Where is the Senate?
Our country is facing the greatest threat to our freedom and future since 1941. Any honest view of our debt, deficits, size of government and demographic challenges shows we must make major changes if we are going to pass on the American way of life to our children. Each week seems to bring new warning signs: slower-than-expected growth (already as much as 25 to 33 percent every year, some estimate), higher-than-expected unemployment numbers, admonitions to get our act together from the international financial community.
If these facts are true — and very few policymakers deny them — why has the U.S. Senate become the least deliberative “greatest deliberative body” in the world?
The lack of leadership and initiative in the Senate is appalling. As of this week, the Senate has held just 72 roll call votes this year, about one per legislative day on mostly noncontroversial and inconsequential matters. By this time last year, we had taken more than twice that number of votes (152). By this time in 2009, we had taken 192 votes. If we continue to avoid tough choices, we will lose control of our economic destiny and go down in history as the Senate that lost America. Our epitaph will read: Never before in the field of legislating was so much ignored by so many for so long.
For the past several months I have been meeting with a small group of senators from both parties, informally known as the Gang of Six, that was designed to force the idle — not gridlocked — Senate, and then the House and the president, to enact a long-term deficit-reduction package. Our talks reached an impasse this week when, in my view, it became clear we would not be able to produce a balanced, specific and comprehensive deal that would improve on, and in some ways meet, the standard set by the Bowles-Simpson plan.
I understand the disappointment, and real danger, associated with our impasse. The question, though, is not how we tried and failed but why the Senate has not even tried. Commissions and “gangs” form when members lose confidence in the institutions in which they serve. Working groups have their place — but they should support, not replace, the open work of the full Senate. The truth is that we already have a permanent standing debt commission. It’s called Congress.
We are facing what Democrat Erskine Bowles calls the most predictable economic crisis in history. There is no excuse for not having bills on the Senate floor with an open amendment process that allows the American people to fully comprehend not only the magnitude of our problems but the possible solutions. The people need to hear the Senate debate the central issues of our time. The limited progress that has been made to bring sobriety to Congress, such as the end of the earmark orgy, was made possible through a relentless floor campaign publicizing amendment after amendment and cut after cut. Change happens when the American people see real debate, not partisan political theater.
As the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid bears special responsibility for failing to direct attention to the central challenges of our time. His floor strategy seems to be focused on saving Democrats more than democracy. I would relish a debate on tax earmarks, spending cuts and competing budgets (if there were competing budgets), yet the votes he seems most interested in scheduling — such as tax breaks for big oil companies — are designed for short-term political gain rather than long-term deficit reduction.
It is not realistic to expect six members to pull the Senate out of its dysfunction and lethargy. Some will ask why we should have more hope in an open, deliberative process, in which all senators are engaged, when a dedicated few did not succeed. The America I know comes together when tough times call for us to do so. It’s time for the Senate to earn its reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body and help lead that effort. The constituency to help 60 senators agree on a balanced deficit-reduction plan already exists among the public. The public rightly prefers spending cuts over revenue increases, but numerous polls indicate the vast majority of Americans would support the only type of plan that would ever make it out of Congress and be signed into law: one that favors spending cuts over revenue increases but includes both.
Getting there, however, will require the Senate to put forward specific solutions and win public support for serious entitlement reform and tax reform. In the coming weeks I’ll be putting forward my own proposal that puts everything on the table and cuts $9 trillion in spending over the next decade. I hope my colleagues present their ideas as well. I’m confident that in a free and open debate, the best solutions for America will prevail, but only if we have the debate.
History has not been kind to republics that pretend they can borrow and spend beyond their means indefinitely. We can cheat history, but only if we act quickly. If senators put our national security ahead of our political security, the American people will see there is no problem we cannot solve. Let the debate begin.
The writer is a Republican senator from Oklahoma.