Senator Mc Connell on State of the Senate CSPAN November 9, 2014 2:30pm-3:13pm EST
headlines about gridlock and dysfunction in washington, the truth is an activist president and a democratic controlled senate have managed to check off an awful lot of items on their wish list one way or another. and yet just as important as what they did, my colleagues, is how they did it. because that's also been at the heart of so many of the fights we've had around here over the past few years. now, these conflicts haven't stemmed have personal grievances or contempt as some would have it. they are, instead, the inevitable consequence of an
administration that was in such a hurry, such a hurry, to impose its agenda that it neglected to persuade the public of its wisdom and then cast aside one of the greatest tools, one of the greatest tools we have in this country for guaranteeing a durable and stable legislative consensus, and that tool is the united states senate. remember -- i think we all know partnership is not some recent innovation here, invention. american politics has always been more or less divided between two ideological camps. today, that's reflected in the two major parties but it's actually always been there. on one side are those who proudly place their trust in government and its agents to
guide our institutions and direct our lives. on the other are those of us who put our trust in the wisdom and the creativity -- creativity of private citizens working voluntarily with each other and through more local mediating institutions guided by their own sense of what is right, what is fair, and what is good. now, recent polling suggests, by the way, that most americans fall squarely into the latter camp. people are generally confident in their local governments but lack confidence in washington. and yet despite -- despite the political and ideological divides which have always existed in our country, we'ves almost always managed to work out our differences not by
humiliating the other side into submission but through simple give and take. it is the secret of our success. the same virtues that make any friendship or marriage or family or business work are the ones that have always made this country work. and the place where it happens, the place where all the national conflicts and controversies that arise in big -- in this big, diverse, wonderful country of ours have always been resolved, always been resolved right here in this chamber. right here. now, i realize it may not be
immediately obvious why that's the case. but the fact is every serious student of this institution from de tocqueville to our late colleague robert byrd has seen the senate as uniquely important to america's stability and to its flourishing. in their view, it's made all the difference. and here's why: because whether it was the fierce early battles over the shape and scope of the federal government, or those that surrounded industrialization or those that preceded and followed the nation-rending civil war, or those surrounding the great wars of the 20th century or the expansion of the franchise or decades long, or the war on terror, we have always, always found a way forward.
sometimes haltingly, but always steadily. and the senate is the tool that has enabled us to find our footing almost every time. i mention this because as we begin a new year, i think it's appropriate to step back from all the policy debates that have occupied us over the past few years and focus on another debate we've been having around here and the debate we've been having around here is over the state of this institution. what have we become? it's not a debate that ever caught fire with the public or with the press. but it's a debate that should be of grave importance to all of us. because on some level, on some level, every single one of us
has to be at least a little bit uneasy about what happened here last november. but even if you're completely at peace about what happened in november, even if you think it was perfectly fine, to violate the all-important rules that says changing the rules requires the assent of two-thirds of senators elected and sworn, none of us should be happy with the trajectory the senate was on before that day, even before november. or the condition that we find the senate in 225 years after it was created. i don't think anybody is comfortable with where we are. i know i'm not. and i'll bet even though there is nobody here at the moment, i'll bet almost none of them
are, either. so i'd like to share a few thoughts on what i think we've lost over the last sench years -- seven years and what i think can be done about it together. now, together obviously requires the involvement, you would think, of some people on the other side of the aisle. and even though they're not hear to listen, they have been invited. so let me state at the outset, it's not my intention to point the finger of blame at anybody. though some of that is inevitable, i don't presume to have all the answers, either, and i'm certainly not here to claim that we are without fault. but i'm certain of one thing. i'm absolutely certain of one
thing. the senate can be better than it is. many of us around here have seen a better senate than we have now. no matter who was in the majority. this institution can be better than it is. and i just can't believe that on some level everyone in this chamber, including the folks on the other side, doesn't agree. it just can't be the case that we're content with the theatrics and the messaging wars that go on here day after day. it just can't be the case that senators who grew up reading about the great statesman who made their name and their mark here over the years are now suddenly content to just stand in front of a giant poster board making some poll-tested point of
the month day after day after day. and then run back to our respective corners and congratulate each other on how right we are. i just can't believe we're all happy with that. on either side. don't misunderstand me. there's a time for making a political point, even scoring a few points. i know that as well as anybody. but it can't be the only thing we do here. i mean surely we do something other than scoring political points against each other. it cheapens the service we've sworn to provide to our constituents. it cheapens the senate. which is a lot bigger than any of us. so hopefully we can all agree that we got a problem here. now, i realize both sides have their own favored account of what caused it.
