The Senate is known for its well-prepared speeches and high-profile filibusters; what it’s not known for is for those speeches to have any real or lasting effect on long-term policymaking in Washington.

A freshman senator may have changed all that this week (okay, this is bluster, but bear with me) with his “maiden” floor speech, in which he spent a great deal of time offering the perspective he gained from over a year’s worth of observation.

Ben Sasse (R-NE) waited until this week to address his colleagues in the Senate chamber—and boy did he make the most of it. He used his time at the mic to criticize the partisanship, grandstanding, and public bickering that defines the culture of “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”


And if I can be brutally honest for a moment: I’m home basically every weekend, and what I hear — and what I’m sure most of you hear — is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess. To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that. To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions.

To the Democrats, who did this body harm through nuclear tactics: Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all.

And why is this? Because we’re not doing the job we were sent here to do. The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.

There are good and bad reasons to be unpopular. A good reason would be to suffer for waging an honorable fight for the long-term that has near-term political downsides — like telling seniors the sobering truth that they’ve paid in far less for their Social Security and Medicare than they are currently getting back.

But we all know deep down that the political class is unpopular not because of our relentless truth-telling, but because of politicians’ habit of regularized pandering to those who already agree with us. The sound-bite culture — whether in our ninety-second TV stand-ups in the Russell rotunda, in our press releases, in the habits honed in campaigns — is everywhere around us.

If you don’t have time to devote to the whole 20+ minutes, Morning Joe (!) clipped a greatest hits roll:

Two weeks ago, in discussion about this with one of you, I was asked: “So you are going to admit our institutional brokenness and call for more civility on the Floor?”

No. While I am in favor of more civility, my actual call here is for more substance.
This is not a call for less fighting — but for more meaningful fighting. This is a call for bringing our A-game to the debates on the biggest issues here, with less regard for the 24-month election cycle and the 24-hour news cycle. This is a call to be for things that are big enough that you might risk your reelection.

What Sasse did here is important. By criticizing the very character of the body he willingly joined, he opened himself up to the highest level of scrutiny from both his constituents and his growing national audience. Words are great, but Sasse has set himself up with a chance to prove that there’s substance behind those words, which means more to his voter base than his ability to make nice speeches.

I look forward to seeing what Sasse does with the opportunity.

Follow Amy on Twitter @ThatAmyMiller


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