Tom Daschle and Trent Lott talk the Senate at NYU

This evening I attended a "civil discussion" between mild-mannered evasive rhetorician, Tom Daschle, and the folksy Southern good ol'boy Trent Lott put on by NYU's John Brademas Center at the law school.  The opportunity to view these sorts of panels are what initially attracted me to the law school, and the prospect of two such statesmen talking the Senate was enough to get me excited once again, to brave the sheet of ice covering New York and head out into the crisp evening.

Both men were deferential and courteous to each other, as if the recent clarion call for political civility was a religion for these two.  "We're friends," Lott said.  "Our wives are friends." The moderator and the audience had to attack at the political periphery just to get the two to begin to disagree.  

After shout-outs from Lott on the caliber of the NYU's tax program and Daschle's recognition that Tishman Auditorium "was larger than most towns in South Dakota," the two were brought together to discuss the institution of the Senate, and that's where the evening began.

"There isn't the opportunity to build build trust anymore," Daschle smirked, addressing the notion that the Senate has become dysfunctional.  "Control of Congress became the paramount goal."  

Lott disagreed for once.  "The Senate was designed to force consent," he said. "I disagree with the idea that the Senate has become dysfunctional."  He did concur that Congress had changed since the two were freshmen members of Congress. Describing his experience working for his predecessor, Rep. William Colmer, Lott remembered life before fax machines, where every constituent letter was answered and signed by hand.  On Fridays, the staff would have bourbon and the congressman "would light up a cigar and reminisce."  Then members would get six round-trips home each year while now most go home each Thursday, some never bothering to move their families to Washington.

Daschle would comment later that one problem is the amount of money involved in the process now.  "50 to 70% of our time can be spent fundraising," Daschle said, but the two actually disagreed about the role of money in elections.  Daschle lamented the failures of legislative campaign finance reform or the prospects for public financing and championed an outright constitutional amendment to fix the problem.  Lott agreed there was a problem but did not see government restrictions as a solution.  He saw no problem with unlimited amounts of spending but thought much of the problem today could be solved if all contributions were "totally and instantly disclosed."

But they seemed to agree that much of what ails the Senate today could be solved if only a few "wise men and women" started treating each other nicely.  "One good gesture begets another good gesture," Lott said, arguing that Mitch McConnell would likely reciprocate Harry Reid's recent allowance of a Republican vote to repeal Obamacare in the Senate.  

Of course, when the much maligned filibuster came up for discussion, both again concurred that while the device had been abused, it was important to keep the filibuster as a tool for the minority. The answer, they agreed, was more transparency in its use and the restriction of secret holds.  Abuse was also to blame for earmarks, which both similarly supported.  Daschle mused that probably nine out of ten people in the audience opposed earmarks--though the audible sentiment of the audience actually suggested otherwise--but insisted earmarks were a good thing.  

They seemed a bit dismayed by the Tea Party.  "I'd be one of their targets. I would be the 'establishment,'" Lott said.  "But I'm not running for anything anymore so I can say what I want." 

"My only concern," Daschle said, "is the Tea Party's unwillingness to find common ground.  Finding common ground is the essence of a good republic and democracy."  

"Well," Lott said, "when you don't know people, when you don't socialize, talk like we did, it's easier to stick a knife in their ribs."

And they also agreed on the Senate's role in foreign policy.  Though Lott was initially hesitant as a congressmen to meet with foreign dignitaries, that changed when he entered the Senate and realized it's "unique role to play in the field."  "Also, they said Tom was doing it," he quipped, "so I had to start, too."  

They even agreed, in principle, on the need for health reform.  Daschle saw health reform as the beginning of a process where our society needs to, first, recognize the individual responsibility to pay for insurance when they can and, second, begin becoming healthier in general, particularly with regards to obesity and lifestyle decisions.  He figured the legislation was destined for a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, with "probably Justice Kennedy as the swing vote."  

"I'm a pragmatist," Lott said.  "This isn't going to be overturned unless a court does it...Missoura is a poor state and we have a big problem with health care.  [A solution] is a public-private partnership."  There were audible signs of shock from the audience that a Republican would dare admit such a thing.  

But civil as ever, neither could (or would) second-guess or find any fault with the leadership in the Senate.  The problem with the Senate, they argued, was actually the lack of initiative from one Barack Obama.  "He should lead more," Lott said. Daschle, surprise surprise, concurred: "Everything depends on the caliber of leadership.  Whenever we face a crises, an Abraham Lincoln shows up to help us reconcile our differences."