we've got our talking points, they've got their talking points. we all repeat them with great repetition and we all congratulate each other for being on the right side of the debate. look, i get that. the guys over there think republicans abuse the rules, and we think they do. but as i said, my goal here isn't to make converts on that front. my purpose is to suggest that the senate can do better than it has been and that we must be if we're to remain as a great nation. and i think the crucial first step of any vision that gets us there is to recognize vigorous debate about our differences isn't some sickness to be lamented.
vigorous debate is not a problem. when did that become a problem? it's actually a sign of strength to have vigorous debates. you know, it's a common refrain among pundits that the fights we have around here are pointless. they're not at all pointless. every single debate we have around here is about something important. what's unhealthy is when we neglect the means that we've always used to resolve our differences. that's the real threat to this country o, not more debate. when did that become a problem? and the best mechanism we have for working through our differences and arriving at a durable consensus is the united states senate. an executive order can't do it.
the fiat of a nine-person court can't do it. a raucous and pregarious partisan majority in the house can't do it. the only institution that can make stable and enduring laws is the one we have in which all 50 states are represented equally and where every single senator has a say in the laws that we pass. this is what the senate was designed for. it is what the senate is supposed to be about. and almost -- almost -- always has been. just take a look at some of the most far-reaching legislation of the past century. look at the vote tallies. medicare and medicaid were both approved with the support of about half the members of the minority. the voting rights act of 1965 passed with the votes of 30 out
of the 32 members of the republican minority. all but two republican senators. there weren't many of them. that was the year after the goldwater debacle. only two senators voted against the social security act and only eight voted against the americans with disabilities act. now, none of this happened, by the way, none of it happened by throwing these bills together in a back room and dropping them on the floor with a stopwatch running. it happened through a laborious process of legislating, persuasion, coalition building. it took time and it took patience and hard work and it guaranteed that every one of these laws had stability. stability. now, compare that -- compare
that, if you will, to the attitude behind obamacare. when democrats couldn't convince any of us that the bill was worth supporting as written, they decided to do it on their own and pass it on a party-line vote and now we're seeing the result. the chaos this law has visited on our country isn't just deeply tragic, it was, my friends, entirely predictable. entirely predictable. and that will always be the case if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side, without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. you guarantee instability and you guarantee strife. it may very well have been the case that on obamacare, the will of the country was not to pass the bill at all. that's what i would have concluded if republicans
couldn't get a single democratic vote for legislation of that magnitude. i'd have thought, well, maybe this isn't such a great idea. but democrats plowed forward anyway. they didn't want to hear it. and the results are clear -- it's a mess. an absolute mess. the senate exists to prevent that kind of thing, because without a moderating institution like the senate, today's majority passes something and tomorrow's majority repeals it. today's majority proposes something. tomorrow's majority opposes it. we see that in the house all the time. but when the senate is allowed to work the way it was designed to, it arrives at a result that's acceptable to people all along the political spectrum.
that, my friends, is the whole point. we've lost our sense for the value of that, and none of us should be at peace with that. because if america is to face up to the challenges we face in the decades ahead, she'll need the senate, th the founders in their wisdom intended, not the hollow shell of the senate we have today. not the hollow shell of the senate we have today. first, one of the traditional hallmarks of the senate is a vigorous committee process. it is also one of the main things we've lost. there was a time not that long ago when chairmen and ranking members had major influence and used their positions to develop national policy on everything from farm policy to nuclear ar
arms. these men and women enriched the entire senate through their focus and their expertise. just as importantly, they provided an important counterweight to the executive branch. they provided one more check on the white house. if a president thought something was a good idea, he'd better make sure he ran it by the committee chairman who'd been studying it for the past two decades. and if the chairman disagreed, well, then they'd have a serious debate and probably reach a better product as a result. the senate should be setting national priorities not simply waiting on the white house to do it for us. and the place to start that process is in the committees. with few exceptions, that's gone. with very few exceptions, that's gone. it's a big loss to the
institution. but most importantly, it's a big loss for the american people who expect us to lead. and here's something else we've gained from a robust committee process over the years. committees have actually served as a school of bipartisanship. and if you think about it, it just makes sense. by the time a bill gets through committee, you would expect it to come out in a form that was a a -- generally, broadly acceptable to both sides. nobody got everything but more often than not, everybody got something. and the product was stable because there was buy-in and a sense of ownership on both sides, and on the rare occasions when that's happened recently, we've seen that work.
