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Farewell to the Senate

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. DODD. Mr. President, first of all, let me express my gratitude to all of the colleagues and other individuals who have come to the Chamber at this moment.

Everyone who serves in Congress usually recalls two moments in their service: the maiden speech they give shortly after their arrival and their closing remarks. I can't recall what the first speech I gave as a new member of the House of Representatives 36 years ago was even about. I do, however, recall very vividly that there was no one else in the Chamber when I gave it. It was an empty hall early one evening with the exception of one colleague, Johnny Dent from Pennsylvania. He was sitting in his chair with his trademark dark glasses, listening patiently as I gave my knee-rattling, hand-shaking maiden address. Midway through the speech, he walked up to me and said quietly: You know, kid, it is not on the level. Well, that was my first speech before the House, and I am deeply honored that so many of you have come out to listen to my closing remarks today so I do not have to speak to an empty Chamber.

For more than 200 years, a uniquely American story has unfolded here in the Chamber of the United States Senate--a fascinating, inspiring, often tumultuous tale of conflict and compromise, reflecting the awesome potential of our still-young democracy and its occasional moments of agonizing frustration.

For much of my life, this story has intersected with my own in ways that have been both thrilling and humbling. As a 14-year-old boy, I sat in the family gallery of this very Chamber watching as my father took the oath of office as a new Senator. A few years later, in 1962, I sat where these young men and women sit today, serving as a Senate page. John F. Kennedy was President and Lyndon Johnson presided over this body. Eighteen years later, in the fall of 1980, the people of Connecticut gave me the honor of a lifetime when they asked me to give voice to their views, electing me to serve as their U.S. Senator. For the past 30 years, I have worked hard to sustain that trust. I am proud of the work I have done, but it is time for my story and that of this institution, which I cherish so much, to diverge. Thus, Mr. President, I rise to give some valedictory remarks as my service as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut comes to a close.

Now, it is common for retiring Senators to say the following: I will miss the people but not the work. Mr. President, you won't hear that from me. Most assuredly, I will miss the people of the Senate, but I will miss the work as well. Over the years, I have both witnessed and participated in some great debates in this Chamber, moments when statesmen of both parties gathered together in this Hall to weigh the great questions of our time. And while I wish there had been more of those moments, I will always remember the Senate debates on issues such as Central America, the Iraq war, campaign finance reform, securities litigation, health care, and, of course, financial reform.

And when I am home in Connecticut, I see the results of the work we did every day. I see workers coming home from their shifts at Pratt & Whitney, Electric Boat, the Sikorsky helicopter plant--the lifeblood of a defense manufacturing sector so critical to our national security and to the economic well-being of my home State. I see communities preparing for high-speed rail and breaking ground for new community health centers. I see the grants we fought for helping cities and towns to build sustainable communities and promote economic development.

When I am home, I meet parents who, because of the Family and Medical Leave Act, don't have to choose between keeping their jobs and taking care of their sick children. I visit with elderly folks who no longer have to choose between paying for their prescription drugs and paying for their heat. I hear from consumers who have been victimized by unfair practices on the part of credit card companies and who will no longer be subject to those abuses. And I meet young children as well who, through Early Head Start or access to afterschool programs, have blossomed academically in spite of difficult economic circumstances.

As proud as I am of the work that has made these stories possible over the last three decades, I am keenly aware, particularly today, that I did not do any of this alone. Until this last Congress, with rare exceptions, every major piece of legislation I authored that became law--including the ones I have just mentioned--had a Republican cosponsor as well as support from my Democratic caucus. So to my Democratic and Republican Senate colleagues who joined me in all these efforts over 30 years, I say thank you this afternoon.

I also want to thank, if I can, the unsung heroes of this institution--the Senate staff and my personal staff. It would be a grievous understatement to simply say they make the trains run on time. Without them, as all of us know, the trains would never leave the station at all--the floor staff, the cloakroom professionals of both parties, and the hundreds of unknown and unseen people who show up every day in this body to make this critical institution of democracy function. Without them, no Senator could fulfill his or her obligations to the American people.

Many of my personal staff and committee staff are present in the Senate gallery today. Neither I nor the millions of Americans whose lives you have enriched or whose burdens you have lightened can ever thank you enough. I only hope your time with me has been as fulfilling as my time with you.

Of course, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people of Connecticut, whose confidence, patience, and spirit have given my life and its work deep meaning. As rich as our common language is, words cannot even come close to capturing the depth of my affection for and appreciation of the people of the State of Connecticut. For almost four decades--three terms in the House of Representatives, five terms in this Chamber--you have entrusted me to labor on your behalf, and I deeply thank you for that honor.

