WASHINGTON — Most Senate hearings are fake, pointless exercises in which members drone on and on.
Major pieces of bipartisan legislation get passed despite significant flaws.
Lawmakers are despised by the people they represent, and the entire institution is fundamentally broken.
Sen. Ben Sasse has painted a bleak picture of Capitol Hill and the way it works since arriving in 2015.
So why would the Nebraska Republican want to stick around for more?
It is unclear whether Sasse, 46, will seek another six-year term in 2020, has his sights on a different position or is ready to abandon elective politics altogether.
“I think he’s obviously a younger member who’s anxious to get things done and probably grows frustrated with the pace of the Senate,” said Marc Short, the departing White House legislative affairs director. “He looks at it as ‘we’re coming here to make an impact and to make a change.’ I think there’s a frustration that there’s certainly a class of members for whom it’s more of a lifestyle than it is a cause.”
Speaking recently at the weekly Capitol Hill breakfast gathering of Nebraskans and the state’s delegation, Sasse riffed on the fact that the Senate includes a number of octogenarians and said his neighbor at the GOP lunch the day before had dozed off.
“Majority Leader (Mitch) McConnell was giving an update and one of our chairmen was asleep on my shoulder,” Sasse said.
In turn, Sasse frustrates some fellow Republicans who say he has shown disdain for basic elements of serving as a legislator in favor of seeking national attention, in part by attacking his own party and President Donald Trump.
Nebraska Republicans who are dissatisfied with his performance or criticisms of Trump are seeking someone to mount a primary challenge, but no one has stepped forward yet. The most formidable potential opponent, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, has said he’s not interested in a 2020 Senate bid.
Sasse has sought to deflect speculation that he harbors any presidential ambitions, even as he takes steps that stoke just that kind of speculation, like crossing the river to speak at political events in Iowa.
Sasse declined World-Herald interview requests but did talk to national television outlets and the Washington Post last week. In his interview with the Post, Sasse said he plans to decide whether to seek re-election next summer.
There are signs Sasse is looking to keep his options open for another term. At last month’s Nebraska GOP convention, Sasse was waiting at the door to greet party faithful, pose for photos and hand campaign checks from his leadership PAC to Republican candidates from around the state.
And he just voted for the Senate version of the farm bill — saying those in agriculture need certainty — despite opposition to the bill in conservative circles. Heritage Action, for example, denounced the package as preserving “dysfunctional and distortive status quo welfare and agricultural policies.”
Sasse has continued criticizing Trump, most recently on trade policies and his approach to Russia.
Short said he has advised Sasse to give the White House a courtesy call before going after the administration and, unlike some other critics, Sasse has followed that advice.
When Tyler Grassmeyer, Sasse’s deputy chief of staff, spoke to the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce early this year, he talked about the differences between Senate Republicans and the administration on trade and noted that Sasse had been to the Oval Office.
“The president has invited him up a number of times to come talk to him on trade,” Grassmeyer told the group. “The president said, ‘Ben, I want you to come tutor me on trade.’ So they’ve had some one-on-one conversations that I think are very helpful because there is a learning curve here for why free trade is good, and we’re trying to make sure the president is aware of why, especially for a farm state like Nebraska, free trade is significantly important.”
Despite that input from Sasse, fellow Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer and others, the Trump administration has continued to push forward with tariffs and an aggressive approach to re-negotiating trade deals.
Mark Fahleson, a former Nebraska GOP chairman and Sasse supporter, said the senator’s critiques of Washington are accurate and that he has done a “phenomenal job” by giving a voice to reasonable policies while establishing one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. A fivethirtyeight.com tracker says Sasse has voted with Trump 87 percent of the time.
Fahleson took issue with a suggestion Sasse might not be enjoying his time in the Senate.
He said it’s a role that fits with Sasse’s background in turnaround projects, from his time as a corporate consultant to his tenure as president at Midland University. He said Sasse identifies problems and looks for ways to address them.
“Sounds like fun to me,” he said.
Fahleson is president of America 101, a nonprofit organization he said he started last year. The group’s website features Sasse video clips, quotes and book promotions.
A Facebook ad sponsored by the group in support of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh included the image of a smiling Sasse and the words: “Tell Sasse: thank you for supporting Trump’s pick — and keep fighting.”
A recent Politico story indicated that Sasse started the group, but Fahleson said he’s not aware of any involvement by the senator.
“His writings and speeches are things that are in line with the beliefs of America 101 but it’s not about Ben Sasse or any one individual,” Fahleson said. “It’s about a set of ideas.”
Other Nebraska Republicans with a less positive view include Mike Kennedy, a Millard school board member who supported Shane Osborn over Sasse in the 2014 primary. He would like to see a Republican challenge Sasse in 2020.
