Former Senator Ben Nelson takes questions from UNO students
Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, December 12, 2013 20:12
Speaking on bipartisanship in a partisan congress, former Senator Ben Nelson said Political Action Committees and lack of members working with congressman from across the aisle are just some of the reasons the 113th Congress has been so dysfunctional, during a speech on Sept. 12 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service.
Nelson, who is the current politician-in-residence for the university’s political science department, said PACs, organizations that pool campaign contributions and donates funds to candidates in Washington, are now used to throwing endless money at members to threaten them to vote for or against pieces of legislation. Offering a solution, Nelson said the only way to get rid of PACs would be if the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.
“I never believed you could solve problems at the extremes,” Nelson said, commenting on the necessity for bipartisanship in congress.
Famously a moderate Democrat who has a history with working with members from both political parties, Nelson also cited member’s individual choices and lack of cohesion as reasons for why the current session of congress has reached so many stalemates and failed resolutions.
“Systematically, Washington is no longer about the last election,” Nelson said. “It’s about the next election now.”
With candidates only worrying about reelection, members of both the House of Representatives and Senate are analyzing their future more than setting out “to get the job done” said Nelson.
Nelson also said that when members attack pieces of legislation by trying to obtain leverage against the other side during the debate this leads to stalemates. To combat this, the senator said more bipartisan pieces of legislation need to be crafted. Moreover, Nelson even offered that the seating arrangement of congress, currently with all Republican members seating on the left of the center aisle and Democrats on the right, be changed so that members sit alphabetically or by state.
“We need to try to find the best ideas on both sides of the aisle and bridge that gap,” Nelson said.
In Congress, Nelson broke down the membership into four categories. He said there are squakers, who just like to make a lot of noise to gain media coverage; talkers, people who talk about their goals but never actually pursue them; dreamers and doers.
“I think the current situation is ominous for the future,” Nelson said. “It won’t change or get better until even more people are fed up and they start turning down the volume. They’ll be tired of hearing more of the same, the dreamers being sidelined and the doers drowned out.”
Nelson called the current Congress - which has an approval rating of just 15 percent according to a poll by Gallup, the lowest approval rating since 1974 - “embarrassing to the country.”
“It’s become a challenge to say we are doing the right thing when we’re doing nothing,” Nelson said.
Beyond bipartisanship and the dismal state of the 113th session of Congress, Nelson also spoke on how the judiciary branch needs to work even when Congress isn’t, a senator’s day-to-day schedule and the media’s influence on senators and the public.
Beyond stating that he wishes America had a newsman like Walter Cronkite today, one who the public greatly trusts, Nelson said often times members of Congress will only listen to partisan news that reconfirms their beliefs, further making the legislature more partisan.
“Once you do that, you don’t pay attention to the other side,” Nelson said. “Try and find your facts first before drawing an opinion.”
Following his 40 minute speech, the senator took 30 minutes of questioning, covering such topics as Syria, having lunch with Harrison Ford and the Affordable Care Act.
When asked which job he liked better, serving as governor or senator, Nelson said: “It’s like asking which one of my children do I like best? It depends on the day and what they’re doing.”
Serving as governor of Nebraska starting in 1990, Nelson furthered his political career by serving as one of Nebraska’s senators for two full terms starting in 2000. He opted not to run again in 2012, Republican Deb Fisher claiming his seat instead. He now serves as the Chief Executive of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an organization of state insurance regulatory agencies.
Nelson offered the audience of political science students and faculty a piece of advice.
“You can have dreams and aspirations, but they can only be real if you put in the effort.”