth and back and forth what we really want as a country? The framers didn’t think so.
Ending the filibuster would destroy the impetus for forcing the broad agreements I’ve been talking about and it would unleash the tyranny of the majority to steamroll the rights of the minority.
Well, you may say the Senate isn’t solving some big problems, and you would be right. We’re not even voting on some big problems. Sometimes because the majority doesn’t bring it up, and sometimes the minority obstructs.
If a carbon tax is a good idea, why aren’t we voting on it? If we want to help the DACA kids, why aren’t we voting on it? If federal debts are out of control, why aren’t we voting on it?
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works in a body of 100 that operates mostly by unanimous consent.
So the Senate doesn’t need a change of rules. It needs a change of behavior.
And the behavior to change first is to stop blocking each other’s amendments. If you’re against it, vote no. Why stop the entire body from even considering it?
Invariably a teacher will ask a senator, “What would you like for us to take back to our students about being a United States Senator?”
My reply is always the same: please suggest to your students that they look at Washington, D.C., as if it were a split-screen television. On one side are the confirmation hearings and the tweets. And on the other side you have Democratic and Republican Senators working together to strengthen national defense, national laboratories, national parks and the National Institutes of Health.
Please remind them of what a remarkable country this is. The strongest military, the best universities, producing 20% of all the money in the world for just 4% of the people.
Tell them we’re not perfect, but as our constitution says, we’re always working to form a more perfect union. Please remind your students that the rest of the world wishes they had our system of government and that the United States Senate has been and I hope continues to be, the single most important institution that helps to unify our country by creating broad agreements that most of us can vote for and that the citizens of the United States will accept.
And finally, please tell them that I wake up every day thinking I might be able to do something good to help our country, and that I go to bed most nights thinking that I have.
Please tell them that it’s a great privilege to be a United States Senator.
Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.