Back when I was teaching political science at the Air Force Academy, I taught a variety of courses about American governance. The cadets were, and still are as far as I know, generally very bright and often very conservative. That’s not their fault. But the blame for overly-GOP officer corps in the military is actually the Democrats’ fault, for not signing up. But that’s for a future column, and I digress… (Ed: yes, you do)
I taught the cadets that few things are as misunderstood by the greater American public as the actual functions, duties, and powers of our congresspeople and senators. For most members of the House and Senate there are three primary functions they perform: legislating, oversight and casework. I put those in the order I think the Founders would want, but not the order in which they are handled today by far too many. No, today we see casework (taking care of people’s problems with federal agencies) as often the most significant role performed.
Well, if you want to get re-elected, it is suggested that you do things that make people happy. Fixing grandma’s Social Security check problem, for example, generates more good will than, say, working on an obscure tax law that might one day give grandma a bump in pay. Oversight of the executive is a vital function and is now one that will get a great deal of attention because, well, you know…Trump. Finally, legislation is important, and many folks work very hard, but ultimately, new laws don’t get too many people excited.
As a result, I taught, there are really two types of elected officials: work-horses and show-horses. They are just what the names imply. A work-horse is a member who works very hard, usually without attracting too much notice. A show-horse is a member who seeks publicity before productivity and can often be found in the vicinity of any network television cameras.
We in Colorado are, I think, fortunate to have two work-horse U.S. senators. Full disclosure: I worked for Sen. Michael Bennet for four years, doing primarily casework for veterans and military folks. I like and admire the man. Sen. Cory Gardner I do not know, and do not support, but I readily posit that Sen. Gardner is, at his core, from the same honorable GOP stock as former Gov. Bill Owens. They are people I disagree with, but respect.
Which brings me to Sen. Bennet’s floor speech last week. You likely have seen my old boss (the ultimate work-horse) take on Senator Cruz (show-horse extraordinaire) on the floor of the Senate. If you haven’t heard it yet, first read the very good story by Ernst Luning on Colorado Politics, then click on the links he provides so you can watch the whole thing. It’s worth the 20 minutes.
Now I am, of course, quite biased in favor of MFB (as we referred to him in memos) and I rather detest Sen. Cruz. That said, watch both speeches and I think you will agree, unless partisanship is too big a lift for you, that Sen. Bennet was, well, remarkable. The thing that amused me about the news coverage was that MFB was often referred to as “mild mannered” or something, well, stuffy and quiet. But those of us who were on the inside, know that he is actually quite passionate, quite brilliant, and deeply caring about the people of Colorado and the nation. My more-distant view of Sen. Gardner suggests to me that he is similar. And Senator Cruz? Well, there was a reason a Republican senator – Lindsey Graham – once remarked, “if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and if the trial was in the Senate, nobody would vote to convict [him.]” I can’t top that, so I’ll move along.
Michael Bennet was quite successful in the private sector long before he entered the Senate. He’s not doing that job for a paycheck, he’s doing it to be part of making our state and nation the best they can be. His only marching orders to me, for example, were, “Hal, make Colorado the very best state in which to be a veteran.” I said, “yes sir,” and he said “now!” He said that last part with a smile, but the message to me was clear. He doesn’t seek the spotlight just to be seen, he’s too busy working very hard behind the scenes.
Our state is very fortunate to have two work-horse senators. Texas, for example, doesn’t have any. And the people of our state are best served by leaders that put the mission first.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to watch that video again of MFB taking down Mr. Cruz. I’ve got popcorn.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.