Like the historian and turnaround specialist that he is, rookie Sen. Ben Sasse (R) Nebraska spent his first year in the US Senate privately interviewing his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, trying to find out why the Senate is broken and how to fix it.
On Tuesday, in an unusual maiden speech, the newbie shared his findings, basically holding up the mirror to his colleagues. Even more unusual, a good number of them stayed to listen, from the Senate majority leader, to GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, to a dozen-or-so Democrats.
The freshman from Nebraska – a former college president, not a politician, he emphasized – spoke with a winsome earnestness, revealing what so many in this body already know:
In private, hardly any of them considers members of the other party to be “evil or stupid or bribed.” And that, shamefully, they have allowed “short-termism and the sound-bite culture to invade” the chamber.
What the Senate should be doing is debating the big issues of the day that need solving – from the challenges of violent jihad to the need for entitlement reform. He rejected the view that the Senate simply reflects the polarization of the country, calling polarization beyond Washington “overstated.”
“The hundred of us should mitigating, not exacerbating, the polarization,” he said.
In a good-natured, yet serious way, he admonished senators for not doing the job that the chamber was designed to do – essentially throwing away the opportunity and breathing room that a six-year term provides for full debate and resolution of major issues.
Bluntly talking about the Senate's brokenness is not "naive idealism," said the boyish-looking senator, who is occasionally mistaken for a page. It's a necessary discussion, he said, because "a cultural recovery" in the Senate is needed for "a national recovery."
Senator Sasse expressed particular concern with executive overreach – but said part of the reason for this was because of “legislative under-reach.” Senators are not willing to lead or take hard votes, and so successive presidents of both parties “gobble up more and more power.”
“A six-year term is a terrible thing to waste,” he concluded, and judging from the response of his colleagues – a standing ovation – the senators seemed to agree. Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the No. 2 GOP leader in the Senate, called the speech “outstanding.”
“Thoughtful, pointed, constructive, needed,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware, who, already 40 minutes late to a meeting, had to fend off texts from his staff because he wanted to stay and hear Sasse out.
Will the Nebraskan's comments amount to a pebble thrown into a pool, creating a little ripple but nothing more as it sinks to silence?
“I seriously doubt that Senator Sasse will only throw a pebble,” said Senator Coons. “I suspect there will be a steady rain of little rocks.”