U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) Thursday discussed the workings of the Senate and its unique powers to influence policy, confirm presidential appointees and ratify treaties. Cochran addressed an audience at the Sanford Institute as the 2006 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecturer.
Despite flaws in the way the Senate operates, particularly with regard to confirmations, Cochran said the process is “the best you can expect in a democracy. I’d rather have this than a king. We have the greatest individual liberty and freedom and the strongest democracy in the world; let’s not get too carried away with a few problems.”
Through seniority, southerners in the Senate have acquired powerful leadership positions that give the region more political clout than it has had in the past, he noted. Cochran, a 28-year Senate veteran, began chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2005. His committee will review more than $1 trillion in spending bills this session.
Today’s Congress is more balanced in its views and philosophies than ever before, he asserted, perhaps due to the Voting Rights Act or because “we are maturing as a democracy and as a nation.”
Confirmation hearings, however, sometimes become such a “mean-spirited, highly political process” that “I wonder why people would accept a position of national prominence.” Cochran recalled last year’s contentious confirmation hearings for Ambassador John Bolton, U.S. representative to the United Nations, as an example of Senate “over-reaching.”
“He always struck me as an articulate, persuasive, knowledgeable … person … I did not recognize the person (portrayed by opponents) as the same man.”
In a question and answer session, Cochran reiterated his view that if America withdrew from the war in Iraq, it would be “a real catastrophe and a serious betrayal of the people we are trying to help. It is inappropriate and premature for us to assume there is nothing else we can do. I think there is. We need to make sure our goals and policies are consistent with [those desired] by the people of Iraq.”
The upcoming Congressional elections are “too close to call” with many seats in both houses that could go either way, Cochran said. He also defended earmarking -- amendments to appropriations bills that fund special projects -- a practice often criticized as a recipe for wasteful government spending and an abuse of power.
“From my experience, recommendations for appropriations are carefully reviewed. An amendment can be debated… you are on national television.” By contrast, when spending recommendations are developed by employees in government agencies “only a few people know about it,” Cochran said.
During a lunch session with students at the Sanford Institute earlier in the day, Cochran spoke extensively about Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. He recalled how, two days after the storm, he and Republican Leader Bill Frist, along with Democratic Leader Harry Reid, took only a few minutes to approve the first $10.5 billion in aid to the region.
“Senator Frist called a special session. Nobody else came; they didn’t have to be there. We had worked it out in conferences …” The total amount of aid subsequently soared to $180 billion. Cochran said the Senate remains committed to rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast region. Leaders in Washington stay in close touch with governors, mayors and other local-level government leaders, he said.
The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture was endowed by a gift to the university from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in honor of the late Terry Sanford, who served as North Carolina governor and U.S. senator, and as Duke president for 16 years.
Previous lecturers include former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former Harvard President Derek Bok and U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Richard Lugar.