In the Colosseum

Lessons Learned

About to leave the Senate after three distinguished terms, Arizona's Jon Kyl offers some parting thoughts.

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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AS I PREPARE TO RETIRE from 26 years of public life, I’ve been asked to offer some advice to newly elected senators and to comment on the Senate as an institution. While it’s always a bit presumptuous for any retiring member to pass along counsel, here are a couple of thoughts.

First, to new senators, you came here to get things done. To do that, to be effective, you must be able to influence others. I’ve found that the person with the most knowledge on a certain issue is the one people tend to follow, regardless of formal leadership title or seniority.

I’ve also learned that members need not limit their expertise to just one or two issues, that it’s possible to be an expert on several if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort. Indeed, members are limited only by their capacity for work. Knowledge is power; those who know their subject matter best, and who are true to their word, can always be depended upon as reliable resources. Influence—and, therefore, effectiveness—follows.

As to the Senate, I share the view that all of Washington could use a little more civility. Some, it seems, have lost the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. This is usually counter-productive, since the most effective Senate arguments are those that are presented sensibly and that seek to form bridges of common understanding. Now, that’s not the same as saying that compromise is always best. Frequently, with enough time, a compromise can be found; but ideology matters, and we shouldn’t apologize for it. The Senate debates big issues; our constituents sent us here to vote for what we truly believe is in the public interest. The most successful senators can both stand tall for their political philosophy and maintain working relationships with members of the caucus opposite. The point is, one is usually more persuasive when arguing liberal or conservative positions “moderately”—that is, respectfully and reasonably.

The Senate is not the more chaotic, spontaneous, emotional House of Representatives, nor should we try to make it so. The Founders deliberately created one chamber to represent the people’s passions and one to serve as a source of sober reflection, with more protection and respect for the views of the minority. Both roles are essential in our system of checks and balances.

The decline in civility is not the cause but a symptom of the breakdown in the effectiveness of the Senate in the last two years. The Senate hasn’t done much and has become so partisan because its leadership has tried to shield members from tough votes that could expose them to potential political attacks.

One way to avoid such votes is to deny the minority the right to offer amendments, and there is a parliamentary procedure available to the leader to achieve that. But in absolutely controlling the debate, the majority leader of the Senate effectively becomes the equivalent of the Speaker of the House: in total control and able to stifle the minority party’s voice. Rather than enshrine that in Senate precedent, as the current leader has said he will try to do, the Senate should stick with the rules that have guided it for many decades. The problem today is not the rules; it’s the overly partisan nature of some leaders and many followers.

The new dynamic of the 24/7 media cycle and the Twitter age has fostered this partisanship and constant politicking. Indeed, it seems that the next election has already begun almost as soon as the previous one has wrapped up. In this era of nonstop politics, the right kind of leadership is even more important—from the president and from those in Congress.

I can’t imagine a better job than representing Arizonans—and all Americans—in the United States Senate. That I have chosen not to seek re-election has little to do with the less appealing aspects of the job (some discussed here), but, rather, my sense that, for me, this was the right time. I wish the best for all who resume the work of the Senate on January 3.

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About the Author
Jon Kyl, the Senate minority whip, has served Arizona in Congress since 1987 and was elected to the upper chamber in 1994.