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Adulting might be alive and well in Congress

The retiring Lamar Alexander and Greg Walden show it’s possible to do your job in public life while acting like a grown-up

OPINION — Politics attracts its fair share of spleen-venters, be they petulant presidents or colicky congressmen. But two veteran, retiring lawmakers steeped for years in electoral jockeying and no strangers to campaign combat are showing one can do your job in public life while still acting like an adult.

“Our country needs a United States Senate, to thoughtfully and carefully and intentionally put country before partisanship and personal politics to force broad agreements on controversial issues that become laws that most of us will vote for and that a diverse country will accept,” Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said in his farewell speech to the Senate on Dec. 2.

Such sentiments are commonplace in senators’ floor speeches. What makes Alexander’s different is that he actually lived that.

A former governor, Education secretary, presidential candidate and Senate GOP conference chairman, Alexander spent the last part of his career bringing ambitious legislation into law. From his perch as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he helped shepherd undertakings such as updating the No Child Left Behind education law in 2015 and a landmark biomedical research funding law the following year.

He could have been following the lead of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The Massachusetts Democrat, some of whose biggest accomplishments came out of his time on the HELP panel, had presidential ambitions of his own and no doubts about his own liberal convictions.

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But in the latter part of his career, Kennedy worked well with people who didn’t necessarily share his ideology, like Ohio Republican John A. Boehner and President George W. Bush on the original No Child Left Behind law. He could make his own leadership downright nervous when he smelled a deal that didn’t toe the party line but attracted broad support.

A defining moment for Alexander was his decision to leave elected leadership in 2012.

“I left to focus on issues that I cared the most about. Since then I’ve done my best to leave footprints that I hope are good for the country,” he said in his farewell speech.

He laid out the path to David Drucker in an interview with Roll Call in February 2012, shortly after stepping down as conference chairman.  

“Leadership in the Senate is really, ironically, very confining. You are really very limited by what the consensus is in your caucus. I think there’s a reason why two of the three Senate office buildings here are named after people who were never in the elected leadership: Sen. [Philip] Hart and Sen. [Richard] Russell,” Alexander said then.

That didn’t mean he turned in his Republican ideals, though.

“I haven’t changed my stripes at all,” Alexander said in that 2012 interview. “But I know what it is to get results, and that’s what I’m interested in doing.”

Across the Rotunda, retiring members of the House rarely get the floor fanfare their departing Senate counterparts do. But retiring Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who is the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, recently made some statements similar to Alexander’s.

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“I always tried to do hearings, and then markups, you know, and subcommittee and full committee,” Walden said in an interview with CQ Roll Call’s Sandhya Raman. “I think it’s really important to do that and to realize that people sitting on the other side of the dais aren’t your enemies. They may just have different views.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., walks through the Capitol on Dec. 4, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Walden, like Alexander, is no pure policy geek.

A two-time chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he knows what makes partisans tick. After the 2016 cycle, he became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and after the 2018 election its ranking member, helping pass such big-ticket items as an omnibus 2018 opioid treatment law.

“I think that was an extraordinary piece of legislation. And, you know, you work on a lot of bills here, but seldom can you say that you’ve passed something that really saves lives,” Walden told CQ Roll Call last month.

A skeptic might think: Easy for them to say. They’re retiring.

But they do have the legislative track records to back that up.

And even amid Congress’ late lame-duck throes, there are others who might be following in their footsteps.

One lawmaker who will be coming back in the 117th Congress, who has a high-profile position as well as a history of political and leadership jousting himself, released a statement that shows adulting could be alive and well in some corners of the legislative branch.

“Janet Yellen demonstrated her intellect, foresight, and independence during the financial crisis, and throughout her term as Fed Chair. While I will work against the Biden Administration’s agenda of tax increases and burdensome regulations, I think it’s important we have credible and experienced people to serve at the highest levels of government. Yellen has clearly demonstrated her capacity during her public service,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry said after President-elect Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Yellen to be Treasury secretary.

McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who is the ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, knows his chamber has no role in Yellen’s confirmation process. Further, he knows his party has a better-than-even shot at winning the majority in 2022, and many of his colleagues see hectoring Democrats as a means of securing that majority.

In a previous role, say when he was chief deputy whip from 2015 to 2019, he might have been heavily involved in planning some of that hectoring.

But McHenry left that whip position and became ranking member of Financial Services in 2019. He still knows what party he’s in. But he also knows a Secretary Yellen will eventually come to testify at the Financial Services panel and it’s easier to get a thoughtful answer out of someone if you ask thoughtful questions and say thoughtful things about them beforehand.

Who knows how far this adulting thing could go if adopted widely in Congress? 

Jason Dick is deputy editor of CQ Roll Call.

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