CongressHouse FloorSenate Floor • U.S. Capitol: 202-224-3121

November 6, 2015

Senator Ben Sasse's Inaugural Address

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

The Senator from Nebraska is recognized for his inaugural address.

Senate Culture

Mr. SASSE. Mr. President, I rise to speak from the floor for the first time. I have never been in politics before, and I intentionally waited to speak here.

I wish to talk about the historic purposes and uses of the Senate, about the decades-long decline of the legislature relative to the executive branch, and about what baby steps toward institutional recovery might look like.

Before doing so, let me explain briefly why I chose to wait a year since election day before beginning to fully engage in floor debate. I have done two things in my adult work life. I am a historian by training and a strategy guy by vocation. Before becoming a college president, I helped over a dozen organizations through some very ugly strategic crises, and one important lesson I have learned again and again when you walk into any broken organization is that there is a very delicate balance between expressing human empathy on the one hand and not becoming willing to passively sweep hard truths under the rug on the other. It is essential to listen first, to ask questions first, and to learn how a broken institution got to where it is because there are reasons. People very rarely try to break special institutions that they inherit. Things fray and break for reasons.

Still, empathy cannot change the reality that a bankrupt company is costing more to produce its products than customers are willing to pay for them, that a college that has too few students is out not only of money but out of spirit. This is the two-part posture I have tried to adopt during my rookie year here. Because of this goal of empathetic listening first and interviewing first and because of a pledge I made to Nebraskans--in deference to an old Senate decision--last year I have waited.

Please do not misunderstand. Do not confuse a deliberate approach with passivity. I ran because I think the public is right that we are not confronting the generational challenges we face. We do not have a foreign policy strategy for the age of jihad and cyber war, and our entitlement budgeting is entirely fake. We are entering an age where work and jobs will be more fundamentally disrupted than at any point in human history since hunter-gatherers first settled in agrarian villages, and yet we do not have many plans. I think the public is right that the Congress is not adequately shepherding our Nation into the serious debates we should be having about the future of this great Nation.

I will outline the key observations from my interviews with many of my Senate colleagues in summary form on another day, but for now let me flag just the painful top-line takeaway. I don't think anyone in this body truly believes we are laser-focused on the greatest challenges our Nation faces--no one. Some of us lament this fact, some of us are angered by this fact, some of us are resigned to it, some try to dispassionately explain how we got to the place where we are, but I don't think anyone actually disputes it.

If I can be brutally honest for a moment, I am home basically every weekend, and what I hear every weekend, I think, are most of the same things most all of my colleagues hear every weekend, which is some version of this: a pox on both parties and all of your houses. We don't believe that the politicians are even trying to solve the great problems we face--the generational problems.

To the Republicans, those of us who would claim that the new majority is leading the way, few people believe it. To the grandstanders who would try to use this institution chiefly just as a platform for outside pursuits, few believe that the country's needs are as important to you as your own ambitions.

To the Democrats who did this body great harm through nuclear tactics, few believe that bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing.

Who among us doubts that many--both on the right and on the left--are now salivating for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all.

Why is this? Because we are not doing our job. We are not doing the primary things that the people sent us here to do. We are not tackling the great national problems that worry our bosses at home. I therefore propose a thought experiment. If the Senate isn't going to be the venue for addressing our biggest national problems, where should we tell people that venue is? Where should they look for long-term national prioritization if it doesn't happen on this floor? To ask it more directly of ourselves, Would anything really be lost if the Senate didn't exist?

To be clear, this is a thought experiment, and I think that many great things would be lost if the Senate didn't exist, if our Federal Government didn't have the benefit of this body, but game out with me the question of why. What precisely would be lost if we only had a House of Representatives, a simple majoritarian body instead of both bodies? The growth of the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, is increasingly hollowing out the Senate and the entire article I branch, the legislature. Oddly, many in the Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers. Would anything really be lost if we doubled down on Woodrow Wilson's obsession and inclination toward greater efficiency in government, his desire to remove more of the clunkiness of the legislative process? What would be lost? We could approach this thought experiment from the inside out and ask: What is unique about the Senate? What can this body do particularly well? What are the essential characteristics of just this place, which has often been called the gem of the Founders' structure. What was the Senate built for?

Let's consider its attributes.