Kennedy described Sasse as a “very bright” conservative he agrees with on many issues. But Kennedy also said Sasse is more focused on grabbing the national spotlight than Nebraska-specific interests.
A good illustration of that, he said, was Sasse’s decision to give up a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, leaving it without a Nebraskan for the first time in nearly 50 years, in order to secure seats on Judiciary and Armed Services.
At the time, Sasse cited the importance of Judiciary’s role in confirming judicial nominations and Armed Services’ responsibility for addressing the nation’s lack of preparation for cyber warfare. Fischer, a Republican, later got a seat on the Agriculture committee without giving up her spot on Armed Services.
Kennedy also took issue with Sasse’s attacks on Trump. He said many Republicans cringe at some of Trump’s statements, but that the president is doing an excellent job overall.
Sasse has opposed a number of bipartisan Senate measures without authoring his own comprehensive proposals to address the issues at hand — something Kennedy faults him for.
“That’s kind of been the pattern for Ben Sasse throughout his entire political career — he’s quick to trash but then he doesn’t offer any solution except talking about the importance of the Constitution and telling constituents how to be better parents,” Kennedy said. “That’s not what we’re looking for.”
Sasse has seen some of his proposals become law. Among those were his bill to allow a government watchdog agency access to more federal data and a measure blocking Obama administration rules related to teacher preparation programs.
Sasse has worked to address the nation’s cyber defenses, which he has described as alarmingly inadequate. This year’s defense legislation includes his language creating a commission tasked with proposing a U.S. cyber strategy.
According to the website GovTrack.us, Sasse has missed only nine of 989 roll-call votes, or less than 1 percent. That’s better than the median of 1.5 percent among the lifetime records of senators currently serving.
He has made it clear he doesn’t feel obligated to attend every hearing, even those on major topics, and said nine out of 10 are pointless. He says he often submits questions in writing to witnesses and solicits information through letters.
The six stand-alone bills he has offered this session are well below the number coming from most of his colleagues. For comparison, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, also elected in 2014, has introduced 30 bills this session.
Sasse ran on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act but kept a low profile for much of last year’s health care debate. He garnered the most attention when he called for the Senate to pass a straight repeal, with a built-in delay, and cancel its August break to keep working on a replacement. That call went unheeded by his colleagues.
When the Senate considered immigration proposals earlier this year, Sasse opposed both a bipartisan measure supported by most senators and a Republican one modeled on Trump’s principles. He said both approaches were “left of center.”
When asked for his top accomplishments, Sasse fans quickly cite his advocacy for Trump’s judicial nominations.
That includes a wave of circuit court judges and one successful nomination to the Supreme Court, with another in progress.
Several members of the House and Senate who have worked with Sasse described the Ivy Leaguer as a bright, eloquent young senator.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Sasse is an independent member of the panel who is not afraid to take a stand.
“He gives short lectures, you know, and I use the word lecture in a complimentary way,” Grassley said. “He adds a lot of history and thought that maybe other people would agree with but probably not say.”
While in office, Sasse has authored one book focused on young Americans and parenting. He has another due out later this year dealing with political polarization.
Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said big clues about Sasse’s political plans are likely to be found in the pages of that next book.
“It will either reassure conservatives or provide his enemies within the party with more fodder,” she said.
There’s a risk that Sasse’s willingness to criticize will establish him as the scold of the Senate.
“I think he views himself as something of a disrupter, but is seen more as a discontent,” Duffy said.
University of Nebraska Regent Hal Daub, Omaha’s former mayor and congressman, said Nebraska has outstanding — but very different — senators in Sasse and Fischer.
Daub said he didn’t want to criticize Sasse but offered the advice that the Senate is a place where newcomers have typically been expected to pay their dues during their first term and back up party leadership.
Daub reflected on his own political career and said he was probably too eager to jump into his own unsuccessful Senate quest. Ambition is important, he said.
“But you have to be careful about whether that’s ambition to a fault,” Daub said.
As for Fischer, she highlighted her home-state colleague’s focus on the Constitution and said he seems to enjoy being on the Judiciary Committee confirming judges. She also pointed to his work on cyber issues.
She said Sasse hasn’t indicated to her whether he will run for re-election. Asked whether he should, she said that decision is up to individual senators.
Fischer said she would disagree with Sasse’s assessment of how the Senate operates. She said she enjoys working through committees to advance bipartisan pieces of legislation or address specific issues like getting money to repair the runway at Offutt Air Force Base.
“That’s OK, though,” Fischer said. “Everybody here has a different reason why they’re here and what they want to accomplish.”