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Sen. Ben Sasse’s Maiden Floor Speech: Since ‘The People Despise Us All,’ Why Even Have A U.S. Senate?

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) delivered his maiden speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, in which he dropped a major bomb: He’s questioning the existence of the U.S. Senate.

Sasse began his speech by explaining exactly why he waited a full year after the 2014 elections to deliver his maiden speech. A newly elected Senator’s maiden floor speech is always a significant deal for them, and Sasse has been outspoken against the permanent political class in venues outside the Senate floor until now. Now that he’s fighting against Washington, D.C., on the floor, he’s likely only going to get bolder and bolder in how he goes after the career politician class.

Sasse, a freshman conservative, said:

I’ve done two things in my adult worklife: I’m a historian by training and a strategy guy by vocation. Before becoming a college president, I helped over a dozen organizations find strategies to get through some very ugly crises. One important lesson I learned over and over is that, when you walk into any troubled organization, there is a delicate balance between expressing human empathy and yet not passively sweeping hard truths under the rug. On the one hand, it is absolutely essential to listen first, to ask questions first to learn how a broken institution got to where it is because there are reasons. Things drift and fray for reasons; people rarely set out to break special institutions they inherit. Still, empathy cannot change the reality that a bankrupt company is spending more to build its products than customers are willing to pay for them; a college with too few students is not only out of money but out of spirit; a charity that cannot persuade enough donors to invest in its cause might not have the right cause.

Because of that, Sasse said, he’s faced a “two-part posture” that he’s “adopted in my rookie year.” Sasse said:

Because of this goal of empathetic listening first, of coming to sit and privately interview many of you and also because of a pledge I made to Nebraskans in deference to an old Senate tradition I have waited. But please do not misunderstand: Do not confuse a deliberate approach with passivity. I ran because I think that the public is right that we as a people are not tackling the generational crises that we face: We don’t have a long-term foreign policy for the age of jihad and cyberwar; our entitlement budgets are completely fake; we are entering an age where work and jobs will be more fundamentally disrupted than at any point since hunter-gatherers first settled in agrarian villages. And yet we don’t really have any plans. I think the public is right that we as a Congress are not shepherding the country through the serious debates we must have about the future of this great nation.

Sasse said he spends his weekends at home in Nebraska and hears from his constituents about how awful Washington, D.C. really is to ordinary Americans. He said:

If I can be brutally honest for a moment: I’m home basically every weekend, and what I hear  and what I’m sure most of you hear is some version of this: A pox on both parties and all your houses. We don’t believe politicians are even trying to fix this mess. To the Republicans, to those who claim this new majority is leading the way: Few believe that. To the grandstanders who use this institution as a platform for outside pursuits: Few believe the country’s needs are as important to you as your ambitions. To the Democrats, who did this body harm through nuclear tactics: Few believe bare-knuckled politics are a substitute for principled governing. And does anyone doubt that many on both the right and the left now salivate for more of these radical tactics? The people despise us all. And why is this? Because we’re not doing the job we were sent here to do. The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.

Because of that, Sasse questions whether the U.S. Senate should even continue to exist. He said:

I therefore propose a thought experiment: If the Senate isn’t going to be the most important venue for addressing our biggest national problems, where is that venue? Where should the people look for the long-term national prioritization? Or, to ask it of ourselves, would anything be lost if the Senate didn’t exist? Again, this a thought experiment, so let me be emphatically clear: I think a great deal would be lost if the federal government didn’t have a Senate, but game out with me the question of ‘Why?’ What precisely would be lost if we had only a House of Representatives, rather than both bodies? The growth of the administrative state, the fourth branch of government, is increasingly hollowing out the Article I branch, the legislature, and many in Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers. So would anything really be lost if we doubled-down on Woodrow Wilson’s impulses and inclinations toward administrative efficiency by removing much of the clunky-ness of legislative process?

Later in the speech, Sasse said he doesn’t think there is a “magic bullet” solution to this—but does believe that it’s incumbent upon him to blow the whistle on these problems so Americans are aware of them.

“I do not think there is any magic bullet to restore the Senate,” Sasse said. “My purpose in speaking today is basically just to move into public discussions I’ve already been having in private as I try to define a personal strategy for how to use this Floor. I want advice. I am opening a conversation and soliciting input on how to contribute to the broader team, and there are many of you who want an upgrading of our debate, our prioritization, and our seriousness about the bigger challenges.”

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