We have 6-year terms, not 2-year terms, and the Founders actually deliberated about whether Senators should have lifetime appointments. We have proportional representation of States, not of census counts, reflecting a Federalist concern that we would always maintain a distinction between perhaps agreeing that government has a responsibility to address certain problems and yet guarding against a routinized assumption that only a centralized, nationalized, one-size- fits-all government could tackle X or Y.

Third, we have rules designed to empower individual Senators, not to the end of obstruction but for the purpose of ensuring full debate and engagement with dissenting points of views, for the Founders didn't share Wilson's concern with governmental efficiency, they were preoccupied with protecting minority rights and culturally unpopular views in this big and diverse Nation.

Fourth, we didn't even have any rules in this body that recognized political parties until the 1970s. There was merely an early 20th century convention that gave right of first recognition in floor debate to the leaders of the two largest voting blocks. We have explicit constitutional duties related to providing the Executive with advice--it is a pretty nebulous thing--about building his or her human capital team and about the long-term foreign policy trajectory of this Nation.

Six-year terms, representation of States, not census counts, nearly limitless debate to protect dissenting views, almost no formal rules for political parties, what does all this add up to? What is the best answer to the question, What is the Senate for?

Probably the best shorthand is this: to shield lawmakers from obsession with short-term popularity so we can focus on the biggest long-term challenges we face.

Why does the Senate's character matter? Precisely because the Senate is built to insulate us from “short-termism.” That is the point of the Senate. This is a place built to insulate us from opinion fads and from the bickering of 24-hour news cycles. That is the point of the Senate. The Senate is a place to focus on the biggest stuff. The Senate was built to be the antidote to sound bites.

I have asked many of you what you think is wrong with the Senate. What is wrong with us? As in most struggling organizations, in private it is amazing how much common agreement there actually is. There is so much common agreement about what around here incentivizes short-term thinking and behavior over long-term thinking, behaving, and planning.

The incessant fundraising, the ubiquity of cameras everywhere that we talk, the normalization over the last decade of using many Senate rules as just shirts-and-skins exercises, the constant travel--again, fundraising--meaning, sadly, many families around here get ripped up. That is one of the things we hear about most in private in this body. This is not to suggest that there is unanimity among you in these private conversations.

The divergence is actually most pronounced at the question of what comes next and whether permanent institutional decline is inevitable in this body. Some of you are hopeful for a recovery of a vibrant institutional culture, but I think the majority of you, from my conversations, are pessimistic. The most common framing of this question or this worry is this: OK. So maybe this isn't the high moment in the history of the Senate, but isn't the dysfunction in here merely an echo of the broader political polarization out there? It is an important question. Isn't the Senate broken merely because of a larger shattered consensus of shared belief across 320 million people in this land? Surely that is part of the story, but there is much more to say.

First, the political polarization beyond Washington is so often overstated. We could talk about the election of 1800, the run-up to the Civil War, the response to Catholic immigration waves at the beginning of the last century, the bloodiest summers of the Civil Rights movement, the experience of troops returning from Vietnam, if you want to mark some really high-water marks of political polarization in American life.

Second, civic disengagement is arguably a much larger problem than political polarization. It isn't so much that most regular folks we run into back home are really locked into predictably Republican and predictably Democratic positions on every issue, it is that they tuned us out altogether. Despite the echo chambers of those of us who have these jobs, are we aware that according to the Pew Research Center, the 24-hour viewership of CNN, FOX, and MSNBC is about 2 million. That is it.

Third, one of our jobs is to flesh out competing views with such seriousness and respect that we, the 100 of us, should be mitigating, not exacerbating, the polarization that does exist. This is one of the reasons we have a representative rather than a direct democracy.

Fourth, surveys reveal that the public is actually much more dissatisfied with us than they are even scared about the intractability of the big problems we face. Consider the contrast. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the country think the Nation is on a bad track; that the experiences of their kids and grandkids will be less than the experience of their parents and grandparents. That is bad. Consider this: Only 1-in-10 of them is comforted that we are here doing these jobs.

Let's be very clear what this means. If the American people were actually given a choice to decide whether to fire all 100 of us and all 535 people in the Congress, do any of us doubt at all what they would do?