the committee process today in the united states senate is a shadow of what it used to be. thereby marginalizing, reducing the influence of every single member of the senate on both sides of the aisle. major legislation is now routinelroutinely drafted not in committee but in the majority leader's conference room and then dropped on the floor with little or no opportunity for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight. now, there's a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. that's the best way to end the
permanent sort of "shirts against skins" contest the senate has become. bills should go through committee. and if republicans are fortunate enough -- republicans are fortunate enough -- to gain the majority next year, that will be done. second, bills should come to the floor and be thoroughly debated. we've got an example of that going on right now. and that includes a robust amendment process. in my view, there's far too much paranoia about the other side around here. what are we afraid of? both sides have taken liberties and abused privileges, i'll admit that, but the answer isn't to provoke even more. the answer is to let folks debate.
this is the senate. let folks debate. let the senate work its will. and that means bringing bills to the floor, it means having a free and open amendment process. that's legislating. that's what we used to do here. that's exactly the way this place operated just a few years ago. the senior senator from illinois, the democratic assistant majority leader, likes to say, or at least used to say, that if you don't want to fight fires, don't become a fireman. and if you don't want to cast tough votes, don't come to the senate. i guess he hasn't said that lately. when we used to be in the majority, i remember telling people, look, the good news, we're in the majority. the bad news is, in order to get the bill across the floor, you've got to cast a lot of votes you don't want to take.
and you know, we did it and people groaned about it, complained about it. the sun still came up the next day. and everybody felt like they were a part of the process. well, senator durbin was right about that when he said it and i think it's time to allow senators on both sides to more fully participate in the legislative process, and that means having a more open amendment process around here. as i said, obviously, it requires you from time to time to cast votes you'd rather not cast. but we're all grownups. i mean, we can take that. there's rarely ever a vote you cast around here that's fatal. and the irony of it all is that kind of process makes the place a lot less contentious.
in fact, it's a lot less contentious when you vote on tough issues than when you don don't. because when you're not allowed to do that, everybody is angry about being denied the opportunity to do what you were sent here to do, which is to represent the people that elected you and to offer ideas that you think are worth considering. we had a meeting we just came out of. senator cornyn was pointing out there were 13 amendments that people on this side of the aisle would like to offer on this bi bill. all of them related to the subject and important to each senator who seriously felt there was a better way to improve the bill that's on the floor right now. but, alas, i expect that opportunity will not be allowed because one person who's allowed to get priority recognition can
prevent us from getting any amendments or, even worse still, pick our amendments for us. to decide which of our amendments are okay and which aren't. i remember the late ted stevens telling the story about when he first got here. senator mansfield was still the majority leader and he tried to offer an amendment, senator stevens did, and the -- a member of the majority who was managing the bill prevented it, in effe effect. and senator mansfield came over to senator stevens, took his amendment, went back to his desk and sent it to the floor for h him. sent it to the floor for him. that was the senate not too long ago. if someone isn't allowed to get
a vote on something they believe in, of course they're going to retaliate. of course they're going to retaliate. but if they get a vote every once in awhile, they don't feel the need to. voting on amendments is good for the senate and it's good for the country. our constituents should have a greater voice in the process. since july of last year, there have been four republican roll call votes. in the whole second half of 20 2013, members on this side of the aisle have gotten four roll call votes. stunning. that's today's senate.
