Sen. Patrick Leahy on how and why the Senate is a ‘broken place’


Patrick Leahy, 82, is the senior Democratic senator from Vermont and president pro tempore and chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. Senate. His memoir, “The Road Taken,” was released in August.

You’ve said the Senate is a “broken place.” As the longest-serving member of the Senate now, could you shed some light on how it got there?

Well, the Senate was never a perfect place. But it was a better place. Any representative branch of government is going to have a lot of differences. I look at the years of fighting against segregation and all these other things. But the Senate has been the conscience of the nation. It came together after Watergate and in a number of other times of crisis. World War II is an example. The Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, we came together. Today, it’s not the conscience of the nation. It’s not the body where people seek consensus, where Republicans and Democrats work together, except in some instances. There are far too many people more interested in getting something out for the next news cycle than they are taking advantage of it being a six-year term and doing things for the long term.

How do you think it got that way?

I saw some of the changes coming during the Newt Gingrich period. Before that, you had Democratic leaders, like Tip O’Neill, Republican leaders like Bob Michel, who worked together in the House, which made it easier to work together with the Senate. And we had leaders in the Senate — Republican and Democratic — who worked closely together. Gingrich, ignoring his own personal life, went after attacks on Bill Clinton and shoved aside the kind of work that Bob Michel would do as Republican leader in trying to get consensus. And developed a cadre of people who were win-at-all-cost. Many of them then went on to the Senate. It’s around that time you started seeing the changes.

January 6th was a kind of microcosm of everything, of the polarization. I think back to when we had the count of the electoral vote with Al Gore’s campaign for president. He felt that with an accurate recount in Florida, he probably had enough votes to have won the presidency, but he presided over the counting of the electoral votes and made it very clear that George W. Bush would be declared president.

Then we see January 6th — first the posturing, and it really was posturing, by some [saying] that we have to invalidate or do over some of these votes, and speeches being made that were aimed for the camera and for Donald Trump’s approval more than what was best for the Congress. Then, within minutes of that, we suddenly had armed agents coming onto the floor of the Senate, which we never do. Even when the vice president’s there, the Secret Service will wait outside. They’re rushing Mike Pence off the podium, off the presiding officer’s table. And I glance to my side and here’s a man standing there in body armor with “Police” printed on it, carrying a machine gun.

What were you thinking then?

I didn’t know what to think at that point. After 48 years, I’d never seen anything like that. There are certain rules of decorum, as you know. I’d been a prosecutor for eight years, I’d been at crime scenes and so on, but this was a shock. They said, “We’ve got to get you all out of here,” and rushed us down and went to another building, walking underground. And then, once they started turning on the television in this safe area, you could see the mood changing: Some of the people who had been doing the loudest histrionics and contesting were suddenly very quiet.

With those who had been posturing now quiet — and maybe chastened — did you have a sense that there would be more of a coming together?

I thought that we were going to probably be able to complete our work. A number of the ones who were going to contest the votes made it known to other senators they were no longer going to contest. Some continued to, of course, but others were, “Let’s get this done.” Everybody there knew not only that Joe Biden had millions of more votes than Donald Trump, he also had more electoral votes.

So, at that point, did you think talk of the “big lie” would fade away among your colleagues?

I hoped that that would happen. You know, my Irish-Italian nature is always optimistic. But that was a short-lived optimism. Privately, a number of senators would say, in the Senate gym and whatnot, “Maybe we’ve gone too far.” But I was waiting for someone to say it publicly.

Does it frustrate you when people you’ve worked with and know have a different public version?

It bothers me. That is why I’ve had my, what I call, “Prayer Hour and Holy Water” meetings. I invite a number of senators — always get an equal number of Republicans and Democrats — just to sit and talk. Because everybody knows there’s never been a word that’s leaked out from those meetings, it encourages people to be more forthcoming, and we often find we have more in common than we think. Also, when I’ve led congressional delegations anywhere in the world, I’ve tried to get Republicans and Democrats across the political spectrum. Because when you’re on that airplane for sometimes hours at a time and you’re spending breakfast together and so on, you find there’s a lot of things that you agree to. Some of my best legislation has come from after one of those trips. Legislation banning the export of land mines, and the War Victims Fund, with Republican support.

But when you have so many people who see themselves as being the next president and feel that they’ve got to constantly say something that will break through the evening news, you forget that the Senate is a place you’re supposed to come together, to take the long view, not the passing partisan or political view. That’s not being done, and I think it hurts the country. I worry, also, that the hyper-partisanship that we see in the Senate is also being reflected in the Supreme Court. And that is, in many ways, going to hurt America even more.

And, of course, you led the Senate Judiciary Committee for years.

Yes. And when we were complaining about Republicans breaking the rules to jam through some Supreme Court justices for Donald Trump — the same ones that supported blocking, not even allowing a hearing of Barack Obama’s nominee of Merrick Garland — I heard someone say, “Well, you Democrats would vote against Republican nominees.” I looked at all the Republicans on the committee, and I said, “Is there any one of you who’s voted for more Republican nominees to the judiciary than I have? I don’t think there is.” The first Republican nominee I voted for was John Paul Stevens.

I’m not suggesting the Senate, or the Supreme Court, is supposed to be on some kind of a pedestal, but I am suggesting that they should have the credibility, so the American public, when there’s a difficult decision, can take it seriously.

When the Senate and Supreme Court are seen as partisan, they lack legitimacy in people’s eyes. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the real possibility of civil war — is that something you think about?

Yes. And that could be defined in several ways. It could be states refusing to follow the law. It could be more insurrections. The availability of weapons you usually see on the battlefield, people are carrying them — I should add, I’ve always been a gun owner; I earned my letter in college as a member of the rifle team — but this has gotten out of control. And when you have states that don’t want to teach history, don’t want to talk about the good and bad of the country, and when you see the racist, the anti-religious comments that are made, it is really frightening.

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Do you see courage? Do you see hope?

Yes. One of the reasons I wrote the book, and I don’t expect everybody to take it as gospel, is I hope enough will read it and realize we’ve had better times.

One of the things I talk about in the book was when I was asked to come to King Hussein of Jordan’s funeral. I rode over on Air Force One — Bill Clinton was president. We had Gerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush on there. Now, Jimmy Carter had defeated Gerry Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had defeated Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton had defeated George Bush. And we’re sitting around a conference table, and they’re like old buddies, swapping stories, talking about things that we’ve all got to come together on. And I just sat there quietly and thought, “Here’s an example of the way we should be.” And now you wonder: Can we do that again?

If you were to give advice to new senators now, what would that be?

Keep your word. But also realize you don’t have the answer to everything. Seek out other senators, talk to them, get to know them, listen to them. You’ve got to have people who can trust each other, but also know each other. Trying to work only with people who are in absolute agreement with you, that’s a mistake. Bringing everybody together — that’s why you do it, and that’s the way you do it.

When the Senate shut down here about three years ago, under Donald Trump — the longest shutdown we’ve had — Kay Granger, who was the ranking member of Texas, conservative Republican, she’s in my office, and she’s looking at a number of the photographs I’d taken. And she told me, which I didn’t know, that she had taught photography in high school. So, then we started talking. It was like, “Well, what kind of an f-stop would you use on this? Blah, blah, blah.” We had something in common. And away we went to work out our differences.