There are good and bad reasons to be unpopular. A good reason would be to suffer for waging an honorable fight for the long term that has near-term political downsides, like telling seniors the truth that the amount they have paid in for Social Security and Medicare is far less than they think and far less than they are currently receiving. That would be a good reason to be unpopular, but deep down we all know the real reason the political class is unpopular is not because of our relentless truth-telling but because of politicians' habit of regularized pandering to those who most easily already agree with us.

The sound-bite culture, whether in our standups for 90-second TV in the Russell rotunda or our press releases or what we all experienced on our campaigns--both for and against--the sound-bite culture is everywhere around us. We understand that, but do we also understand and affirm in this body that this place was built expressly to combat that kind of reductionism, that short-termism?

The Senate is a word with two meanings. It is the 100 of us as a community, as a group, as a body--that is an important metaphor--and it is this room. This is the Chamber where we assemble supposedly to debate the really big things. What happens in this Chamber now is what is most disheartening to a newbie like me. As our constituents know, something is awry here. We, in recent decades--again, this is a body and not just us but what we have inherited--have allowed short-termism and the sound-bite culture to invade this Chamber and to reduce so many of our debates to fact-free zones.

I mentioned that I have done two kinds of work before coming here. I was a historian/college president and crisis turnaround guy. Although they sound very different, they actually have a lot of similarities because they are both driven by a kind of deliberation, a Socratic speech.

Good history is good storytelling, and good storytelling demands empathy. It requires understanding different actors, differing motivations, and competing goals. Reducing everything immediately to good versus evil is bad history--not only because it isn't true and because it is unpersuasive but because it is really boring. Good history, on the other hand, demands that one be able to talk Socratically so you can present alternate viewpoints, not straw-man arguments, and explain how people got to where they are.

Similarly, can you imagine a business strategist who presents just one idea and immediately announces that it is the only right idea, the only plausible idea, and every other idea is both stupid and wicked? How would companies respond to such a strategist? They would fire him. A good strategist, by contrast, puts the best construction on a whole range of scenarios, outlines the best criticisms of each option, especially including the option you plan to argue for most passionately, and then you assume that your competitors will upgrade their game in response to your opening moves. This is a kind of Socratic speech. But bizarrely, we don't do that very much around here. We don't have many actual debates.

This is a place that would be difficult today to describe as the greatest deliberative body in the world, something that was true through much of our history. Socrates said it is 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 a bizarre politician speech. We hear the robotic recitation of talking points.

Well, guess what. Normal people don't talk like this. They don't like that we do, and more important than whether or not they like us, they don't trust our government because we do [talk like this].

It is weird, because one-on-one, when the cameras are off, hardly anyone around here really thinks the Senators from the other party are evil or stupid or bribed. There is actually a great deal of human affection around here, but again, it is private, when the cameras aren't on.

Perhaps I should pause and acknowledge that I am really uncomfortable with this as an opening speech. It is awkward, and I recognize that talking honestly about the recovery of more honest Socratic debate runs the risk of being written off as being overly romantic and naively idealistic. To add to the discomfort, I am brand new to politics, 99th in seniority, and occasionally mistaken for a page. But talking bluntly about what is not working in the Senate in recent decades--not just this year or last year--but talking bluntly about what is not working around here is not naive idealism; it is aspirational realism. Here is why. I think that a cultural recovery inside this body is a partial prerequisite for a national recovery.

I don't think that generational problems such as the absence of a long-term strategy for combatting jihad and cyber war, such as telling the truth about entitlement overpromising, and such as developing new human capital and job retraining strategies for an era of much more rapid job change than our Nation has ever known--I don't think that long-term problems such as these are solvable without a functioning Senate. And a functioning Senate is a place that rejects short-termism, both in substance and in tone.

The Senate has always had problems. This is a body made up of sinful human beings, but we haven't always had today's problems. There have been glorious high points in the Senate. There have been times when this place has flourished, and I believe a healthier Senate is possible again. But it will require models and guides.

To that end, I have been reflecting on three towering figures over the last half-century who used this floor quite differently than we usually use it today, and who thereby have much to teach us. Before naming them, let me clarify my purpose. I don't think there is a magic bullet to the restoration of the Senate. My purpose in speaking today is really just to move into public conversations I have been having with lots of you in private as I try to define a personal strategy for how to use the floor. I want advice, and I am opening a conversation on how to contribute to the broader theme. There are many of you here who want an upgrading of our debate, of the culture, of the prioritization, and of our seriousness of what are truly the biggest long-term challenges we face.