so let me say this. if republicans are fortunate enough to be in the majority next year, amendments will be allowed. senators will be respected. we will not make an attempt to rain controversy out of -- wring controversy out of an institution that expects, demands, approves of great debates about the problems confronting the country. now, a common refrain from democrats is republicans have been too quick to block bills from ever coming to the floor. what they failed to mention, of course, is that often we have done this either because we have been shut out of the drafting process -- in other words, had nothing to do with writing the bill in the first place -- or
it's been made pretty clear that there won't be any amendments, which is in all likelihood the situation we're in this very day. in other words, we already knew the legislation was shaping up to be a purely partisan exercise in which people we represent wouldn't have any meaningful input at all, and why would we want to participate in that? is it good for our constituents? does it lead to a better product? of course not. all it leads to is a lot more acrimony. so look, i get it. if republicans had just won the white house and the house and had a 60-vote majority in the senate, we would be tempted to empty our outbox, too. but you can't spend two years emptying your outbox and then complain about the backlash.
if you want fewer fights, give the other side a say. and that brings me to one of the biggest things we have lost around here as i see it. the big problem, my colleagues, has never been the rules, never been the rules. senators from both parties have in the past revered and defended the rules during our nation's darkest hours. the real problem, the real problem is an attitude that views the senate as an assembly line for one party's partisan legislative agenda, rather than as a place to build consensus to solve national problems. we have become far too focused on making a point instead of making a difference. making a point instead of making good, stable law. we have gotten too comfortable with viewing everything we do
here through the prism of the next election instead of the prism of duty, and everyone suffers as a result. as i see it, a major turning point came during the final years of the bush administration when the democratic majority held vote after vote on bills they knew wouldn't pass. now, look, i'm not saying republicans have never staged a showboat when we were in the majority. i'm not saying i don't even enjoy a good messaging vote from time to time. but you've got to wonder if that's all you're doing why you're here. it's become entirely too routine , and it diminishes the senate. i don't care which party you're in. you came here to legislate, to make a difference for your constituents, yet over the past several years the senate seems more like a campaign studio than
a serious legislative body. both sides have said and done things over the past few years we probably wish we hadn't. but we can, we can improve the way we do business. we can be more constructive, we can work through our differences. we can do things that need to be done, but there will have to be major changes if we're going to get there. the committee process must be restored. we need to have an open amendment process. and finally, let me suggest we need to learn how to put in a decent week's work around here. a decent week's work. you know, most americans don't work three days a week. they would be astonished to find out that that's about it around here.
how about the power of the clock to force consensus? the only way 100 senators will be truly able to have their say, the only way we would be able to work through our tensions and disputes is if we're here more. not too long ago -- and a number of you will remember this -- when thursday night was the main event around here. remember that? thursday night was the main event. and there is a huge incentive to finish on thursday night if you want to leave on friday. it was amazing how it worked. even the most eager beaver among us with a long list of amendments that were good for the country, maybe ten or 12, around noon on thursday, you would be down to two or one by midnight on thursday. it was amazing how consent would
be reached when fatigue set in. all it took was for the leader, the majority leader, who is in charge of the agenda, to say look, this is important, there is bipartisan support for this, it came out of committee, we want to have an open amendment process, but we want to finish this week. and we can finish on thursday afternoon or thursday night or friday morning. i mean, we almost never get worn out around here. whatever happened to the fatigue factor to bring things to a close? amendments voluntarily go away. but important ones still got offered. and everybody feels like they have got a chance to be involved in the process, no matter which side of the aisle they are on. this is thick effective on bills that have come out of committee with bipartisan support so there
is an interest actually in passing it. we almost never do that anymore. almost never. on those occasions, we work late, sometimes well into the morning. i know that sounds kind of quaint to people who haven't been around here very long, but it actually worked. and there is nothing wrong with staying up a little later and getting to a conclusion i can remember the majority leader himself when he was whip walking around late at night on thursdays with his whip card, making sure he had enough votes to do whatever he wanted to do. when you finish one of those debates, whether you ended up voting against the bill or for the bill, you didn't have the feeling that unless you chose to go away with your amendment, you would have been denied the
opportunity to participate and to be a part of the process and actually make a difference for your constituents. that's how you reach consensus, by working and talking and cooperating through give and take. that's the way everyone's patience is worn down. not just the majority leader's patience. everyone can agree on a result, even if they don't vote for it in the end. using the clk to force consensus is the greatest proof of that, and if republicans are in the majority next year, we'll use the clock. everybody gets an opportunity, but we use the clock, we will work harder and get results. restoring the committee process, allowing the senators to speak through an open amendment process, extending the workweek are just a few things the senate could and should do differently.
