Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Saxby Chambliss on the failure to govern

Saxby Chambliss, asked by the New York Times for observations and advice as he leaves the Senate, offered the following recollection of his early days in Washington:

“We were all ultra right-wingers, but we figured out right quick that when you are in the majority, you have to govern,” he said of the 1994 class of House Republicans. “If you are going to govern in this country you are not going to govern on the far right or the far left. You’ve got to figure out a way to somehow get pretty close to the middle, otherwise you are going to do what we did — that is shut the government down. And we paid a heavy price for it. And you saw that again just a year ago.

“We need to find the best solution that is not a political solution and that requires hard and tough votes to be made,” Mr. Chambliss said. “And nobody around here has been willing to make hard and tough votes the last four years.”

The time frame specified by Chambliss is telling. Four years ago, in 2011, he joined Democrat Sen. Warner of Virginia in championing a bipartisan, long-term approach to the budget that would have required compromise by members of both parties.

“For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant," Chambliss said at the time. "For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant. The only way we’re going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about all these issues, because there is no silver bullet.”

Following those principles, Warner, Chambliss and other members of the so-called "Gang of Six" put together a plan that included $1 trillion in new revenues and almost twice that in spending reductions, including changes in how Social Security cost-of-living increases are calculated. It was an approach endorsed by President Obama.

“We have a Democratic president and administration that is prepared to sign a tough package that includes both spending cuts, modifications to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare that would strengthen those systems and allow them to move forward, and would include a revenue component,” Obama said at the time. “We now have a bipartisan group of senators who agree with that balanced approach. And we’ve got the American people who agree with that balanced approach.”

Of course, the plan went nowhere, largely because of intransigence in the Republican House. Or as Chambliss put it, "nobody around here has been willing to make hard and tough votes the last four years." One way or the other, the effort also marked the end of Chambliss' career in the Senate.

I can't say what drove that decision. Maybe he had already made up his mind that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2014, a decision that freed him to take the political risks inherent in courting compromise. Maybe he realized that by backing compromise, he had guaranteed himself a tough primary challenge back home in Georgia because of his alleged betrayal of conservative "principle" and willingness to entertain the notion of a tax hike.

Chambliss himself disputed that reading, claiming that he was confident of victory had he decided to run again. But after the failure of the "Gang of Six," he had given up hope of change.

“Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are the foundation of our nation’s economic health," he said of his decision. "The debt-ceiling debacle of 2011 and the recent fiscal-cliff vote showed Congress at its worst and, sadly, I don’t see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon."

I don't either. Back in 1994, when he was elected to Congress as part of the "Gingrich revolution," Chambliss was indeed an "ultra right-winger," and from my perspective that didn't change much. What did change are the standards by which such things are measured within the GOP. The ultra right winger of those days would be a mere RINO by today's standards, and that right-ward swinging pendulum shows damn little sign of swinging back the other way.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.