Speeches & Floor Statements

Alexander: Senate Can Avoid “Accidental War”

Posted on April 26, 2018

I brought a picture with me of the Senate doing nothing, which is what happens when we do what we're doing right now—nominate Derek Kan on a Thursday to be Under Secretary of Transportation. A week later we vote to cut off debate and then the next Monday we confirm him, but only one senator speaks. Or the district judge from Georgia—cloture on Wednesday, cut off debate a week later, confirm him the next day, no senator speaks. The problem with that obviously is people look at C-SPAN and say, ‘Well, they're doing nothing. They're as bad as we thought.’ That's one problem. But let me see if I can say this.

I would like to see if there's any way I can resurrect the bipartisan spirit that existed in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when a group of former White House counsels, Democrat and Republican, came to me and said, ‘could we do something about the tradition of innocent until nominated?’— the difficulty of nominating and confirming presidential appointees.

Now we had President Obama, a Democrat and a Democratic majority in the Senate, and I'm a Republican Senator, so I said, ‘Yeah, I'd like to try that.’ And I worked with a bipartisan group of Senators—Senator Durbin, Senator Schumer, Senator McCain, Senator Levin, Senator Barrasso. And in each of those three years we took some steps to try to improve the presidential nominating process and we did some pretty important things.

We eliminated 163 positions. They don't have to be confirmed. We took 272 more and said their privileged – you can move them through more rapidly. We eliminated secret holds—that took 17 years, for Senator Grassley. We eliminated 3,000 non-controversial positions, and for two years we said, for subcabinet members, eight hours of post-culture debate. And for district judges, two hours of post-closure debate. Senator Reid really wanted us to do that. Senator McConnell didn't really want to do it. But we did it anyway because we thought that it was good for the Senate as an institution. So we did that. Now, here we are today.

Back then I remember Senator Schumer saying, ‘Who in America doesn't think a President, Democrat or Republican deserves his or her picks for who should run the agencies. Everybody believes that.’ So everyone knows where we are right now.

Democrats feel aggrieved for variety of reasons. So their tactic is to slow down the Senate by taking a long period of time to consider the President's nominees. He has a lot stacked up. I just left an appropriations committee subcommittee hearing. I think the Department of Justice has 14 of its nominees who have been reported out of committee but haven't been able to come to the floor.

So where does this lead us? Well, I think I'm afraid I know. What happens is, if one party abuses the rules, the other party takes notes and they do the same thing. Democrats blocked circuit judges for the first time in 2003. So we did it in 2011. Democrats used the nuclear option in 2013, so we did it in 2017. Now Democrats are making it virtually impossible for President Trump to form his Administration. And what do you think will happen when we have a Democratic President? It doesn't take many Republican senators to take notes to remember that. I think I know what happens.

What happens is one party or the other will say, ‘We can't put up with this. We're going to change the rules with 51 votes to make this happen and we're going to gradually move into an institution where the majority can do anything it wants to, whenever it wants to.’ And what Senator Levin warned us was that when we do that, we become a Senate without rules. I've had a number of Democratic members tell me the one vote that they wish they'd never cast since they've been in the Senate is the vote on the nuclear option. Because of not just what that did, but what that then caused the Republicans to do.

So I would like to turn this around and head back in another direction and I think Senator Lankford has the right approach—which is let's take a relatively reasonable proposal that we adopted once before and adopt it as a rules change in the right way, and avoid piling on nuclear option after nuclear option after nuclear option, which is a prelude to the destruction of the United States Senate as a consensus building institution in this country. That's exactly what it is. 

It's kind of like the lead up to World War I, which everybody agrees I think was an accidental war. Could have been stopped, but nobody would stop it. It just kept going and going in that direction. So I would appeal to my democratic colleagues to look at the Lankford proposal and if they can't vote for it, think of some version of it that you could vote for that would stop this prelude to destruction of the Senate as a consensus building institution. 

If there ever was a time when our country needed a consensus building institution, it is right now. We're fractured. We're an internet democracy. We have partisan impulses coming out of our ears. We have plenty of that, but what we don't have is an ability to work across party lines. All of us have done it. We talk about it in private, we pray about it on Wednesday morning at our prayer meeting, but when we get out in public again, it gets harder to do. My hope would be that we could go back and resurrect some of that spirit of 2011, 2012 and 2013 and find some way to end this prelude toward destruction of the Senate as a consensus building institution. I like the Lankford proposal because it does what we did before and I don't know why we don't do it again.