none of it would guarantee an end to partisan rancor. there is nothing wrong with partisan debates. it's good for the country. none of it would cause us to change our principles or our views about what's right and what's wrong with our country. partisanship itself is not the problem. the real problem have been a growing lack of confidence in the senate's ability to mediate the tensions and disputes we have always had around here. there are many reasons some have lost that confidence, and ultimately both parties have to assume some of the blame. but we can't be content to leave it at that. for the good of the country, we need to work together to restore this institution. america's strength and resilience has always depended on our ability to adapt to the various challenges of our day. sometimes that's meant changing the rules when both parties
think it's warranted. and when the majority leader decided a few weeks back to defy bipartisan position -- there was bipartisan opposition to what happened in november by changing the rules that govern this place with a simple majority, he broke something. he broke something. but our response can't be to sit back and accept the demise of the senate. this body has survived mistakes and excesses before, and even after some of its worst period, it's found a way to spring back and to be the place where even the starkest differences and the fiercest ideological disputes are hashed out by consensus and mutual respect. indeed, it's during periods of its greatest polarization that the value of the senate is most clearly seen. so let me wrap it up this way.
you know, we're all familiar with the lyndon johnson reign around here. robert carroll has given us that support in great detail. and some look at l.b.j.'s well-known heavy-handedness as a kind of mastery. that's the way some look at it. personally, i have always believed the leader that replaced him was a better fit for this place, and evidently so did johnson's colleagues who elected mansfield upon johnson's departure with overwhelming enthusiasm. they had had it up to here with l.b.j. they were excited that he was gone. in fact, carroll reports that he tried to come to the first lunch after he became vice president and was going to act as the sort of de facto majority leader even though he was now vice
president. that was, shall i say, unenthusiasticcally received. he was almost thrown out of the lunch, never to return. and mansfield was, as i said, enthusiastically closen to replace him. now, the chronicles of l.b.j.'s life and legacy usually leave out what i just told you, but by the time he left the senate, as i indicated, his colleagues had had enough of him, right up to here. they may have bennet -- bent to his will while he was here, but when they got a chance to be away from his iron-fisted rule, they took it. mike mansfield would restore the senate to a place of greater cooperation and freedom, and as we look at what the senate could
be, not what it is now but could be, mansfield's period gives us a clue. there are many well-known stories about mansfield's fairness and equanimity as leader, but they all seem to come down to one thing and that was his unbending belief that every, every single senator was equal. that was mansfield's operating mode, every single senator was equal. he acted that way on a daily basis, conducted himself in that way on a daily basis. the unbending belief that every senator should be treated as equal. so look, both sides will have to work to get us back to where we should be. it's not going to happen
overnight. we haven't had much practice lately. in fact, we're completely out of practice at doing what i just suggested are the first steps to get us back to normal. but it's a goal that i truly believe we can all agree on and agree to strive toward together, and it takes no rules change. this is a behavioral problem. it doesn't require a rules change. we just need to act differently with each other, respect the committee process, have an open amendment process, work a little harder. none of that requires a rules change. because restoring this institution is the only way we'll ever solve the challenges we face. that's the lesson of history and the lesson of experience.
and we would all be wise to heed it. republican leader mitch mcconnell talks a lot in that speech in january about what would happen if the gop took control of the senate. thanthat happening in less two months, what do you expect to see? >> we expect we will see at least an attempt by senator mcconnell and the republican conference to restore some semblance of regular order to the senate floor proceedings come the beginning of next year. what that means, probably after much wanted political votes and folks that are motivated i things that have been promised to republican voters, a vote on repealing the health care law,
for instance, is that then we are probably going to try and see the senate get into a pattern of moving regular legislation through the committee process, which is almost entirely broken down, and onto the floor with the ability for senators from both democrats and republicans to offer amendments to the legislation that is on the floor with the either being able to thursday night or friday morning advance a bill through to thesee, rather than have set up procedural votes that everyone knows are going to fail and bills failing as a matter of routine that we have seen, particularly in the last couple of years. whether or not that works, it's going to be a tall order. >> the first part of that is the committee process. what will we expect to see here on cspan