About the series: With a sour economy and an increasingly anxious American public, the workings of Washington are inextricably linked to electoral politics headed into this year’s midterms. NBC’s Ken Strickland sat down with nine lawmakers who will depart from the Senate after this year. Together, they represent 158 years of Senate service and offer unique insights into how the Senate works and how it has changed. Read more about the series here.
Q: What things do you think are most misunderstood by the public about being a senator or how Congress works?
A: Let me start with the good. The vast majority of people here are honest, hardworking, decent, publicly-minded people. And I think the public would be very pleasantly surprised if they had a chance to get to know these people as individuals the way I’ve gotten to know them. So that's number one.
You're not in it for the money. They’re in it for the right reasons. Now, they have differences of opinions — my take on the institution is you’ve got a lot of wonderful people trapped in a system that's too often dysfunctional. So I think they’d be pleasantly surprised by the caliber of the people here.
I do think they’d be surprised by the way the caucus system works. I think most people elect us expecting us to come here and be fairly independent and to study the issues, [to] decide what’s right and to vote accordingly.
But when you get here, the pressure by the two caucuses to kind of go along with the “team” is pretty constant. And it’s gotten more so over the years, where any deviancy from party orthodoxy is viewed as an act of betrayal or a lack of moral fiber or something like that. So you not only have the internal pressure from your colleagues, but then you've got the external pressure from the blogosphere and the cable networks and all of that.
And then just the constant political calculations – largely because of the need to raise vast sums of money. Back in my father’s day there was a saying that when you were in the Senate you legislated for four years and you campaigned for two. Now you campaign for six, because if your race is going to cost you $20 or $25 million, you can’t raise that amount of money in two years.
And so if you're constantly raising funds, then political calculations are more often on people’s minds and then that has contributed to just a lack of productivity. And I think that would surprise people.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
A: I’m a former governor and so I was the chief executive, and when the legislature wasn’t in session I was running the state. So with that in my background, you can make a real contribution here, but it tends to be in the areas of your expertise, but in areas not in your expertise it tends to be more at the margins and less frequent.
I find that you can make a bigger contribution, more often than not, as an executive than [as] a legislator. If you are the executive you're probably going to have more of an impact than if you're one of a hundred members of the Senate, certainly one of 435 members of the House.
So I think it’s the executive in me that found it to be a little frustrating, the legislative body. And plus, I’m moderate on things, particularly economic and financial issues. And it’s hard being a moderate these days. You tend to get fired [at] by both sides.
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And the irony of that is I think most of the American people would like their government officials to be more moderate and more independent at a time the system is working against both of those attributes.
Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
A: I've always cared about education and I worked with Senator Schumer on making several thousand dollars of college tuition tax deductible. That will help a lot of your middle class families make college more affordable.
I worked on things to make sure that our military, our soldiers got the equipment they needed in Afghanistan and Iraq, that will literally save lives.
Got some things done to cut property taxes for people who don’t itemize — which may not sound like a big deal, but for middle class families, senior citizens in particular, that can make a big difference.
So I can kind of go down a long list, but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for education and for our soldiers.
Q: Who are the senators from the other side of the aisle with whom you enjoy working the most? Who do you consider a "worthy opponent" in debate?
A: I like a lot of my Republican colleagues, starting with my friend from Indiana, Senator Lugar. We’ve had an excellent relationship. And if more of the senators around here could have the kind of relationship we do, I think the place would be better off.
There’s one of these surveys that came out recently and they compared the voting records of different members and he and I had the voting record most alike of any two senators from the same state, but of different parties. We have similar world views in many ways. And temperamentally we’re very similar — and hopefully collegial people.
I have a very good relationship with Judd Gregg. He cares about fiscal issues, so do I. Our wives have gotten to know each other. He’s a really good guy. Bob Corker I like. Scott Brown I've gotten to know some and I like him. John McCain and I have a good friendship and a great relationship. So there are quite a few.
I should mention Lamar Alexander. He was Secretary of Education with first President Bush, and I’d been a governor. George Voinovich, he and I were governors together all eight years. I'm particularly close to people who have been governors.
Things are very rarely changed through debate on the floor. It’s members who are either highly respected because of their intellect and integrity and therefore their opinion carries great weight; or members who are known for just being tenacious and advocates.
I think Dick Lugar is in that category as someone who’s widely respected and when he speaks people tend to listen. John McCain. Members sometimes they don’t want to get into it with John because they know he’s very forceful and can be a little intimidating sometimes.
Q: During your time as a senator, who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
A: Before he passed, Ted Kennedy would have been one of those people. Teddy was a very effective speaker, really did his homework, had excellent staff. And because of his long tenure, knew the ins and outs of this place and the legislative history of issues. So I think — particularly among Democrats — when Teddy spoke he carried a lot of authority.
