Sen. Lamar Alexander’s farewell speech to the chamber in which he’s served for 18 years — and was a staffer decades earlier — was a reminder to colleagues of why the retiring Tennessee Republican was such a popular and effective public figure.
Alexander’s speech Wednesday, which attracted a crowd to the Senate floor even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, featured plenty of nods to history, including a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville and the familiar warning against the “tyranny of the majority” if the legislative filibuster is eliminated.
But Alexander continued to argue that the Senate should actually consider amendments and vote more often on big issues — an almost nonexistent practice in the modern Senate.
“If a carbon tax is a good idea, why aren’t we voting on it? Or if we want to help the DACA kids, why aren’t we voting on it? Or the federal debt’s out of control, why aren’t we voting on it? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works in a body of 100 that operates mostly by unanimous consent,” Alexander said. “But here’s my different view of why we’re here. It’s hard to get here. It’s hard to stay here, and while we’re here we might as well try to accomplish something good for the country.
“But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments. Lately, the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing. It’s a real waste of talent. I mean, think about this body. Over the years, we’ve had astronauts and former governors and Supreme Court law clerks, military heroes, turnaround CEOs; we even had one of us that ran the Olympics. A group of that much talent ought to accomplish a lot more,” Alexander said.
Much of the decline of the consideration of amendments has occurred while the Republican leader of the Senate has been Alexander’s close friend, Mitch McConnell of neighboring Kentucky, the current majority leader.
McConnell choked up more than usual Wednesday morning in bidding farewell to his friend, the outgoing chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The two have been friends for half a century, since their time as young Senate staffers, and McConnell said he was “dreading life in the Senate” without Alexander in the body.
“We first met in 1969, when I was working for a freshman senator named Marlow Cook and he worked down in the executive branch. We met at the suggestion of his previous boss and mentor, Sen. Howard Baker,” McConnell said. “Either he suspected our paths might cross again later or he just saw two serious young guys in need of some livelier social lives. Now this may shock you … but I’m afraid young Lamar Alexander and young Mitch McConnell did not exactly go crazy and paint the town red.”
Former governors often take poorly to the Senate, lacking the patience needed to score legislative victories in the body. That has not been true of Alexander, who has the distinction of what McConnell called the Senate’s “Triple Crown,” having been a Senate aide, a Senate-confirmed Education secretary under President George H.W. Bush and a senator in his own right. Alexander was governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987.
“The jobs are different. Both jobs cause you to want to see an urgent need, develop a strategy to deal with it and then try to persuade at least half the people you’re right. But the governor’s job is more like Moses: You say, ‘Let’s go this way,’” Alexander said. “The senator’s job, if you want to get something done, is more like a parade organizer.”
Alexander said that in the Senate, the goal is to get the parade all going smoothly enough not to run off the road too many times.
“I love the traditions of the Senate: the hard marble floors, the elaborate courtesies, [Chaplain] Barry Black’s prayers, scratching my name besides Howard Baker and Fred Thompson’s name in this desk drawer,” Alexander said, before recalling the story of how he met his wife, Honey, at a softball game for Senate staffers.
Alexander said he would be delivering a separate speech to honor Senate aides before formally exiting the chamber, and his speech drew a standing ovation as well as remarks in his honor from both sides of the aisle.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer recalled their interactions in the Senate gym (where Schumer developed many of his Senate relationships over the years) as well as their time together leading the Rules and Administration Committee and the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. The planning for that 2013 inauguration, like now, is being done without knowing for sure which party would be running the Senate by the time the inauguration would take place.
But the warmest remarks from the Democratic side of the aisle might’ve come from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with whom Alexander has partnered for more than a decade now at the helm of the Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee.
“We were also often among the first, if not the first, subcommittee to negotiate our bill, draft it and get it marked up by the full committee,” Feinstein said. “And that includes four years of record-level funding for clean energy, the national laboratories, supercomputing and water projects.
“The focus has always been on a fair, open process that seeks compromise, and that track record speaks to the value we place on the process,” Feinstein said.
McConnell also spoke to Alexander’s long record as a fixture in Tennessee politics, even if Alexander was famously once not recognized while stopping for breakfast on the Lamar Alexander Parkway in eastern Tennessee.
“You couldn’t walk across the entire state of Tennessee in a plaid shirt, get elected governor before the age of 40 and serve more combined years as governor and senator than anyone else in the history of the Volunteer State without becoming entirely intertwined with the place,” McConnell said.
Alexander is often referred to by his first name because of his use of “Lamar!” on his campaign signs, along with his trademark plaid.