We are nearing the end of these weekly columns as my Senate offices are nearly closed and computers as well as equipment are being returned to the Senate. December 31st is the last day for my staff. I will officially leave office January 13, 2013.
After 20 years of public service, 8 as governor and 12 as senator, it is during these final weeks that I have a growing concern about the ability of Congress to work together, put aside partisanship, and address our country’s problems.
I’ve found that President Lincoln’s admonishment more than 150 years ago holds true today: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.
As governor, recognizing that urban and rural interests often differed, I created ONE Nebraska to bring both sides together to work out differences and move Nebraska forward. In the same manner, my hope in Washington was to bring together competing interests and create ONE Nation with both sides working together for the common good.
While it worked for a time in the Senate, over the years, the atmosphere of multiplication and addition turned to an atmosphere of division and subtraction.
My concerns have always been about getting the best legislation possible to help the most people and to benefit Nebraska. That requires working with others and not just taking the partisan solution.
That made it very difficult, indeed, to accomplish anything. As someone who is willing to reach across the aisle and listen to other points of view, it was more than disappointing when the comradely became poisoned by partisanship.
I would often think of the words of John F. Kennedy when he admonished those on Capitol Hill to work together. He would say, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
Sadly, that attitude no longer prevails in Washington. Politics has gone from being a contact sport to actual combat. Today, too many are willing to bring this country to its knees just to make a point. It’s driven by special interests more than anyone can remember; Obstructionism is the very thing that has made this country further divided.
It was always my hope that Congress could do as the Founders did when they wrote the Constitution which was sometimes referred to as The Great Compromise. We had some successes during my dozen years in the Senate and some setbacks. Sadly, for some, the word “compromise” has become a dirty word.
Early on in my term, I worked with 13 other senators to form The Gang of 14 which broke the political logjam on judicial nominations without erasing the rules of the Senate to protect minority views. Sitting together by state, regardless of political parties, during the State of the Union Address was another success in bringing different factions together.
Page 2 of 3 - In 2001, shortly after my arrival in Washington, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought all sides together. Party labels weren’t important. Instead of Democratic Senators or Republican Senators we had United States Senators. We were all in this together from the anthrax laced letters sent to elected officials, the media and others to the waging of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was one of several senators, from both parties, who toured the battlefields, met with foreign leaders and perhaps most importantly, met with members of our military who voluntarily put their lives on the line for God and Country. They weren’t concerned about politics. They were concerned about proper management of the war.
Our mission was to learn how best to proceed, not for the good of one party or the other but for the good of the country and we worked on it together.
While we remain at war in Afghanistan and are ever vigilant of the possibility of more acts of terrorism, the lessons we learned early on have gone by the wayside. The foxhole conversion of working together toward a common goal has fallen to political ideology not only where war is concerned but most any issue you can name.
I have always been a staunch advocate for Nebraska. As a rural state with a relatively small population someone needs to work hard in Washington to make sure our needs are not overlooked. Many of the bureaucrats in Washington think “rural” is the drive from DC to Baltimore. They just don’t get it when it comes to rural states.
That’s why I always fought hard to make sure Nebraskans were not overlooked when it came to protecting agriculture and the environment and funding important projects all across our state including roads, bridges, water and sewer projects, and other infrastructure.
In addition to such huge projects as a new headquarters for STRATCOM and a new VA hospital, working with local leaders I was able to secure federal funding for projects throughout rural Nebraska.
These include improvements at Regional Airports in Grand Island, McCook, Scottsbluff, and Alliance. Earmarks are also helping the city of Columbus with its North Arterial Bypass, the Heartland Expressway in the Panhandle, and the Cherry Avenue Exit in Kearney that will provide a bypass for trucks and easy access for tourists to see the Archway.
In the area of higher education, again, working with local leaders, I was able to secure federal funds for the Western Nebraska Community College’s Advanced Technology Center, a College of Nursing in Norfolk, an Events Center at Mid Plains Community College in McCook, and a significant investment to the University of Nebraska at Kearney for projects as varied as solar cell research and renovation of the planetarium.
Page 3 of 3 - Nebraskans send their tax dollars to Washington and they deserve to get some of them back for worthwhile projects. I always worked with local and state officials who sought help with these and other projects. All of my earmarks, including the names of those who requested them, were listed on my website so everything was above board. There were no “bridges to nowhere” among those earmarks.
Another thing that was done above board was my vote on the Affordable Care Act which has become known as Obamacare. The offensive and unfair term “Cornhusker Kickback” became a nasty political attack on me personally and on anyone who supported making our health system affordable and available to all.
The so called Cornhusker Kickback was designed to benefit all the states, not just Nebraska, in order to avoid an unfunded federal mandate to increase costs of Medicaid.
The facts are Nebraskans are already benefitting from health care reform and will continue to benefit even more as it continues to fully take effect in the future.
There have been some positive signs in Washington that both sides are at least attempting to come together and I sincerely hope they will because I, like most Nebraskans, want this country to succeed. My hope is that they will heed the words of Henry Ford when he said; “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”.
Another favorite quote of mine was put on invitations for events held across Nebraska as kind of a going away party from the Senate. The quote sums up my feelings for public service.
The quote, by author Heidi Willis, said simply, “we can choose to be affected by the world or we can choose to affect the world”.
Nebraskans share any affect I had on the world because I never acted without working closely with my fellow Nebraskans.
I think we did that during two terms as governor and for at least part of my two terms as senator.
Nothing would have been possible without the help of the people of Nebraska. We worked together and thus were able to make a positive difference on Nebraska which makes me very happy and proud.