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 the Senate works?
A: I think every senator would tell you that they’re asked the questions, “Do you have a limousine? Are you driven back and forth to work in a limousine?” People’s notion of the life of a senator is vastly different than what it is. Most of us spend a fair amount of time eating sandwiches, sometimes walking eating sandwiches, as opposed to a fancy luncheon someplace.
What most people don’t see is 30, 35, in some cases a bit more, weekends per year that you spend traveling to your state, or if you have a big state, traveling around the state all weekend, and then climbing on an airplane to come back here. That means you're, in most cases, working seven days a week.
I think most people don’t understand that it’s just really hard work. It requires a real commitment of time and dedication. And the only reason you would do it is because you love to do it. Otherwise, you would not possibly want to do something like this.
So I think there’s a misunderstanding about the life. Obviously, I have a nice office and there are a lot of other wonderful things – but [it’s] a lot of work and a lot of dedication.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
A: I think traveling. The travel wears on you because you do a lot of traveling, literally millions of miles of traveling. And the travel here is airplanes back and forth. The travel [in the home state] is in vans and small planes and so on, going place to place.
The other thing is it’s difficult on families because it’s not only the senator that serves, that man or woman who serves in the Senate, but their families that have sacrifices as well. It’s public service. I've been in statewide public office since age 26, so I've been doing this a long time in the state capitol and the U.S. House and the Senate. And it’s a great privilege. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, but there are sacrifices to do it and the families play a significant role in their sacrifices.
I think the Senate is a great place, I'm proud to serve here. But I jokingly call it “100 bad habits” because every single senator has their own prerogative to say two words: “I object.” And either slow the process down or stop the process.
Previously there was I think more courtesy and also more of an understanding that in order to make things work you should fight for the things you want, but you also have to reach some common ground someplace. And I think some of that is gone because I think now there’s the growth of the bleacher section on radio and television, and some of this game is played to either please or avoid causing problems with the bleacher section.
Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
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A: I think there’s just so many. One of the things I’m proud of, although I'm not proud of the circumstance under which it occurred — but in 1999 my exact quote on the floor of the Senate was that “if you pass this legislation within a decade you're going to see massive tax payer bailouts.”
And that was about passing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill that took down the protections of Glass-Steagall and others. It turns out — not knowing it before that date — I was exactly right: a decade later, the most significant bailouts in the history of our country.
Back then I was one of only eight that voted against that, but I’m proud that I stood my ground and felt strongly about things and didn't care whether I was part of a such a very small minority. I predicted what was going to happen and it happened, regrettably.
I chair the Indian affairs committee. This year we passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. I was at the bill signing at the White House for the Tribal Law and Order Act, I wrote that. And those are the two [of the] most significant pieces of legislation for Indians in three or four decades. And they’re going to save lives. So I'm enormously proud of that.
But I've worked on just so many things – for farmers, for working people. We just passed this year the Travel Promotion Act for greater travel for foreign travelers coming to this country.
Dru’s law, which was spurred by the violent murder of a young woman from the University of North Dakota by a guy who had been let out of prison after 23 years. A violent sex offender let out of prison with a wave and a smile, saying “so long and good luck to you.” That's not going to happen again because of Dru’s law that says when you have a violent offender whose psychologist believed [them] to be at risk for another violent offense… you have to notify the state’s attorney that convicted them so that they can seek additional incarceration for protection, if necessary. And they have to have monitoring upon release if they, in fact, are released.
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: John McCain and I, as chairman and vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, did the investigation of Abramoff, which went on for a long while and a fair number of people went to prison as a result of it. So John is a guy I've worked closely with and like a lot.
Lisa Murkowski I've worked very closely with and have great respect for her. I have great respect for most people that I've served with.
And a worthy opponent? Pete Domenici and I worked together very closely. And Pete as a legislator was very skillful and a formidable debater and knew his stuff.
The key around here is knowledge. Knowledge is power. If you know more than someone else about a subject, that's very important when you're debating.
Q: During your time as a senator who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
A: There have been a lot of effective legislators. Kent Conrad and I are close, personal friends and have been for almost 40 years. I think Kent is a very good legislator. But there are a lot.
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: There are some things where in retrospect I wish I had known then what I know now, or I wish I had made a different call on that, because I think in retrospect it was not the right thing to have done. But not a lot of them.
You do the best you can with the knowledge you have to make good judgments, and then move on. I’ll give you an example: The vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, I voted to do that. And I voted to do that when Colin Powell went to the United Nations and – I had read all the material I could on the intel.
All of that turned out to be false; just fundamentally false. I deeply regret having cast a vote based on information I thought to be true but which turned out to be false.
Q: What is the state is of your political party?
A: It’s on the defensive, largely because of the economy. The state of a governing party is always dependent on whether the economic engine is working really well. This president inherited an engine that wasn’t even running, 680,000 people had lost their job the month he took over.
So our party is struggling at the moment to try to evaluate how do you play defense against a very determined offense from the Republican side that is not accurate. The implication is that somehow the Democrats are responsible for this mess. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Republican governing philosophy during the eight years of George W. Bush and the compliance by people that supported him here on the Hill is what steered this country into the ditch.
Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they’ve every seen. Do you agree?
A: I think so. It’s very partisan.
Just the fact that we have been required to file cloture petitions on motions to proceed to non-controversial things describes the partisanship and the determination to try to shut the place down or stop progress on important issues. But I can't think of one instance that describes it.
Q: As the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee what is the state of the Native American community?
A: When I became chairman, I had done a lot of work to try to figure out what’s the state of the situation on the reservations — and it’s unbelievable.
They’re the first Americans and yet, despite the fact that we signed a line to say "we promise, we signed the treaties, we have trust responsibility," they get second-class health care, second-class education, second-class housing. We have not nearly done what we should have done in this country for Indians.
And I think that the history is shameful. I showed a picture the other day on the floor of the Senate of a woman that lived in a very modest house, with six oil wells on her land and didn't get the money. Why? Because the federal government is managing their trust accounts and they’ve mismanaged them over 150 years.
I've always felt a real passion to try to push to say that they deserve much more and they were promised much more and not given what they were promised.
Q: Is there anything else that you think about the Senate people need to know?
A: I think most people that get here have great skills and are honest and hardworking and terrific people. I've not ever worked with a group of people in the House and the Senate that I felt had more skill and more dedication than people in Congress.
I've been here 30 years, and 10 years before that in the state capitol. So I've been in statewide elected office for 40 years. I'm leaving because, frankly, I've watched others stay too long. And I think it’s a great privilege, I've always enjoyed what I do here, still do. But I'm very anxious to have another chapter in my life and committing to this year plus six more after having been in statewide elective office 40 years just seemed to me like too much of a commitment and I decided that I wanted to break at this point and go do some other things.
I think I’ve worked with some people who are way up, well up in age who continue to do a great job – and God bless them for their dedication. I just didn't want to find myself in a situation where in my mid-70s or at age 80 I was traveling 30 weekends a year.
Milton Young stayed six or eight years too long. Quentin Burdick stayed six or eight years too long. Both were in their 80s. I watched all that and served in elective office while all that went on. I was determined when I came here that I would not be doing that.
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