John McCain has served in the United States Senate for nearly 31 years, and is probably due a lifetime achievement award.Â This award, however, is not for his distinguished service in the US Navy, nor for his many accomplishments over three decades in Congress, nor for the honorable manner in which he ran for and lost the Presidency. Springsteen and U2 don’t win lifetime achievement awards because they keep turning out relevant hits and earning new generations of fans. Likewise, Sen. McCain wins this year’s award for his ringing call over the summer for Congress to return to regular order, backed up by his courageous break with his party during the Affordable Care Act repeal vote.
In late July, Sen. McCain returned to the the Senate to cast a critical vote to proceed to debate on the Senate’s Obamacare repeal legislation. Sen. McCain, who had just disclosed that he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, then offered a passionate plea to his fellow senators:
“I’ve known and admired men and women in the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics. They came from both parties, and from various backgrounds. Their ambitions were frequently in conflict. They held different views on the issues of the day. And they often had very serious disagreements about how best to serve the national interest.
“But they knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively. Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our Republic. And our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all. The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries.
“That principled mindset, and the service of our predecessors who possessed it, come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body. I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.
“I’m sure it wasn’t always deserved in previous eras either. But I’m sure there have been times when it was, and I was privileged to witness some of those occasions.
“Our deliberations today — not just our debates, but the exercise of all our responsibilities — authorizing government policies, appropriating the funds to implement them, exercising our advice and consent role â€“ are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now they aren’t producing much for the American people.
“Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline –either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
“Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
“Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for the bill as it is today. It’s a shell of a bill right now. We all know that. I have changes urged by my state’s governor that will have to be included to earn my support for final passage of any bill. I know many of you will have to see the bill changed substantially for you to support it.
“Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act. If this process ends in failure, which seem likely, then let’s return to regular order.
“Let the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee under Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray hold hearings, try to report a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides. Then bring it to the floor for amendment and debate, and see if we can pass something that will be imperfect, full of compromises, and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today.
“What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don’t require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.
“The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America. This country –this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country — needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.”
A few days later, Sen. McCain carried out his promise to vote against a bill that he continued to see as an “incomplete shell.” His vote doomed the effort to “repeal & replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Amazingly, after being elected to Congress as a Reagan Republican, and running as the GOP candidate for President, Sen. McCain now has a higher favorability among Democrats and independents than Republicans. In December 2017, a CCN poll showed 68% of Democrats and 48% of independents had a favorable opinion of the Senator, whereas only 46% of Republicans felt the same. In this toxic political time, some Republicans even whisper that Sen. McCain is a RINO, a “Republican In Name Only,” especially after his health care vote in August. That is truly sad.
What is more conservative than demanding Congress, the branch that has the greatest capacity to do good or harm to the Republic, operate by its own time-honored traditions and rules and subject major bills to bi-partisan scrutiny and amendment before passage? Many Republicans railed against these practices when former Democratic Leader Harry Reid recklessly used the “nuclear option” to end most judicial filibusters, and routinely “filled the tree” to prevent consideration of Republican amendments. Yet once the GOP gained control of the Senate, they too placed ideology and winning over creating bipartisan agreement on important issues.
A strong functioning Congress is especially important now.Â President Trump is a small manâ€”seemingly devoid of ideals or morals.Â He cares nothing for policy details, but just his own image and â€œwinningâ€ deals.Â His â€œleadershipâ€ has demoralized executive agency personnel and harmed the nation’s image oversees. Senators should try to emulate the legends that went before them–Goldwater, Kennedy, Dirksen, Inouye, Ervin, Taft, Fulbright–and now McCain. The House leadership should be taking the example of Cannon, Rayburn, Martin and O’Neill– and stop kowtowing to the so-called “Freedom Caucus.” Congress needs to pull itself together to first balance, and then cure, Trumpism.
For his bold and timely call for a return to regular order, Dome is pleased to name Senator John McCain our Legislator of the Year.