Posted on December 19, 2018
With two years left in office, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is not planning to become a lame duck lawmaker.
When he attended the unveiling of Gov. Bill Haslam's portrait in Nashville on Monday, Alexander — who later in the day said he would not seek a fourth term in 2020 — shared a story about a time when he lived in Australia after he left the governor's office.
"A diplomat came up to me and said, 'We have a name for people like you,'" Alexander said. "He said, 'Rooster today, feather duster tomorrow.'"
Although Alexander and Haslam have frequently said the phrase during public appearances in recent months as a reference to the fleeting influence of departing lawmakers, the 78-year-old former governor has vowed to continue tackling key issues in the next two years.
During a wide-ranging interview at his Nashville office on Monday, Alexander said he wants to focus on the cost of health care and education during his remaining time in office.
"One thing I want to do is shift the debate from health care insurance to health care costs," he said.
Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said this year, over the course of five hearings, he and other lawmakers have heard from industry experts that nearly half of what Americans spend on health care is unnecessary.
Tennessee's senior senator said he has already talked with U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, about finding ways to reduce costs.
"A big one, for example, would be try to make the health care system more of a market," said Alexander, adding he would also look to find ways to let patients know what they're spending on health care services in advance.
In addition to health care, Alexander said he wants to address the nation's higher education system.
He said his goals including working to ensure a college education is "worth it," and to determine the effectiveness of the student loan system while eliminating "red tape" surrounding the nation's colleges and universities.
Both issues are under the purview of his committee, and Alexander has vast experience in education policy, serving as education secretary for President George H.W. Bush and as president of the University of Tennessee.
Alexander poised for two years of productivity, frankness
With no election looming, Alexander is setting himself up with an opportunity to accomplish what he desires, said Kent Syler, political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, so long as his colleagues in Washington cooperate.
“The next two years can be very productive for Sen. Alexander,” Syler said. “I think the main limitation will be polarized government and continued dysfunction. If he can overcome those hurdles, he can get a lot done.”
While potential successors are already scrambling to make a decision about a 2020 campaign, Alexander could accomplish quite a bit in the time until then.
"Two years in politics is a long time," Syler said. "That’s a full House term."
As Tennessee's retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker has shown, in those two years, Alexander will likely have "a little more freedom to speak his mind, because he doesn’t have to worry about the pressures of re-election," Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer said.
Corker has frequently been openly critical of President Donald Trump and recently worked to get a resolution through the Senate that condemned Saudi Arabia's crown prince for the killing of a journalist, despite opposition from the White House.
While Alexander will have more freedom to speak openly, Syler said he believes it may not happen right away.
"It's somewhat out of his nature to be very outspoken," Syler said. "He has always been pretty measured in his comments. After 40 years in politics, it's probably hard to break that habit."
Alexander's accomplishments in the Senate
Looking back on his time in the Senate, Alexander recalled what he considers his top legislative accomplishments.
He said they include the Every Child Achieves Act, a federal overhaul of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act that is known now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the 21st Century Cures Act, which helped fund scientific research. He also cited a major opioid measure signed by Trump in October.
Beyond legislation, Alexander said he was especially proud of his work as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which he said helps provide funding to scientific research, including in Tennessee.
Alexander described his job as one that gives him the privilege of working on doing something good each day for Tennessee and the nation.
"Most of those things people will never know about, but I know about them and that’s why I’m still looking forward to the next two years," he said.
Alexander calls for GOP to broaden its base
Alexander also weighed in on the direction of the state and Republican Party. The party, he said, needs to make efforts to bring in new people.
During his time in office, Alexander has frequently made efforts to work with both Democrats and Republicans on various issues.
"There's no doubt that not having to worry about re-election does (allow) free elected officials to focus more on policy, and sometimes it gives them a little more leeway to work with the other party to try to accomplish things," Syler said.
In 2011, Alexander stepped down from his leadership role as Republican Conference chairman, the third-ranking GOP position in the U.S. Senate, in part to free himself to work more across the aisle.
"He looked at it and said, 'I can't be a good legislator and a party leader,' because it required him to be too partisan," Syler said. "He walked away and focused on getting things done."
Alexander recalled how he has reached across the aisle to voters who aren't traditionally Republicans.
"We need to be careful and be a broad-based party," he said. "I think we need to redouble our efforts to do that. If we don’t, we’re in for a spanking."
In Tennessee, Alexander said Republicans need to embrace people of different backgrounds, including the Kurdish community.
"We should want for them to be active in our party," he said, noting the Republican Party has made room for conservatives like Ross Perot, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Trump and needs to embrace others with different backgrounds.