Our coverage of politics typically focuses on what politicians say they are going to do, the ongoing attempts at governing and never-ending opining of what one side says the other side is doing wrong, often with hostile language.
I suspect that is why the retirement floor speech of Senator Lamar Alexander did not receive much attention. The Tennessee Republican is 80-years-old and, since he is on his way out, perhaps judged that what he had to say was of little import.
But given the increasing tribalism and scorched earth politics of today, it is worth listening to the insights of a respected individual who has spent 40 years in public service.
His admonition to the body was simple; “Our country needs a United States Senate to work across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues, creating laws that most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept.”
Alexander said that bi-partisan consensus, particularly on tough issues, “offers an opportunity to share the responsibility, or the blame, for doing hard things.”
That is critical. When only one party is responsible for controversial legislation, the other party uses it as a wedge issue creating a natural divide in the country. If both parties are responsible, the criticism is usually muted and there is a greater likelihood that most of the country will accept the outcome.
Alexander laments how we have divided into factions, even though we have one guiding principle that unites us. “We are all Americans,” he told his fellow Senators, referencing the late Arthur Schlesinger who once wrote that our country needs less “pluribus” and more “unum.”
E pluribus unum. “Out of many, one.” Alexander said, “More than ever, our country needs a United States Senate to turn “pluribus” into “unum,” to lead the American struggle to forge unity from diversity.”
He said one way the Senate can accomplish that is, not by changing the rules, but rather by changing its behavior. He suggests Senators spend more time on the floor in debate, fairly considering amendments and voting up or down on those proposals.
The purpose of the Senate, Alexander continued, is to be the “cooling saucer” –the place where you can “talk your head off” through the tool of the filibuster “to force broad agreements on tough issues that most of us will vote for and the country can live with.”
Naturally, not all members of the Senate will always agree, nor should they. The body is 100 individuals with their own constituencies and myriad interests. However, if the Senators take Alexander’s sage advice of less pluribus and more unum, there is at least a chance the upper chamber could set a better example for the rest of the country to follow.