There was a caricature in some people’s minds, the Republicans, about Ted being a left wing ideologue. He was a progressive, to be sure. [But] he had a big pragmatic streak, too, and he really wanted to get legislation done. And if it involved compromise, well, he had arrived at a point in his life where he’d rather get half a loaf than none.
So he was a very effective legislator. And Senator Byrd, before he physically began to decline was a very effective legislator, as well.
Phil Gramm was so smart. I mean, obviously he had strong ideological underpinnings, but he was a pretty effective guy standing on the floor and speaking because he’s just very smart about things and carried a lot of weight among Republicans because of that.
I remember [Sens. Kennedy and Gramm, during the impeachment.] They worked out the deal. It passed 100-0. And you couldn't have more polar opposites in terms of ideological point of view. But they knew the country was in a tough spot and it had to be worked out, so they did.
Q: You have one day of your Senate life to live over again and change a professional choice that you made, maybe a vote. Which one is it and why?
A: We now know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We didn't know that at the time. As a matter of fact, there was a strong belief that there weapons of mass destruction, and it was a reasonable belief shared by the intelligence services of every other country. The question [was] what to do about them.
Now that we know there were no weapons there I think many of us would have taken a different position on the decision to invade Iraq. So that's number one.
I am very concerned about the fiscal condition of the country. And although very often I'm the only member of my party voting against budgets or appropriations bills or things of that nature, I wish that maybe I did it a little more vociferous[ly].
It’s hard sometimes to be the skunk at the garden party, but sometimes you have to do that, even if it offends your friends and cuts against the grain of your group.
Q: What is the state of your political party?
A: It’s momentarily very strong. It’s not common for a party to control the White House and both Houses of Congress. But I think that the election this November is going to be a very difficult one for the Democratic Party. I think the Republicans are going to score big gains. And it’s largely because we’ve lost the independents, and that's largely over deficit and debt.
And so there’s a natural tendency for any group, when they’re riding high, to overreach and I think the most progressive elements in the Democratic Party have and are about to be rebuked by the public.
And the irony of that is the cause that gets hurt the most when the liberals overreach is the liberal agenda, because they play into the hands of the conservative Republicans. And it’s an unfortunate fact, but it is a fact. The last election, the base of the Republican Party is just bigger than the base of the Democratic Party by about 10 percent.
The only way progressive Democrats have a role in governing in this country is if they make common cause moderates — otherwise, numerically, it’s just not going to work out. They have not embraced that perspective.
Q: Pundits, experts, even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they’ve ever seen. Do you agree?
A: It’s possible that this is a very partisan time, and yet it’s not the most partisan time. In my lifetime — I kind of grew up around politics — I remember seeing machine gun nests on top of government buildings here in Washington to protect them from demonstrators and that sort of thing. We had demonstrations of a million people — and potentially violent. And people got arrested. They filled up RFK Stadium.
So back in the Vietnam time the country was just deeply divided. I think the racial divisions were worse, the generational divide was worse, the left versus right. God forbid, I remember in 1968 thinking what was happening in the country. We had political assassinations: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. We had the anti-war demonstrators shot at Kent State University. Thank God we don’t have that level of violence today.
So just even in my time things have been worse.
Q: What is it like to be a moderate in the Senate? And what role do they play in politics?
A: The moderates are the key to getting anything done, because most of the time in the Senate you need 60 votes. We’re in a rare moment now where the Democratic Party has close to 60 votes. But usually it’s far short of that and so you have to get four or five or six members of the other party to agree to get anything done.
Which leads to one of two situations: You either get nothing done, which prevails much too often; or you get some genuine compromise. And that tends to happen when you have an emergency of some kind or the costs of inaction are just so apparent that people understand they’ve got to do it.
The irony is I think the majority of Americans would like pragmatists, problem-solvers, people who aren’t excessively partisan or ideological — you might call people like that moderates. But the political process is not electing so many of those people, and there are reasons for that.
In the House of Representatives it’s because of the gerrymandering, most of the races there are decided in the party primaries and so you tend to get people who reflect the bases of the two parties because they don’t want to be challenged in the primary.
It may be an oxymoron, the notion of passionate moderates, but that's really what we need. The people who are more independent, more moderate, who say “enough of these extremes, we’re going to take the country back and vote with the major party that seems to be more willing to compromise and to do the right thing.”
It’s hard on a interpersonal basis to stand up in these caucuses with 58 of your colleagues and express a point of view that 49 of them think is not right. That's hard to consistently do that. But it’s necessary for them to hear it. I suspect that most of the time they don’t really care what you think, but if they need your vote then they’ve got to give you something.
It’s hard to express your point of view and then, one after the other, hear people say, “Well, that's not right,” or “That's wrong.”
And then politically it’s also somewhat dangerous because you get attacked from both the left and the right. We’re just at a difficult period now for that. But we’ve seen difficult periods before.
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