Two weeks ago, in a discussion with one of you about these problems, I was asked: So you are going to admit our institutional brokenness and issue a call for more civility? No. While I am in favor of more civility, my actual call here is for more substance. This is not a call for less fighting. This is a call for more meaningful fighting. This is a call for bringing our A game to the biggest debates about the biggest issues facing our people and with much less regard for 24-month election cycles and 24-hour news cycles. This is a call to be for things that are big enough that you might risk your reelection over.

So let's name the three folks who have something on which to instruct us because they brought a larger approach to the floor.

First, I sit quite intentionally at Daniel Patrick Moynihan's desk. The New Yorker who cast a big shadow around here for a quarter century famously cautioned that each of us is entitled to our own opinions, but we are most certainly not entitled to our own set of facts. He read social science prolifically and sought constantly to bring data to bear on the debates in this Chamber. Like any genuinely curious person, he asked a lot of questions. So you couldn't automatically know what policy he might ultimately advocate for because he asked hard questions of everyone. He had the capacity to surprise people. We should do that.

Second, in a time when circling partisan wagons and castigating the opposing party feels reflexively easy, we can all benefit from reading again Margaret Chase Smith's heroic “Declaration of Conscience” speech on this floor in June of 1950. The junior Senator from Maine was a committed anti-Communist. She was also called the first female cold warrior in the Nation. For her, that meant not knee-jerk opposition to competing views but rather the full-throated defense of what she called “Americanism.” She defined it as “the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; and the right of independent thought.” Senator Smith was rightly worried about Alger Hiss and the infiltration of the State Department by actual Communist spies. This was actually happening. So for her, grandstanding and lazy character smearing were not only dishonest, they were distracting and therefore inherently dangerous. Thus, the freshman Senator--at this point she was the only woman in the body--came to the floor to demand publicly what she repeatedly sought unsuccessfully in private from Joe McCarthy. Was there any evidence for all of these scandalous claims? Think of that. As a committed truth-teller, she was willing to challenge someone not just in her own party but someone with whom she had lots of ideological alignment. She wanted to reject straw-man arguments and disingenuous attacks. Because of that moment, 4 years later the Senate would censure McCarthy and banish McCarthyist tactics from this floor.

Finally, and for my purposes today most importantly, I would like us to recall Robert Byrd, one of the larger figures in the two-and-a-half- century history of this body. As a historian, I have long been a student of the West Virginian, troubled though he was.

We sometimes conceive of our role today here as merely policy advocates--as those who argue for our respective party's position on short-term policy fights, and that is sometimes important, but that is only one of our roles, for we don't have a parliamentary system and we don't have one on purpose. With Moynihan and Margaret Chase Smith, we also need to contextualize our debates about our largest national challenges with facts and data. We need to agree on what problems we are trying to solve before we bicker about which programs would be more or less effective toward those ends. We need to challenge those in our own party not to construct straw-men arguments with those we are debating. But there is something else we need as well.

Beyond policy advocating and policy clarifying, we need an overarching shared narrative of what America means. We need to pause to regularly recall the larger American principles that bind us together--our constitutional creed, our shared stories, and our exceptional American commitment to a dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all 320 million of our country men and women.

We all know in our marriages that sometimes the only way around a small disagreement is to pause to embrace again our larger shared commitments and our history. We need more of that here. We need to be able to more often agree on some big things before we get to the work of honorably disagreeing about smaller things.

One of the important legacies of Senator Byrd--and again this is no commentary on other aspects of his messy past--but one of the important legacies of Senator Byrd is that he forced this Senate to grapple with our history, with the 100 of our specific duties, and with the unique place in the architecture of Madisonian separation of powers that this body and this body alone sets.

To return to our thought experiment, do we think the Founders would have regarded a 9-percent congressional approval rating--a stunning level of distrust in representative government--do we think they would have regarded that as an existential crisis? Is it conceivable we can get away with just drifting along like this or must we fix it? Count me emphatically among those who think we need to fix it. We should not be OK with this.

If we are going to restore this place, part of it will center on recovering the executive-legislative distinction. The American people should be demanding more of us as legislators, and they should be demanding more of the next President as a competent administrator of the laws that we pass. This is possible only if we again recover a sense of our identity that has some connection not just to Republican and Democrat but to the Constitution's article I legislative duties and some tension on purpose with the duties of the article II executive branch. Everything cannot be simply Republican versus Democrat. We need Democrats who will stand up to a Democratic President who exceeds his or her power, and I promise you that I plan to speak up the next time a President of my party seeks to exceed his or her legitimate constitutional powers.

