20 December 2018
20 December 2018

These days, it is not unusual to hear a loud “quack” from time to time in Washington, D.C.

It is the call of the “lame duck”—  a term used to describe politicians who are leaving office and are just waiting for their successors to be sworn in.

Right now,  Capitol Hill is full of them. Some are members of Congress who lost their  re-election bids… others are retiring voluntarily. And quite a few seem to be using their final days in the legislature to speak out about the state of our nation in general and the legislative process in particular.

Especially in the Senate, where the warnings are grim.

One by one,  outgoing Senators have been showing up in the chamber in these final days of the session to make their voices heard one last time.

These “farewell addresses” have been a mix of reminiscences of a more bipartisan and productive era in Washington and somber reflections on what may lie ahead.

And the interesting thing is it didn’t seem to matter if you were listening to a Republican or a Democrat. The tone and the message were the same.

The Senate — the upper body of the US Congress —has long been viewed as the more disciplined and less raucous branch of the legislature.   Not anymore.

The founders of our country designed the Senate to be the place where political passions cooled by giving each state two Senators… and each Senator a far more diverse electorate than the House (where districts are based on population.)

For most of the nation’s history, things have gone according to plan. But in recent years, the Senate has become far more partisan and political gamesmanship has become the order of the day.

The old rules requiring a thoughtful legislative process are being tested, and nerves have become frayed, leaving these departing lawmakers with deep concerns about the future.

Consider the words of Senator Orrin Hatch. The Utah Republican, who is retiring after serving more than 40 years in the Senate, used his farewell address to warn that the upper chamber of Congress “is in crisis.”

He bemoaned legislative rules that have been discarded, with party leaders pushing legislation without proper deliberation. And then there was this:

“…compromise — once the guiding credo of this great institution — is now synonymous with surrender.”

Now,  you can agree or disagree with Hatch’s staunch conservative philosophy. But he remains — until his replacement is sworn in next month — an elder statesman of the Senate. And he words still, despite his lame duck status, carry weight.

In his last address to the body, he acknowledged that “times have changed,”  then added that to “mend the nation, we must mend the Senate.”

And while he is seldom critical in public of President Trump, Hatch offered this advice: “Restoring civility requires that each of us speak responsibly. That means the president. That means Congress. And that means everyone listening today.”

Similar words came from Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who lost her bid for re-election last month.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about this place. It just doesn’t work as well as it used to,” she said in her farewell remarks on the Senate floor.

Like Hatch, she worried aloud about the shift in tone in the upper chamber,  and the fact that “a few people are writing legislation, a few people are making decisions.”

Others leaving the Senate include Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee (the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Both are retiring voluntarily… both have been critics of the Trump administration… and both are deeply concerned about America’s place in the world.

As he prepared to address the Senate for the last time, it was clear that Flake had thought long and hard about the changes he had seen both at home and abroad.

He cautioned that the “threats to our democracy from within and without are real.”

Flake made particular mention of Vladimir Putin, saying the Russian President hijacked democracy in his own country and is determined to do the same elsewhere.

“Denial of this reality will not make it any less real,” he said, adding “this is something that is staring us in the face, right now, as we are gathered here today.”

Just a few days after he spoke those words, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a damning report accusing Russia of an all-out social media campaign to sow discord in the United States and pour salt into the wounds of our national divisions.

That committee has been one of the few in the Senate to conduct its work on a bipartisan basis and the results have been impressive.

It’s a hopeful sign and there have been a few more as the 115th session of the US Congress comes to a close.

In the final days of the session, the Senate also acted on twin resolutions: one to end US participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and a second blaming Saudi Arabia’s crown prince for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

What was really incredible about the Yemen resolution — other than the fact that it was a direct rebuke of the administration’s foreign policy — is that it was put forward in the Senate by two members at completely different ends of the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is probably the most leftist member of the Senate and Mike Lee of Utah is among the most conservative. They came together on this issue.

Is it a sign of a possible return to camaraderie when the new Senate that takes office on January 3rd?

The fact is the same people will still be in charge and the political warfare on domestic issues is likely to be every bit as intense and perhaps even worse as both major parties gear up for the 2020 US presidential campaign.

But in the area of foreign policy, we could see the two sides come together and seek common ground.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report is one good omen… the two resolutions dealing with Saudi Arabia comprise another.

And it is worth noting here that while the vote on the Yemen resolution was 56-41,  Senators voted unanimously on the measure blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder on October 2nd inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Yes, you read that right. Unanimous.

The House still has to act and given the nature of the lower chamber, might never do so.

But the Senate clearly found its voice.

Or maybe it just listened to the final words of a flock of lame ducks.


Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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