And lastly, my family. My parents are long since deceased, but their guidance, inspiration, and example have never departed. For the past 30 years, I have sat at this very same desk occupied by my father during the 12 years he served in this Chamber. His courage, character, and conviction have been a constant reminder of what it means to be a U.S. Senator. I thank my siblings and their children and other relatives for their enthusiastic support, particularly during the rough patches. From time to time, we all need the safe harbor of family at the darker moments. And to Jackie, Grace, and Christina, who have supported and inspired me every day: You mean more to me than I could ever say in these few short moments. So come January, I am glad I will have more time to say it to you more often. And to Jackie in particular: You have been my anchor to windward in the rough and turbulent waters of public service. When it was the darkest, you were the brightest. I love you more than life.

As this chapter in my career comes to a close, a new chapter in the Senate's history is beginning. When this body is gaveled to order in January, nearly half of its Members will be in their first term. And even though I could spend hours fondly recalling a lifetime of yesterdays, this new Senate and the Nation must confront a very uncertain tomorrow. So rather than recite a long list of personal memories or to revisit video highlights of my Senate service, I would like to take this brief time, in these few short moments, to offer a few thoughts to those who will write the Senate's next chapter.

I will begin by stating the sadly obvious. Our electoral system is a mess. Powerful financial interests, free to throw money about with little transparency, have corrupted, in my view, the basic principles underlying our representative democracy. As a result, our political system at the Federal level is completely dysfunctional. Those who were elected to the Senate just a few weeks ago must already begin the unpleasant work of raising money for their reelection 6 years hence. Newly-elected Senators will learn that their every legislative maneuver, their every public utterance, and even some of their private deliberations will be fodder for a 24/7 political media industry that seems to favor speculation over analysis and conflict over consensus.

This explosion of new media brings with it its own benefits and its drawbacks--and it is occurring simultaneously as the presence of traditional media outlets in our Nation is declining. So while the corridors of Congress are crowded with handheld video and cell phone cameras, there is a declining roll for newspaper, radio, and network journalists reporting the routine deliberations that are taking place in our subcommittee hearings. Case in point: Ten years ago, 11 or 12 reporters from Connecticut covered the delegation's legislative activities. Today, there is only one doing the same work.

Meanwhile, intense partisan polarization has raised the stakes in every debate and on every vote, making it difficult to lose with grace and nearly impossible to compromise without cost. Americans' distrust of politicians provides compelling incentives for Senators to distrust each other, to disparage this very institution, and to disengage from the policymaking process.

These changes have already had their effect on the Senate. The purpose of insulating one-half of the national legislature from the volatile shifts in public mood has been degraded. And while I strongly favor reforming our campaign finance system, revitalizing and rehabilitating our journalistic traditions, and restoring citizen faith in government and politics, I know that wishes won't make it so.

I have heard some people suggest that the Senate as we know it simply cannot function in such a highly charged political environment; that we should change Senate rules to make it more efficient, more responsive to the public mood--more like the House of Representatives, where the majority can essentially bend the minority to its will. I appreciate the frustrations many have with the slow pace of the legislative process, and I certainly share some of my colleagues' anger with the repetitive use and abuse of the filibuster. Thus, I can understand the temptation to change the rules that make the Senate so unique and simultaneously so terribly frustrating. But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise.

We 100 Senators are but temporary stewards of a unique American institution, founded upon universal principles. The Senate was designed to be different, not simply for the sake of variety but because the Framers believed the Senate could and should be the venue in which statesmen would lift America up to meet its unique challenges.

As a Senator from the State of Connecticut--and the longest serving one in its history--I take special pride in the role two Connecticut Yankees played in the establishment of this very body. It was Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, delegates from Connecticut to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, who proposed the idea of a bicameral national legislature. The Connecticut Compromise, as it came to be known, was designed to ensure that no matter which way the political winds blew or how hard the gusts, there would be a place--one place--for every voice to be heard.

The history of this young democracy, the Framers decided, should not be written solely in the hand of the political majority. In a nation founded in revolution against tyrannical rule which sought to crush dissent, there should be one institution that would always provide a space where dissent was valued and respected. E pluribus unum--out of many, one. And though we would act as one, and should, the Framers believed our political debate should always reflect that in our beliefs and aspirations, we are, in fact, many. In short, our Founders were concerned not only with what we legislated but, just as importantly, with how we legislated.

In my years here, I have learned that the appreciation of the Senate's role in our national debate is an acquired taste. Therefore, to my fellow Senators who have never served a day in the minority, I urge you to pause in your enthusiasm to change Senate rules. And to those in the minority who routinely abuse the rules of the Senate to delay or defeat almost any Senate decision, know that you will be equally responsible for undermining the unique value of the Senate--a value, I would argue, that is greater than that which you might assign to the political motivations driving your obstruction.

So in the end, of course, I would suggest this isn't about the filibuster. What will determine whether this institution works or not, what has always determined whether we fulfill the Framers' highest hopes or justify the cynics' worst fears is not the Senate rules or the calendar or the media; it is whether each of the 100 Senators can work together, living up to the incredible honor that comes with this title and the awesome responsibility that comes with this office.

