Ben Sasse: Senate ‘Feels Like Charlie Brown’s Mom a Lot’

‘Those in the Senate, know that the Senate should be incentivizing long term over short term behavior’

HEWITT: “All right, let’s talk about the debates of a couple of sorts. First of all, I want to ask you about your speech in the Atlantic article that calls you Washington’s most promising egghead, but the Republican debates are changing the way that people look at debates. They’ve generated these enormous audiences. What have you seen when you’ve seen the Republicans debating each other, Senator?”
SASSE: “Well, I think we have an impressive field, so let’s start there. There’s a lot to be happy about with that. But I would like the debates to be about candidates’ vision for the country. I think the voters deserve a serious conversation, not a circus. And sometimes, we get circus. So I think there are good things and bad things to say about the process so far, but I think the media obsesses over up and down horserace calculations, and I think voters, you know, there are more tuning in than usual. That’s true. But still, the vast majority of the public isn’t, and I think it’s because they’re worried about the future of the country, and they don’t think that campaigns are always featuring the most important things, which is the meaningful fighting about where we should be heading as a country.”
HEWITT: “Now the CNN debate, of which I was a part, was structured to have candidates talk to each other, because that’s what a debate is. And you took the floor one year after your election, you waited a year to deliver your maiden speech, and it was about how in fact almost no debate goes on of the traditional variety on the Senate floor. Explain to people what point you were making?”
SASSE: “ Well, I’ve never been in politics before, so that’s the first thing to say. And I’ve done a lot of crisis management and turnaround stuff, and whenever you go into a broken organization, there’s a delicate balance between human empathy, trying to figure out why things are broken, and yet, you know, sort of not submitting to the peer pressure to sweep hard truths under the rug. And things are a mess in the Senate, and so I spent a lot of this year interviewing my colleagues trying to understand what they think is a mess. But I think one of the things that’s self-evident, not just to the American people, but even to Senators when you’re in private, is that no one thinks the institution works right now. No one would argue that the Senate is laser-focused on the most pressing issues facing the country. And the American people are worried about the future. They’re worried about whether or not we’re on a pathway of irreparable decline. And we should be doing better than we’re doing. The Senate should be a venue for debating the biggest long term issues and the biggest challenges facing the country, and that’s not what happens on the Senate floor right now. The sort of fake debate that occasionally happens there, it’s pretty boring. It’s shirts and skins exercises of predictably Republican and Democratic talking points about the small stuff, and we’ve got generational crises to tackle, and they’re not usually on our agenda.”
HEWITT: “Senator Sasse, I’ve been teaching to my Colorado Christian University students in the 1st Amendment seminar I’m running, Lynne Cheney’s book on James Madison.”
SASSE: “Yeah.”
HEWITT: “Madison did the best he could not to have the Senate as it exists past. He did not want equal representation of the states, and he had a number of other objections to it, but he had to swallow, and he swallowed hard. But he never would have supported a supermajority in the Senate, the 60 vote filibuster margin, which I’ve increasingly come to identify as the key impediment to the Senate being effective. Nothing can pass, because 60 is hard in this country. So are you taking, are you forming an opinion on the filibuster?”
SASSE: “ So that’s a great question, and I wish we had a lot longer than a short segment to tackle it, because I think you and I have alignment on lots and lots of issues. But I suspect we’re going to differ on this one. I think that I am a fan of the theory of the filibuster. I’m not at all a fan of the practice of the filibuster. And I think the main reason for that is because we now have a world where there’s nothing like zero-based budgeting in Washington. Every conversation assumes inertia of motion, autopilot off a cliff to bankrupt the next generation. And so the Senate’s supermajority requirements, again, you’re right, they’re not in the Constitution. They’re internal Senate rules. But the purpose is supposed to be in keeping with the Madisonian idea that it should be hard for Washington to act, because we want government, we think most problems in life should be solved in the private sector, and not just for-profits, but not-for-profits and sort of Tocquevillian localism. But of those governmental problems that need to be addressed, usually, they should be addressed at the state and local level, which is why Madison and the rest of the founders built systems like a Senate that is giving proportional representation not to population counts, but to states, reflecting that federalist structure so that we don’t assume just because there might be a governmental response to a problem, that that means there’s always a one size fits all central national one. But if it’s supposed to be divided government, separation of powers to check and balance one another so that it’s hard to act, I think it should also be the case that the Senate should be a venue to sort through really hard debates. And so I think supermajoritarian requirements are good for new government programs. The problem is we can’t repair or reform or cut, lower any funding on any exigent programs without the President screaming you’re for shutting down the government and having Grammy thrown off a cliff. So I am with you that there are probably things we need to substantially reform to deal with the autopilot of government spending, but I do like supermajoritarian requirements for the government to do new things.”
