Can Washington's Most Interesting Egghead Save the Senate?

Nebraska’s freshman Republican, Ben Sasse, has spent nearly a year in silence. But now he plans to start calling out his colleagues.

Larry Downing / Reuters

Almost exactly a year ago, just after the 2014 elections, The Washington Post sized up the motley crew of newly elected senators—10 Republicans and one Democrat—and tried to figure out what roles they would play once they arrived in the Capitol. Ben Sasse, a 43-year-old conservative from Nebraska with no prior political experience, was voted most likely to give the first speech and most likely to make trouble for the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

D.C. seemed to have Sasse (pronounced “sass”) pegged as a rabble-rousing smarty-pants eager to turn the place upside down. But Sasse proceeded to defy expectations: He decided to spend the first 10 months of his term listening—without giving any speeches at all on the floor of the Senate. (This approach did not please everyone: A letter published in the Lincoln Journal Star last month accused him of “simply collecting his paycheck and having an occasional meeting with other senators.”)

On Tuesday, a year after he was elected, Sasse will speak on the Senate floor for the first time. Instead of being the first freshman to speak, he will be the last.

“I’m a historian by training,” Sasse explained, perched on a chair in his Senate office, which is nearly bare save for a few generic pictures of Nebraska. Until a few decades ago, he said, it was traditional for new senators to wait a year to speak. That that’s no longer the case, he suspects, speaks to the pathology of the modern Senate, where lawmakers deliver stale talking points for the benefit of the C-SPAN2 cameras, often with nobody else in attendance.

But once he starts speaking, Sasse doesn’t plan to stop. He has concocted an audacious plan to get his fellow senators’ attention—one he hopes could rescue the moribund upper house from its current torpor.

Sasse is, in fact, a historian by training, among other things—he may have the Senate’s most varied resume, from the five degrees (Harvard undergrad, three master’s, Yale Ph.D) to several executive-branch positions in the Bush administration (Department of Justice, Health and Human Services) to corporate consulting to academia. When he set out to run for Senate last year, he was the president of a small Lutheran school in his home state, Midland College, whose faltering enrollment and finances he successfully turned around; running with a hybrid of establishment credentials and Tea Party passion, he defeated two better-known candidates in the Republican primary and sailed to victory in the general election.

Sasse says he has approached the Senate like a company in need of a culture change. “I’ve done 26 crisis and turnaround projects in the last 21 years, so I’m used to going into places that are really broken,” he says. “You always have to walk this fine line between learning a place—by being humble and asking questions and having empathy for real humans laboring in broken institutions—and resolve, that you’re going to still steel yourself to not let human empathy cloud the fact that a broken institution is a broken institution.” In his speech today, according to a draft, he plans to say, “I believe that a cultural recovery inside the Senate is a partial prerequisite for national recovery.”

What the heck does this mean? And if the problem with the Senate is that senators aren’t listening to each other’s speeches, can you really hope to fix it by giving another speech nobody listens to?

Sasse can seem, from the perspective of a jaded Washington insider, hopelessly naïve—like when, a month ago, he went off on a multi-part rant on Twitter about the need for Republicans to think bigger when it came to selecting a speaker of the House and suggested that Arthur Brooks, the right-wing theorist and happiness guru, might be the man for the job. Sasse is fond of saying that the things Washington fights over are boring to regular people and that there are plenty of folks in Nebraska who could run the country better than its current elected leaders, which sounds very much like the kind of diversionary hooey politicians frequently spout to convince voters they’re not, in fact, politicians.

But Sasse insists what he’s proposing in Tuesday’s speech is more than just a bunch of pious baloney. He has a three-part plan, based—naturally—on historical precedent, to make his mark now that he’s opened his mouth to speak—and get his colleagues to pay attention.

Sasse’s first historical model is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York Democrat, whose Senate desk Sasse has commandeered. Moynihan once famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”; Sasse believes facts too often go missing when today’s senators talk. The second model is Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine who served in the 1950s and ‘60s and who, despite her strong opposition to Communism, felt compelled to call out her fellow Republican, Joseph McCarthy, for his political witch hunts. Sasse sees her as an icon of putting principle ahead of party.

Demanding facts and calling out excessive partisanship sound nice, I told Sasse, but do you really expect anyone to care? Just last week, Ted Cruz took to the floor of the Senate to rip McConnell as “a very effective Democratic leader”; McConnell wasn’t there and didn’t bother to respond, seeing it as yet more presidential-campaign posturing. Won’t Sasse’s colleagues ignore him, too?

“I actually plan to engage people,” Sasse replied. “I guess they can ignore me, but part of the reason I want to preview this is so it doesn’t seem so jarring when it actually happens. When people give straw-man speeches, I plan to go and interrupt.”

That is, Sasse plans to actually hang out in the Senate, listening to his colleagues’ stupid speeches—and rebutting them in real time when he feels they’ve gone astray. He’s not just begging them to have debates. He’s going to debate them, whether they like it or not.

I ask if he’s been biting his tongue all year, listening to speeches without giving any of his own. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he says. Since he is 99th in seniority, he’s often tasked with presiding over the floor, which in practice means hoping the C-SPAN2 cameras don’t catch him munching on chocolate-covered pretzels while another senator drones away in the otherwise empty chamber. “I sit in this chair all the time, and it just feels like Charlie Brown’s mom talking all the time,” he says.

Sasse’s third historical icon is Robert Byrd, the late West Virginia Democrat—chosen not for his segregationist views, but for his 100-speech series on the history of democracy. The Senate, he believes, can become a place for that kind of storytelling again. Every few weeks, he plans to deliver a new installment in a series of meditations on executive authority, the separation of powers, and the Constitution.

“If it’s not the Senate, where will this deliberation happen?” Sasse asks me, before he bounces out of his chair to head off to a meeting. “I think we’d be much better off if the people who have this job had to actually argue about what the policy agenda of the country should be over the next decade.” If the Senate’s most interesting egghead has his way, there will be a lot more arguing soon to come.