Politics today seemingly rewards only passion and independence, not deliberation and compromise as well. It has become commonplace to hear candidates for this body campaign on how they are going to Washington to shake things up--all by themselves. May I politely suggest that you are seeking election to the wrong office. The U.S. Senate does not work that way, nor can it, nor should it. Mayors, Governors, and Presidents can sometimes succeed by the sheer force of their will, but there has never been a Senator so persuasive, so charismatic, so clever, or so brilliant that they could make a significant difference while refusing to work with other Members of this body.

Simply put, Senators cannot ultimately be effective alone.

As I noted earlier, until last year's health care bill, there had not been a single piece of legislation I had ever passed without a Republican partner.

Of course, none of those victories came easily. The notion that partisan politics is a new phenomenon, or that partisan politics serve no useful purpose, is just flat wrong.

From the moment of our founding, America has been engaged in an eternal and often pitched partisan debate. That is no weakness. In fact, it is at the core of our strength as a democracy, and success as a nation.

Political bipartisanship is a goal, not a process.

You do not begin the debate with bipartisanship--you arrive there. And you can do so only when determined partisans create consensus--and thus bipartisanship.

In the end, the difference between a partisan brawl and a passionate, but ultimately productive, debate rests on the personal relationships among those of us who serve here.

A legislative body that operates on unanimous consent, as we do, cannot function unless the Members trust each other. There is no hope of building that trust unless there is the will to treat each other with respect and civility, and to invest the time it takes to create that trust and strengthen those personal bonds.

No matter how obnoxious you find a colleague's rhetoric or how odious you find their beliefs, you will need them. And despite what some may insist, you do no injustice to your ideological principles when you seek out common ground. You do no injustice to your political beliefs when you take the time to get to know those who don't share them.

I have served with several hundred Senators under every partisan configuration imaginable: Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, divided government and one party control.

And as odd as it may sound in the present political environment, in the last three decades I have served here, I cannot recall a single Senate colleague with whom I could not work.

Sometimes those relationships take time, but then, that is why the Framers gave us 6-year terms: so that members could build the social capital necessary to make the Senate function.

Under our Constitution, Senators are given 6 years, but only you can decide how to use them. And as one Senator who has witnessed what is possible here, I urge each of you: Take the time to use those years well. I pledge to those of you who have recently arrived, your tenure here will be so much more rewarding.

More importantly, you will be vindicating the confidence that the Framers placed in each person who takes the oath of office, as a U.S. Senator, upholding a trust that echoes through the centuries.

I share the confidence that Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, and the Framers placed in this body and in its Members. But I am not blind. The Senate today, in the view of many, is not functioning as it can and should.

I urge you to look around. This moment is difficult, not only for this body, but for the nation it serves. In the end, what matters most in America is not what happens within the walls of this Chamber, but rather the consequences of our decisions across the Nation and around the globe.

Our economy is struggling, and many of our people are experiencing real hardship--unemployment, home foreclosures, endangered pensions.

Meanwhile, our Nation faces real challenges: a mounting national debt, energy, immigration, nuclear proliferation, ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and so much more. All these challenges make the internal political and procedural conflicts we face as Senators seem small and petty.

History calls each of us to lift our eyes above the fleeting controversies of the moment, and to refocus our attention on our common challenge and common purpose.

By regaining its footing, the Senate can help this nation to regain confidence, and restore its sense of optimism.

We must regain that focus. And, most importantly, we need our confidence back--we need to feel that same optimism that has sustained us through more than two centuries.

Now, I am not naive. I am aware of the conventional wisdom that predicts gridlock in the Congress.

But I know both the Democratic and Republican leaders. I know the sitting members of this chamber as well. And my confidence is unshaken.

Why? Because we have been here before. The country has recovered from economic turmoil. Americans have come together to heal deep divides in our Nation and the Senate has led by finding its way through seemingly intractable political division.

We have proven time and time again that the Senate is capable of meeting the test of history. We have evidenced the wisdom of the Framers who created its unique rules and set the high standards that we must meet.

After all, no other legislative body grants so much power to each member, nor does any other legislative body ask so much of each member.

Just as the Senate's rules empower each Member to act like a statesman, they also require statesmanship from each of us.

But these rules are merely requiring from us the kind of leadership that our constituents need from us, that history calls on us to provide in difficult times such as the ones we're encountering.

Maturity in a time of pettiness, calm in a time of anger, and leadership in a time of uncertainty--that is what the Nation asks of the Senate, and that is what this office demands of us.

Over the past two centuries, some 1,900 men and women have shared the privilege of serving in this body. Each of us has been granted a temporary, fleeting moment in which to indulge either our political ambition and ideological agenda, or, alternatively, to rise to the challenge and make a constructive mark on our history.

My moment is now at an end, but to those whose moments are not yet over, and to those whose moments will soon begin, I wish you so much more than good fortune.

I wish you wisdom. I wish you courage. And I wish for each of you that, one day, when you reflect on your moment, you will know that you have lived up to the tremendous honor and daunting responsibility of being a United States Senator.

To quote St. Paul, ``..... the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.''

So, Mr. President, it is with great pride, deep humility and incredible gratitude, as a United States Senator, that I yield the floor.

Thank you, Mr. President.


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