Ted Kennedy: Getting Things Done

Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama at American University (cc photo by diggersf)

Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama at American University (cc photo by diggersf)

Mark Schmitt has an excellent small anecdote about Ted Kennedy, illustrating the difference between a Senator who’s there on the Hill to get things done, and a Senator who’s just there to kill time and feather his bed:

As an example, early on in the period when I was working for Sen. Bill Bradley, Bradley decided to get involved in reform of the student-loan system. He wasn’t on the appropriate committee (Kennedy’s Education and Labor Committee, now known as HELP), and he had never been involved before. But as a member of the Finance Committee, he saw a way to sneak student-loan funding into a tax bill, and pay for it. While other Democrats on Education and Labor brushed us off as if we were encroaching on their domain (we were, shamelessly!), Kennedy saw it as just another opportunity to get some good accomplished.

Before we knew it, Kennedy had pulled everyone involved into his maritime-themed hideaway office (perhaps the most awe-inspiring physical space in the entire Capitol) to figure out how to get it done, and he threw himself into it — at one point calling me from the Senate floor to dictate the precise flattering language of a letter we would need to send to Sen. Robert C. Byrd to persuade him to give his permission to the unorthodox move. In the end it didn’t happen (the first President Bush vetoed the bill), and it’s not even a footnote to his legacy. It was one of hundreds, thousands of tiny moments of opportunity to make some progress, and if 99 out of 100 of those opportunities failed, he knew that the one that didn’t would at least make a difference in someone’s life.

The Senate is a strange place full of weird rules and impediments to action. The people who make it work are the people who, like Kennedy, understand what they want to do and then try to figure out ways to get it done. Congressional procedure is a real impediment to doing a lot of things, but the effective legislators are the ones who see those obstacles and start finding ways to remove them or work around them. Most folks, however, seem to just shrug and in many ways be happy to have a reason why they “can’t” do the hard work involved in changing things.