Maryland's Senator Fix-It
Against the prevailing dismay over partisanship and dysfunction in the U.S. Senate, consider the testimony of one happy senator.
Ben Cardin, freshman Democrat of Maryland, says he has been surprised since his election almost a year ago at how possible it is to make progress in the Senate. It is easier to form bipartisan alliances than it was in the House, he says. Senators who strike deals stick to them and will not be pulled away by pressure from party leaders. And, even despite the 60-vote barrier, real legislative accomplishments are within reach.
Cardin is part of an impressive Senate class of nine Democratic rookies (including Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats), others of whom have gotten more attention than he has during their first year. Virginia's Jim Webb, to name one, has proved more compelling to the national party and media, with his military past, literary achievements and quotable economic populism.
Consider, by contrast, the first sentence of the " About Ben" biography on Cardin's official Web site: "Benjamin L. Cardin has been a national leader on health care, retirement security and fiscal issues since coming to Congress in 1987." No wonder the Democrats chose Webb to respond to President Bush's State of the Union address in January.
No one would accuse Cardin of putting charisma over substance. A legislator's legislator, he served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 20 years, as speaker from 1979 to 1986, and then represented a part of Baltimore and surrounding suburbs in the House of Representatives for 20 more. Now he's delightedly burrowing into the Senate.
During a visit to The Post last week, he ticked off a series of what he called medium-level issues on which he believes something can be achieved: providing incentives for good teachers to work in the neediest schools, getting the Army Corps of Engineers involved in Chesapeake Bay cleanup, establishing a commission to chart a path to energy independence within 10 years and reauthorizing (for the first time in decades) the federal program that provides lawyers for those who can't afford them.
Cardin acknowledged that prospects for progress on the biggest issues are dimmer, but even there he's not discouraged. "Social Security is easy to solve," he says, and achieving energy independence within 10 years is quite doable; both just require more leadership from the White House, which he hopes a new (Democratic) president will provide. He's signed on to the Lieberman-Warner bill on climate change and thinks it could get 60 votes, too, with a little prodding from on high.
The failure of comprehensive immigration reform, he grants, was "an embarrassment." Senators were not prepared for the force and single-mindedness of the opposition to what was perceived as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"It is an explosive issue," Cardin said. "It crippled our office's ability to get anything else done." The letters he received were well written, not part of an organized campaign, from all corners of the state -- and unequivocal. "They said, 'This is not America. America is the rule of law. How can you let people sneak into the country? If you vote for this, I'll never vote for you again' " -- an argument that tends to seize a politician's attention.
Cardin did not and still does not believe that the bill provided amnesty. It insisted that illegal immigrants atone in a number of ways, including anteing up back taxes, learning English and paying a fine. "If you go much further, people aren't going to come forward" and out of the shadows, he says. "I don't think it makes a lot of sense to be sending troops after them."
But even here, he has faith that the Senate eventually can pass immigration reform. It was a mistake to craft the bill in closed meetings, he said; next time, open debate would create less anxiety. Reform advocates have to communicate better what requirements they're imposing in exchange for legalization. But ultimately, "you can't hide from what needs to be done. You have to deal with the 12 million, with border security and with the fairness issue" for immigrants and would-be immigrants who have played by the rules.
Cardin is not naive about the political obstacles to progress. But unusually for Washington, he seems less focused on blaming the other side for gridlock than on avoiding gridlock in the first place.
"Quite frankly, the solution on immigration is easy, even if it won't be easy to accomplish," he says cheerfully. "You just have to get a bipartisan coalition and get it done."