Despite all of his other failings, Robert Byrd labored hard to mark these nonpartisan lines, and we should too. To that end, in the coming months I plan a series of floor speeches on the historic growth of the administrative state. This will not be a partisan effort. It will not be a Republican Senator criticizing the current administration because it is Democratic. Rather, it will be a constructive attempt to try to understand how we got to the place where so much legislating now happens inside the executive branch. Our Founders wouldn't be able to make sense of the system we are living right now.

This kind of executive overreach came about partly because of a symbiotic legislative underreach. Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for grabbing more power when they have the Presidency. Republicans and Democrats are both to blame in this legislature for not wanting to take on hard issues and to lead through hard votes but rather to sit back and let successive Presidents gobble up more and more power. We can and we must do better than this.

A century-long look at the growth of executive branch legislating over the next many months will be an attempt to contribute to the efforts of all here, both Republicans and Democrats, who want to see the Senate recover some of its authorities and to recover some of its trustworthiness in the eyes of the people for whom we work.

Each of us has an obligation to be able to answer this question: Why doesn't Congress work and what is your plan for fixing the Senate? If your only answer to this question is to blame the other party, then you don't get it, and the American people think you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This institution wasn't built for the two political parties, and this institution wasn't built just to advocate policy X versus new policy Y for next month. We must serve as a forum for helping our Nation understand and navigate the hardest generational debates before us. Our ways of speaking should mitigate, not exacerbate, the polarization that does exist. As was well said around here last week:
We will not always agree--not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated . . . [for] I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to greater charity among us.
Again, saying that we should be reducing polarization doesn't mean we should be watering down our convictions. I mean quite the contrary. We do not need fewer conviction politicians around here; we need more. We don't need more compromising of principles; we need a clearer articulation and understanding of the competing principles so that we can actually make things work better and not merely paper over the deficits of vision that everyone in the country knows exist.

We should be bored by lazy politician speech. We should be bored by knee-jerk certainties on every small issue. We should primarily be doing the harder work of trying to understand competing positions on the larger issues.

Good teachers don't shut down debate; they try to model Socratic seriousness by putting the best construction on their arguments, even and especially to those on which they don't agree. Our goal should not be to attack straw men but rather to strengthen and clarify meaningful contests of ideas for the American people.

Representative government will require civic reengagement. Our people need to know that we in this body are up to the task of leading during a time of nearly universal angst about whether this Nation is on a path of decline.

A 6-year term is a terrible thing to waste. A 2-year term requires hamster-wheel frenzy; our jobs do not. I think we can do better, and I pledge to work with all of those who want to figure out how.

Thank you, Mr. President.
(Applause, Senators rising.)

The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Lankford). The majority leader.

Congratulating Senator Sasse

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I would like to congratulate our new colleague, Senator Sasse. There was a good deal of suspense attached to wondering what the junior Senator from Nebraska would have to say, as he chose to wait until the end of the year and to listen and begin to study the institution. I expect most people would not have predicted that the best lesson we were to hear about what is wrong with the Senate and what needs to change would come from somebody who just got here.

I think the fact that there were so many Senators on the floor to listen was a tribute to the great work the Senator has done here and the study he has put into this institution and what needs to be done on all of our parts to make it work better.

On behalf of all of the Senate, I congratulate the junior Senator from Nebraska on an extraordinary maiden speech.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Tennessee.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, that was a wise speech. It was a speech that made me think of the comment someone once said--that the Senate was the one authentic piece of genius in the American political system. What Senator Sasse has done is put fresh eyes on a subject, and sometimes fresh eyes are the best eyes.

What he has reminded us is to remember what a privilege it is to serve here and that if we are temporarily entrusted with the responsibility and opportunity to give real meaning to the idea that this is the one authentic piece of genius in the American political system, we have some work to do.

I am delighted he is here. I am delighted he took the time to wait, study, listen, and make his comments. I listened very carefully. I hope every single Member of the Senate did. I pledge to work with him toward the goal he set out. I look forward to serving with him for a long time.

Source: Congressional Record (emphasis and links added)

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