HEWITT: “Well, I do believe they’re anti-Constitutional when applied to the judiciary, where the Constitution explicitly vests in the Senate the right to confirm. But we’ll come back to that another time.”
SASSE: “Yeah.”
HEWITT: “What are you suggesting be done to fix the Senate?”
SASSE: “ Well, I tried to flag yesterday three different folks who use the floor differently than the Senate floor is usually used right now. Right now, it feels like Charlie Brown’s mom a lot, speaking on the floor of the Senate, where people, you can almost predict what folks are going to say on any given issue, because it’s just a boring shirts and skins, Democrats V. Republicans exercise. And I think the Senate should be a place that is data-informed. We should actually talk about rank orders of what mortality risks are out there, instead of just assuming whatever’s trending on cable news one night is actually the most pressing issue facing the nation. So I think there should be data, and so I pointed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democrat from New York in whose desk I sit, the guy who first flagged the crisis of the family in the mid-1960s. and I’ve got a couple more, but I think you’re going to run to break first, it sounds like.”
HEWITT: “I’m going to run to break and come back and get them from you after break.”
HEWITT: “ What are two and three, Senator Sasse?”
SASSE: “ That you don’t constantly attack strawmen arguments. Adults argue in a way where you try to bring out the best arguments of something you’re trying to defeat, not the laziest portion of their arguments. And number three, we need to remember what our duties are. We need to have Madisonian commitment, like you were talking about on Lynne Cheney’s book. We need to have a Madisonian commitment to separation of powers where legislating should happen in the Article I branch, and the president, the Article II branch, should be accountable for faithful administration of the laws that have been passed by the Congress. And right now, there is a crisis in the country of the Madisonian separation of power structure, because both parties, Republican and Democrat, are to blame for trying to seize more power in the executive when they have the presidency, and both parties, Republican and Democrat, frankly love the idea of a legislature that can just sit back and throw stones and bicker, but not try to have hard, meaningful conversations. And so I flagged Margaret Chase Smith, who’s really the woman more responsible than anybody else for remaining a zealous anti-communist, the first female Cold Warrior, and yet taking McCarthyist tactics to task. And then I flagged Robert Byrd for a guy who tried to think seriously about what the Congress’ duties were, and the Senate in particular. I mean, everyone know that the Senate, those in the Senate, know that the Senate should be incentivizing long term over short term behavior. It’s why we have six year terms instead of two year terms.”
HEWITT: “It’s very interesting that the Cheney book details the Hamilton-Madison argument over the National Bank and over the location of the District of Columbia, and Jeffersonian and Washington’s arguments over neutrality. There were so much larger issues, and such larger intellects, Ben Sasse.”
SASSE: “ Yeah, well said, and there’s really little to add to that. Right now, we are not taking the best and brightest of America and saying let’s make sure we’re focusing that citizen governance, that citizen legislators, and bringing them here for a time to tackle the big generational issues, and then go back home and celebrate the fact that life is lived locally. We’re creating a political class in Washington that’s most important long term thinking is about their own long term incumbency. I mean, six of the ten richest counties in America are suburbs of Washington, D.C. That’s a crisis. That’s rot.”
HEWITT: “Well, that’s Rome, isn’t it? That’s when you have the imperial city, the green city, and it becomes a source of all revenue and largesse.”
SASSE: “ Absolutely. I mean, this place is…”
HEWITT: “Senator Sasse, I hope you put that out there in its complete text and audio. Send me a link, and we’ll retweet it so people can listen to your floor speech. Thank you for joining me and raising the bar in D.C. Long term task, but we’re going to have to argue about judicial filibusters another time. And I will remind you of Ohio State-Nebraska on a regular basis.”
SASSE: “Thanks, man, appreciate the invite, Hugh.”
HEWITT: “You’re welcome. Joseph Orduna, my old Nebraska Cornhusker running mate friend, running back friend, would be shocked, shocked at the decline of Nebraska football. I’m looking at Nate as I say that, America.”

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