This is the season for farewell addresses from many lawmakers leaving at the end of the 111th Congress. Some speeches, such as those of Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) a few weeks back and of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) last week, are particularly poignant, reflecting decades of dedication to the Senate and reverence for its traditions (if a touch too much deference to its existing rules and too little concern for how the contemporary abuse of the norms have distorted those traditions and call for modest but meaningful tweaks in those rules).
But their eloquence underscores how elections, while bringing necessary change for a democracy and reaffirming popular will, also result in the departure of some of the most solid citizens of the Congressional village. The loss of expertise, insight and institutional memory — not to mention fundamental decency — that comes with the departures, some voluntary and some not, of people such as Reps. John Spratt (D-S.C.), James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), among others, is painful to those of us who care about Congress.
Then there are other losses. Former Rep. Steve Solarz (D-N.Y.) died last week at age 70, after a four-year battle with esophageal cancer. While he received prominent obituaries in the Washington Post and the New York Times, chances are many new and not-so-new Members of Congress who weren’t around in the 18 years that Solarz served in the House, from 1975 to 1993, were either unaware of his passing or paid little attention to it. As a start, they should go back and read those obituaries, and then make a note to read his wonderful book, “Journeys to War and Peace: A Congressional Memoir,” which will be published next year.
I wrote a foreword for the book, in which I noted my striking experiences on visits to the Philippines and Cambodia; in each case, when I met with academics, high government officials and others, I was asked frequently, “Do you know Steve Solarz?” In the Philippines, actually, the question was, “Do you know Steve Solarz personally? He helped save my country from dictatorship.” In Cambodia, it was whether I knew the Steve Solarz who was instrumental in saving Cambodia from the murderous excesses of the Khmer Rouge.
Solarz was not a secretary of State, a Senator or even the chairman of a powerful committee. He was a rank-and-file House Member who, by the force of his personality, a remarkable work ethic, a political savvy, an articulateness unmatched in contemporary politics, a commitment to democracy and human rights mixed with hard-headed sense of reality, and a willingness to work across the aisle to accomplish mutual goals, had a greater effect on the world than most secretaries of State, Senators and chairmen of powerful panels.
Solarz traveled the world, but not with Congressional delegations; he went alone. American embassy personnel dreaded his arrival; they would not have to arrange trips to the souk or the rug store, but would instead have to keep up with 18-hour days choreographed by Solarz to include meetings with the foreign minister, the defense minister, the intelligence chief and the key opposition figures.
When he scoped out situations and found corruption, abuse of power and worse, he used his skills and connections to relentlessly push for change. Back in Washington, D.C., his office became a home away from home for dissident leaders from around the world who got short shrift elsewhere. As a consequence, to pick one example, Solarz probably had better ties with the Kurdish leaders in Iraq than any other American.
Solarz’s shining moment, perhaps, was on the House floor during the stirring debate over whether to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait, i.e., the first Gulf War. There were dozens of emotional and wrenching speeches as Members struggled with the decision about whether to send young Americans to war, and perhaps to death; at the time, there were predictions of potential mayhem in the desert. When liberal Democrat Solarz stood up and spoke in favor of the authorization, it was truly a riveting moment. Everyone stopped to listen. He was powerful and eloquent, and he did as much as anyone to shape the outcome. There are few examples in which an individual lawmaker has any effect, much less one that is consequential, from a speech on the House floor.
It is hard to imagine another Solarz emerging in a political system that is now so polarized that a powerful an opinion leaders and statesmen like Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) cannot persuade his own party colleagues to vote for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. It is even harder to imagine a House Member throwing himself into peripatetic travel to every corner of the globe and trying to shape events and outcomes in the world without being shredded by cable news and anonymously funded campaign attack machines, or finding ways to build unlikely and persuasive partnerships across every partisan and ideological divide.
But it is not impossible to imagine some new Members of both parties persuaded by Solarz’s example to take some trips abroad despite the predictable media criticism of junkets and the equally predictable partisan flak, and to think about core values of freedom, human rights and America’s national interest as transcending petty partisan interests. At least I like to think it is not impossible.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.