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?
I think they probably do not understand how little influence one senator has; that they have a feeling that somehow their senator can move mountains. And as a result of that, sometimes they’re frustrated. They do not understand – particularly people from a state like Ohio, where I was the mayor, made things happen; governor, made things happen. And here, in order to get things done you have to have concurrence of at least 60 members in order to go forward on a piece of legislation.
The fact of the matter is that that individual, unless they’re very skillful and have got interpersonal skills and know how to work the system, does not have the power that people think that individual has.
On the other hand, I don’t think they understand that a lot of stuff does get done here, particularly through unanimous consent. When I tell them about all the bills that we hotline through here, where it goes to committee – they just think of the only action in the Senate is on the floor of the Senate. But the real action of the Senate is in the committees. And once a bill gets through the committee they’re not familiar with the fact that we can get on the telephone and call offices and, if nobody objects to it, it gets passed. There’s a lot of legislation getting done. All the bills that get done around here just by unanimous consent: it goes over to the House and if they concur on it ... maybe one or two people might have a problem with it, you flush them out on the telephone, you go see them, you tweak it a little bit – boom, it gets done.
I mean, I've got a bill, the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act. We did it in 45 days – bam, bam, everybody for it, boom, boom, move it through and you can get it done.
So it’s just how the Senate works. It’s mysterious to folks.
I didn't come down here to be a leader – it’s the first place – I've been the leader of everything, you know, I’m the only person in the country that's been president of the National League of Cities, chairman of the National Governor’s Association. In my life I was president of all of my classes, the whole deal.
But I came here with the idea of becoming a member of the orchestra, and instead of working to be conductor, I wanted to become first chair in sections of the orchestra.
So I think there’s a disconnect between what really happens here and how it happens with the general public. [The media] should do a better job of explaining to them what really goes on here and how it gets done — and give them some hope that there are some good things happening here.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest part of working in the Senate?
I think it’s the frustration of what I've just talked about, and that is how difficult it is to get anything done in the Senate.
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You've got a hundred big egos here, and the question really is how do you get them all kind of moving in the same direction and get them really to look beyond messaging to look at the big issues that are confronting the country.
The frustrating thing to me is the organization of the United States Senate is not relevant to the problems that we have in America. We are still running the Senate like we did 50 years ago. The enormous amount of growth of government means that we need to re-do what we’re doing.
If you look at what we do and how we do it, you’d think people are – there’s no common sense here. Any kind of good business today, a successful business has planning.
And we also have this silo organization here where everybody just thinks about their silo, but they don’t look at the big picture.
We are not organized properly. When I get out of here I’m going to probably write a paper on what I think needs to be done. Maybe I can get Evan Bayh and a few others – maybe if a half-dozen of us sat down and tried to get a consensus and say, if you really want to move America ahead here are the things that from our perspective need to be done in terms of the legislative branch of government.
Q: What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?
You deal with people. And I think probably in terms of making a difference in people’s lives and saving people’s lives, I discovered that the people who worked during the Cold War in dealing with uranium enrichment ... did not have workmen’s compensation available to them. And that they were dying from cancer. There was no screening, there was no anything.
So I got involved in this. And they said, “You'll never, ever get it done.” And I said, “It has to get done,” because people are dying because we haven’t done it. And we were able, after about a year-and-a-half, to get workers’ compensation for individuals, and in many instances we were able to get some money for the families of those that had died.
So that, to me, was probably one of the most important things because I touched the lives of human beings and there are people today that aren’t dying, that have a better quality of life because I got involved in that thing that nobody [sic] else said you could get done. And I know when I got started with that I said – I prayed to the Holy Spirit and I asked for the Holy Spirit to enlighten people that I come in contact with – very difficult to get them to understand how important this was.
Another area that is unheralded is the work that Dan Akaka [and I] have done in human capital. There’s nobody that's done more to reform Title V and the way we treat our federal workers, to make us more competitive and to empower them to make a contribution than what Dan and I have done over the years. It’s an area that is neglected by most legislators because they don’t understand how important the people are that work for government.
That's, like, boring stuff, but it’s the lifeblood. They’re the ones that make the difference. And right now Dan and I are trying to put in law to change the whole system that we’ve got in terms of the hiring.
On the international level, there’s nobody that did more in the United States Senate to expand NATO than George Voinovich.
There’s nobody in the Senate that's done more to combat anti-Semitism than I have.
Nuclear power. There’s nobody that's done more about nuclear power. I know more about nuclear power than any member of the United States Senate.
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?
Well, I think on my side of the aisle, Susan Collins, I think she’s really great.
On the other side of the aisle, I have a great deal of respect for Max Baucus; for Jeff Bingaman; for Tom Carper. Carper and I have known each other for years. And the environmental thing, probably Joe Lieberman, we’ve duked it out over the years. And Cardin.
[It's about] respect and trust. And a thing that's missing around here too often is just respect and trust.
I think that too many people that have come here from the House carried the House baggage with them. Too many of them come and they still think they’re members of the House of Representatives. So any issue that comes along, immediately they think they’ve got a message on it, instead of sitting back.
The Senate is the place where you cool the water and look at the big picture.
They didn't send me down here – I'm not a weather vane. But the Senate is the place where you're supposed to take your experience, your knowledge, your common sense and look at things in terms of the big picture and where are we today and where do we go tomorrow and how do we get things done.
And you notice in my votes, nobody knows what I'm going to do around here. They don’t. I mean, the recent thing on this bill dealing with loans for small businesses. I hate the banks. If I could strangle the banks today, I would, the big banks. I am so upset with them I could kill them because of what they’re doing in terms of not making money available. So somehow we’ve got to get some money out there to some people that are worthy of getting it.
Q: During your time as a senator who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?
[this question omitted from the interview for time constraints]
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?
No. I can say that I may have looked back on something that I did and I have other information that maybe if I had more information at the time I might have done it differently. I'm sure there are cases like that.
I've talked to the Leader. I just tell him, “Mitch, I can’t do that. My conscience won't allow me to do it ... If I go ahead and do this, I'm going to feel bad about it.” I don’t like to feel bad; I want to feel good about me.
So I'm going to do things that I know I can look at myself in the mirror and say – and maybe that's why maybe I haven’t been as effective a legislator – because all this trading, I'm no good at trading. “Well, look, George, we’ll give you this if you do that.”
If they’re asking me to do something dealing with conscience, I can’t do it ... Maybe that's why some other people are maybe more effective than I am around here. I have a hard time with that.
Q: What is the state is of your political party?
My political party is probably, in terms of its potential, as good as it’s been since 1994. The real issue for my party is to decide what our program is going to be to relate to the problems confronting the American people. Basically what I think that we need right now is a kind of Contract for America.
I think there are more independents than we’ve ever had before.
Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they’ve every seen. Do you agree?
Oh, I don’t know. You know, I've heard the stories. There was a time when Strom Thurmond wrestled somebody out in the lobby, wouldn’t let him in there. There’s times when another senator beat another senator over the head with a cane.
I suspect that there have been lots of times that have been a heck of a lot worse than now, but we don’t put them in historic[al] context.
But I think that there’s a lot more good going on here than what appears. The public doesn’t, as I say, they don’t understand ... They don’t understand how guys like Dan Akaka and George Voinovich are working together. They don’t understand Chris Dodd and Richard Shelby. There are a lot of wonderful things that are going on here.
It’s just like everything else in life, if you want to accentuate the negative, you can.
Q: You have been governor, you've been president of almost everything you’ve entered into. Have you ever considered running for President of the United States?
A: No, I never thought of it.
I never had "the President" on my list. If I had, maybe I would have run.
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