U.S. Sen. Dan Coats made no speeches on the Senate floor last week – but only because Congress wasn’t in session.
On Jan. 22, Coats announced in a floor speech that he would speak in the coming days and weeks about rational steps we need to take to get our fiscal house in order. The Indiana Republican has delivered on his vow: In the past 14 session-days, Coats has preached about fiscal prudence on 12 of them.
He has carried on about out-of-control government spending that produces $1 trillion yearly deficits and a $16.5 trillion federal debt; about what Coats sees as President Obama’s penchant for higher taxes; and about the failure of the Senate to approve a budget since 2009.
Even Little League Baseball organizations have budgets, he pointed out in one speech.
On one day, he read quotes from others – including Fort Wayne developer Rick Zehr – about the perils of mounting debt. The next day, Coats suggested the government follow the example of a frugal family who skips a yearly vacation at Florida’s Disney World in favor of a trip to Brown County State Park – which by the way is an exceptional park in Indiana and a great place for family vacations, he added.
Even during last week’s congressional break, Coats couldn’t help himself. He showed up on the floor of the Indiana Senate to talk about automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that are scheduled to take effect in March.
What is Coats trying to accomplish? In a telephone interview, he said his recurrent recitations sprang from his disappointment that Republicans had not won a majority of Senate seats in the Nov. 6 general election, depriving them of a share of control – along with House Republicans and the Democratic White House – over budgetary matters.
I had a choice. I could pack up my lunchbox and go home just pull back and say there’s nothing we can do, Coats said. Or I can redouble my efforts. And I decided to redouble my efforts, and one of those was getting down on the floor every day and laying out a whole number of things relative to this problem.
I’m just one of 100, and I recognize it’s a real uphill battle. But I want to be in the arena fighting.
One challenge for Coats is that the arena is largely empty of senators during general floor speeches. Coats’ predecessor in the Senate, Democrat Evan Bayh, said it was rare that more than a few of the 100 senators were present for speeches when he was in office, from 1999 through 2010.
I didn’t know whether to be amused or perplexed standing on the floor of the Senate trying to give an impassioned speech to nobody, he said in a phone interview from his Washington office with law firm McGuireWoods. There would be nobody in the gallery. There would be nobody on the floor except the pages and administrators. No members.
There would be a camera from C-SPAN, the cable TV and Internet network that broadcasts congressional proceedings.
The principal audience for floor speeches are folks at home or journalists, Bayh said about C-SPAN programming.
Andy Fisher, spokesman for former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said C-SPAN can be a valuable tool for senators to spread their views to a wider audience.
Floor speeches don’t move legislation, but the Senate floor is one unique platform available to senators, Fisher said in an email. The speech is seen on C-SPAN2 (and) can be put on YouTube with tweets and press releases linking to it.
On its Art and History page, the Senate’s website (www.senate.gov) describes 16 Classic Senate Speeches. The most recent came 15 years before the advent of C-SPAN: a 1964 speech by Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., in favor of passing the landmark Civil Rights Act.
In his 2012 book Richard G. Lugar: Statesman of the Senate, author John T. Shaw wrote that Lugar, who left office in January after 36 years as a senator, spends very little time on the Senate floor – much less than most senators. Shaw also wrote that Lugar rarely speaks on the Senate floor, saving floor speeches for occasions he deems important.
Lugar’s successor, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, has yet to make his first floor speech in the Senate – what is known in Congress as a maiden speech. Donnelly recalled giving speeches on economic policies and legislation a number of times when he was a member of the House from 2007 through last year.
Donnelly said House members who give daily floor speeches are known in that chamber as frequent fliers.
I respect Sen. Coats’ efforts on this, Donnelly said. He’s well-versed in it, is knowledgeable on the subject and is passionate about deficit reduction.
Combined, Coats’ dozen monologues have consumed about 2 1/2 hours of floor time, the longest lasting 18 1/2 minutes. If that seems like a lot of pontificating, consider that during a 1957 filibuster to prevent a vote on civil rights legislation, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, spoke nonstop for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the longest Senate floor speech on record.
Coats has suffered a pitfall of public speaking: mangling the language.
During a Feb. 14 floor speech on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security spending, Coats described the post-World War II baby boom generation as this bulge of new parts of our human species working their way through the system.
Weekly political caucus luncheons are a better avenue than floor speeches to drive home a point with fellow senators, according to Bayh.
I would speak more frequently there because I knew my colleagues were listening, he said about other Democrats. Occasionally there I’d have someone tell me I had affected their thinking.
Trying to persuade senators during floor speeches and debate is another matter.
The body has become so polarized, Bayh said, and the members of each party are expected to pretty much toe the party line, that by the time something reaches the Senate floor, the lines are set and there’s just not that many undecided votes.
Bayh did remember when the entire Senate gathered to make and listen to speeches that the public never heard: Closed-door deliberations in 1999 during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
But the Senate typically is never packed with senators yearning to hear what you have to say, Coats acknowledged. More often than not, there are very few that are there.
Senators have mentioned watching Coats on C-SPAN in their offices.
I’ve had several come up, including Democrats, and basically say, We notice what you’re doing,’ he said about his series of speeches.
And he notices others as well. Coats said he has been particularly impressed by the floor speeches of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has identified $1.35 trillion worth of federal programs he thinks should be downsized or eliminated. In January, Coburn spoke for 40 minutes at one stretch about the costs of duplicative federal programs.
Sooner or later, Coats believes his and Coburn’s words will sink in.
I don’t want any congressman or senator to be able to go home and say we don’t have a spending problem or that we cannot make government more effective and efficient by cutting spending for programs, said Coats, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He said he has never given a long string of speeches like this – not in his current term that began in 2011 nor when he was in the Senate from 1989 through 1998 after serving in the House.
This is new, and I’m going to keep going, Coats said. I just figure here’s a piece of what I need to do that adds to my unflagging commitment to keep pressing on this issue until we get solutions.
How long will he keep it up?
It could be for the whole session, he said. I tell you, there’s so much to talk about.
Is there a danger he will become a broken record, or is that his goal?
I think that’s part of the goal, he said with a chuckle. Already people are saying, Here comes Coats again.’