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 Senate works?
A: The plodding or prodding, the slow walking — and I think that's the way our Founders designed the Senate. You had more quick action, you had a direct line to the floor in the House when I was there, because of the Rules Committee. And the majority party, whether it be Republican or Democrat, could get almost anything done in a day or two days.
You couldn’t do that in the Senate because of the procedural roadblocks that have been put up. An example: Even though it has been used rarely, filibusters prevent general legislative flow to the floor, and for that matter, passing. But unless you have a super majority like Democrats do now, you almost can’t get anything done unless it’s bipartisan in the Senate.
If you have 60, or 59 senators of one or other denomination — whether Democrat or Republican — you can pretty well get to 60, because you can get one or two or three of the other party to join up. But if you're sitting on 51 or 52, to get 9 people to change and flop over to get to 60, it’s almost impossible.
That means that real hot legislation coming over the House kind of just sits and simmers — and that's exactly the way the Founders wanted it. They wanted the Senate to be a much more deliberative body. Sometimes it drives me crazy because of the slowness.
I think there ought to be — not a rules committee, but a little more cooperation.
So there’s a lot of frustration with a lot of members on the speed with which we deal with legislation on the floor of the Senate. Even if it comes out of [committee] the process in normal fashion.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
A: The hardest part of working in the Senate is the fact that you have a hundred individuals who could stop anything. One hundred. You've got to get the agreement of a hundred people to proceed. Do you know how hard that is?
Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
A: I had number six in the Contract with America — that was my bill. It was called the Senior Citizens Equity Act. There was an antiquated law that was passed in the '30s that limited what Social Security recipients could earn. You were limited to $11,200. If you took your Social Security at 62, for every dollar you earned you had to pay $3 in taxes. So you were taxed in the 75 percent rate.
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And if you were 65, if you earned over $11,200 in a normal retirement, you had to pay $2 for every dollar you earned over $11,200.
Well, it took us eight years and it took a combination of me being chairman of the Social Security subcommittee and Dennis Hastert being Speaker of the House, to move the bill and move that earnings limit up. It finally got, I think, to $17,000 under Bill Clinton. And he signed the raising up of the earnings limit. And we finally eliminated it under George Bush in '92.
My subcommittee in banking was in charge — and I was chairman of the subcommittee — was in charge of the flood insurance bill that had lapsed. And it was my job to get a new flood insurance bill. And thanks to Paul Sarbanes working with me – he was the ranking member, but was in the minority — and myself, we passed [the bill], thank God, before [Hurricane] Katrina hit. We passed a flood insurance bill.
Now, we’re extending it three months at a time right now. We need to renew that thing ASAP. That gave all the people in the flood plain the ability to buy federal flood insurance.
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: Well, it depends on which committee you’re involved with. The one I enjoyed the least is the chairman of the Finance Committee, because he always is looking down — the current chairman, Senator Baucus — he looks down on all the [Republicans in the committee's minority] that get up and argue against anything that he has proposed or any bill that he has brought up. And the minority views are never really given any opportunity to pass because he gets up and speaks and the Democrats all vote with the chairman of the Finance Committee. So he’s the most difficult.
I have worked with Ben Nelson - he’s on some of my committees with me.
You know who I get along with the best? Jay Rockefeller. And we’re about a hundred percent polar opposites. We get along because we’re neighbors. I think he’s one of the most honorable people to deal with. He gives you his word, it’s his word. We have common interests in coal mining and other things because Kentucky and West Virginia have common interests.
But socially and financially we’re on opposite pages. But we have a close friendship.
He’s also a baseball nut, which gives us a mutual interest. He’s a crazy Atlanta Braves fan. Of course, I’m always on his fanny about the Atlanta Braves: "They’re not going to win this year, they couldn’t win this year, they don’t have a good team.” And he says, “they’re going to win, they’re going to win.”
And it’s good because otherwise I wouldn’t have that kind of a relationship with him.
I get along with Tom Carper, who I served with in the House, really well. When he takes a position, I would take probably the opposite position. But it’s always, I think, an honorable discussion. It isn’t personal.
I have difficulty with Durbin and Schumer. Maybe it’s their personalities; maybe it’s my personality.
Q: During your time as senator who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
A: Ted Stevens was, without a doubt, when he was here. He could get things done. I don’t know how he did it. And I think Daniel Inouye and Thad Cochran are two people that work very closely together and they’re able to get the appropriation process, which is very difficult. I think that they do that very well.
I disliked [Ted Stevens] with a passion when I first got here because he was so gruff and so short and to the point. And it was like, “my way or the highway” kind of thing. And I found out he was just the opposite.
Q: You have on 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: There’s a lot of votes that passed the Senate that I want to take back. I voted no, but it passed [anyway].
Q: What is the state of your political party?
A: Pretty optimistic for being in such a low state as far as elected officials in the Congress — pretty upbeat right now. Maybe it’s because the other party has overreached in their trying to get things done with the majority they have now.
I think they’ve overreached in health care. I think they really, really screwed up in financial regulation — because that's my bag, that's my expertise, that's what I did, you know, for 31 years. And I'm on the finance committee, I'm on the banking committee, so I've seen what should have been done and what was not included in the financial bill. I don’t know how it can succeed.
Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they’ve ever seen. Do you agree?
A: It’s always been partisan. But the reason it’s so partisan now is because of the big, wide separation in numbers. So what else is there to do except to try to stop? We can’ have any input on a bill.
It’s getting so ratcheted up because of the midterms. And I think things are being blown out of proportion one way or the other, both sides. Since I'm not running, I can just sit back and smile.
Q: A couple of months ago, you stood on the floor saying, “I’m not going to allow this unemployment insurance bill to go forward unless it’s paid for.” You were standing there, for the most part, by yourself. But now other Republicans are joining you in that stance. Why the delay?
A: Well, maybe it’s because in my own mind the Democrat majority in the Senate had just passed Pay-As-You Go [rules]. And I let one bill slip by with an emergency designation and they didn't pay for $8 billion. I said, “That's a mistake, you shouldn’t have let that happen.” I said, “If they try it again, you're going to object.” And that's when — that's when I got up and objected.
They just were a little slow to the fact. Maybe it’s because I'm on the budget committee.
And I was dealing with the projected budget that the Obama administration had sent up. And it’s $1.6 trillion out of balance. That's why they didn't even bring the budget to the floor.
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