Alexander Farewell Address: More Than Ever, Our Country Needs the United States Senate to Turn Pluribus Into Unum
Says ending the filibuster would destroy impetus to force broad agreements on hard issues and unleash tyranny of the majority to steamroll the minority
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works of a body of one hundred that operates mainly by unanimous consent. Here’s my view: it’s hard to get here, hard to stay here, and while you’re here, you might as well try to accomplish something good for the country. But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments. Lately, the Senate has become like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.” — Sen. Lamar Alexander
Click here for the video of Sen. Alexander’s farewell address.
Click here to read Sen. Alexander’s farewell address.
WASHINGTON, December 2, 2020 — In his farewell address on the Senate floor, United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today warned that ending the filibuster would “destroy the impetus in the United States Senate to force broad agreements on hard issues and unleash the tyranny of the majority to steam roll the minority.”
“Presidents would like it. They would get their way more easily if we ended the requirement that 60 senators vote to cut off debate before we vote on a legislative issue,” Alexander said. “The passions of the people would roar through the Senate like a freight train, like they do in the House of Representatives. But the main purpose of the Senate is to work across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues – creating laws that most of us can vote for and that a diverse country will accept,” he said.
“That’s why the motto above the presiding officer’s desk is not just one word, ‘pluribus.’ It is ‘E pluribus unum, out of many, one.’ 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.
“In the 1930s, the country needed the Senate to create Social Security. After World War II, to create the United Nations. In the 1960s, Medicare. In 1978, to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty. In 2013, more recently, to tie interest rates for student loans to the market rates, saving student borrowers hundreds of billions of dollars in the last several years. In 2015, to fix No Child Left Behind. That bill had 100 alligators in the swamp. When President Obama signed it, he said it was a ‘Christmas miracle’ because in the end 85 senators voted for it. In 2016, as Senator McConnell mentioned, the 21stCentury Cures Act, moving medical miracles faster into patients’ cabinets and doctor’s offices. That bill went off the tracks every two or three days. In 2018, the once in a generation change in the copyright laws to help songwriters be fairly paid. This year, the Great American Outdoors Act—everyone agrees that it's the most important outdoor environmental bill in 50 years.
“Enacting these laws took a long time, much palavering, many amendments and many years. Too many years, civil rights leaders, patients, students, songwriters and conservationists would say. But those laws didn’t just pass. They passed by wide margins. The country accepted them. And they are going to be there for a long time.
“And most of these laws were enacted during divided government, when the presidency and at least one body of Congress were of different political parties. Divided government offers an opportunity to share the responsibility—or the blame—for hard decisions, such as controlling the federal debt.”
Alexander continued, “Now, some advocate another way to operate the Senate. End the filibuster, the Senate’s best-known tradition. Don’t worry about working across party lines. Pass everything with a majority vote.
“Let the passions of the people roar through the Senate. If you’re a Democrat: Abolish right-to-work laws. Repeal limits on abortion. Pass restriction on guns.
“This is very appealing—if you are in the majority of the moment.
“But what about when the other party is in charge and the freight train roars in the other direction, this time to impose National Right to Work, Pro Life and Gun Rights laws?
“Is such back and forth and back and forth what a fractured country really needs?
“That is why the framers created the Senate, to be the cooling saucer for the passions that President Washington talked about. And the filibuster—the right to talk your head off until you force a broad agreement—is the preeminent tool we use to force those passions into a compromise that most of us can vote for and that the country can live with.
“Alexis De Tocqueville, the young Frenchman who wandered through the United States in 1831 and 1832 and wrote the best book yet on Democracy in America, saw two great dangers for the young country: Russia and the tyranny of the majority.
“Ending the filibuster would unleash the tyranny of the majority to steamroll the rights of the minority.”
Alexander continued, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works of a body of one hundred that operates mainly by unanimous consent. Here’s my view: It’s hard to get here, hard to stay here, and while you’re here, you ought to try to accomplish something good for the country. But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments. Lately, the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.
“You don’t have to eliminate the filibuster to restore the Senate to its traditional role of working across party lines to solve big problems. …We don’t need a change of rules. The Senate needs a change of behavior. And the behavior that needs to change first is for individual senators to stop blocking amendments of other senators. If you are opposed to something, you ought to vote no. Why stop the entire body from considering the amendment? Why join the Grand Ole Opry if you don’t want to sing? And I guarantee you that if 15 or 20 Republicans and 15 or 20 Democrats in this talented body set out to change that practice, it would change.”
Alexander concluded, “Some former governors don’t like being a senator. Not me. The jobs are just different. In both jobs you pick an urgent need, develop a strategy and try to persuade at least half the people you are right. Being governor is like being Moses. To get something done, you say, ‘Let’s go this way.’ Being a senator is more like bring a parade organizer. You pick the route, recruit the marchers, select the music, and even pick someone else to be the drum major — and then you walk in the middle of the parade so the marchers don’t march into the ditch. That’s how you get things done in the United States Senate.
“My favorite time as a senator has been inviting onto the Senate floor American history teachers who are attending the academies that were established in legislation proposed in my maiden address. Invariably one teacher will ask, ‘Senator, what would you like us to tell our students about being a United States Senator?’
“My reply is always the same: ‘Please suggest to your students that they look at Washington, D.C., as a split screen television. On one screen are the tweets and acrimonious confirmation hearings. But on the other screen, senators are working together to strengthen national defense, national laboratories, national parks and the National Institutes of Health. I hope you will remind them that we live in a remarkable country with the strongest military, the best universities and 20 percent of all the money in the world for just 4 percent of the people. That we are not perfect, but, as our Constitution says, we are always working to form a more perfect union. As the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote, most of our arguments are about conflicts among principles with which most Americans agree. And most of our politics is about disappointments in not reaching the high goals that we have set for ourselves, such as all men are created equal. Remind them that most of the rest of the world wishes they had our remarkable system of government and that United States Senate has been, and I hope continues to be, the single most important institution that helps to unify our country by creating broad agreements that most of us can vote for and that the citizens of the United States will accept.
“‘And, finally, please tell them that I wake up every day thinking I may be able to do something good for our country and that I go to bed most nights thinking that I have. Please tell them that it has been a great privilege to be a United States Senator.’”
Click here to read Sen. Alexander’s farewell address.
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