Headed Toward the Finish Line
Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander has set some ambitious policy goals to reach before he retires from the Senate in 2020.
by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • April 4, 2019
sen. lamar alexander in his washington office, with a minnie pearl hat behind him. (photo by compass)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and his staff occupy a suite of offices strung along a long corridor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, one of the perks of being a senior member of the majority party. The Tennessee Republican’s reception office is adorned with vintage tools, musical instruments and other artifacts from the Museum of Appalachia. Alexander’s personal office contains a collection of walking sticks, one of Minnie Pearl’s signature hats, a quilt and a couple of muskets.
Top of the agenda: healthcare costs, college accessibility and nuclear energy.
A Maryville native and seventh-generation Tennesssean, Alexander got his start in politics as an aide to Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., one of the state’s most highly respected statesmen. Now 78, Alexander has become something of a statesman himself as he heads toward the end of his third and final term in the Senate.
In between, Alexander amassed a record of public service that is unrivaled in Tennessee in the modern era. He was twice elected governor, served as the president of the University of Tennessee and was appointed secretary of education by President George H.W. Bush. Alexander twice ran for president but failed to secure the Republican nomination both times. He won his Senate seat in 2002 and has been re-elected twice.
He is what used to be called an Establishment Republican, an endangered species in an era of increased ideological polarization. He is a past chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and is a reliable GOP vote, but he has an independent streak that occasionally provokes attacks from conservatives accusing him of being a RINO -- Republican in Name Only. Most recently he voted to block President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to obtain funds for a wall along the nation’s southern border.
On Tuesday, Compass sat down for a few minutes with Alexander to talk about his goals for his last two years in the Senate, which include reducing healthcare costs, making it easier for students to pay back their education loans and promoting nuclear power as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat climate change.
Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve announced you’re not running again. What are your objectives over the next year and a half as you’re contemplating winding down this long career?
A: Well, I don’t think about not running again until somebody brings it up. (Laughs) Because I’m so busy doing what I normally do. But my major objectives for the next two years are 1.) reducing healthcare costs, and 2.) make it simpler and easier for students to attend college and pay back their student loans. I’m also focused on pushing ahead with nuclear power and clean energy.
Those are the three objectives I’m working on, and I’m doing it the way I usually do. I learned to count in the Maryville city schools. If you need 60 votes in the Senate to get a result, that means you have to work with Democrats as well as Republicans. Senator (Patty) Murray, who’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Committee and Education Committee, and I are working together. And on healthcare we’re working with the Finance Committee, which is senators (Chuck) Grassley and (Ron) Wyden.
Q: You mentioned nuclear power. That’s part of the “Manhattan Project” on climate change you’ve talked about. How has that been received by Democrats?
A: Most Democrats are worried about climate change, and nuclear power is by far the best solution to dealing with climate change. Sixty percent of the carbon-free electricity we produce in this country comes from nuclear power, even though it’s only 20 percent of our electricity. So if you really want clean energy, you need more nuclear power. That’s why the new advanced reactors, which would be smaller and cheaper and produce less waste are so attractive, and that’s my priority for the next five years.
Q: Speaking of energy, we just met with Rep. Tim Burchett yesterday, and he’s introduced a bill calling for transparency at the Tennessee Valley Authority and open meetings and so forth. And he’s also raised concerns about some of the effects of the cleanup from the coal ash spill in Kingston. Have you been involved in conversations about all that?
A: Well, I believe in transparency. Congressman (Jim) Cooper and I – he’s the dean of our delegation now, from Nashville – hosted a meeting here for members of the Tennessee delegation with (TVA CEO) Bill Johnson and the new CEO of TVA (Jeff Lyash) two weeks ago. That’s a part of our transparency, letting us know what they’re doing. Of course, all of us are concerned about the coal ash. It’s a real tragedy for the families that were affected. But the resolution of what to do about that is where it ought to be, which is in federal court.
Q: You got some attention for your vote on the bill having to do with the president’s emergency declaration. What kind of response did you hear on that, especially from people in Tennessee?
A: Well, I heard different things. I got a lot of phone calls from people who said I was voting against the president. In fact, I was in the Nashville office the day after the vote, so I took some of the phone calls. I explained, no, I was voting for the Constitution, not against the president. Because the Constitution says that in order to keep from having a president with too much power, Congress has the exclusive authority over how the money’s spent.
"I got a lot of phone calls from people who said I was voting against the president. I explained, no, I was voting for the Constitution, not against the president."
In this case, what the president was doing was saying, “I want a certain amount of money,” and Congress said, we’ll give you less than you want. And then he said, well I’m going to use the national emergencies act and spend it anyway. And whether it’s a Republican or Democratic president, our founders did not want a president to have that much power.
Most of the people I talked with understood my position, some disagreed with it. I’ve also had a lot of people who have come up to me personally – even some today, on our Tennessee Tuesday – who thanked me for voting for the Constitution.
The president himself was good about it. I met with him for a couple of hours with a group of Republican senators the day before the vote. We talked mainly about tariffs and trade, but we talked about the vote, too, and he said he wanted us to vote with him, but he said “Do what you think is right.” And he’s respected the fact that we had a principled vote. And we’ll go onto the next issue.
On issues, I agree with him most of the time.
Q: You’ve been in and around Washington for a long time. There’s a lot of discussion now that things are more polarized than they used to be. What’s your sense of the differences now versus in the past?
A: Human nature hasn’t changed, and human conduct and behavior hasn’t changed much. Technology has changed. So we’re in a different environment than we were when I came here 50 years ago with Howard Baker. People weren’t walking around with iPhones and tweeting every 30 seconds. You could actually go home and explain your position before people heard about it. Now, you don’t have a chance of that.
The world has just changed technologically, and that has affected the media. It’s not a matter of the media, it’s a matter of the technology that the media and the rest of us use. So it creates an environment that’s more partisan. And so it’s a little harder to do things. I suggest to Tennesseans that they look at Washington as a split-screen television.
On one screen, you might see senators in a food fight over Justice Kavanaugh. But on the other screen, you might see 72 senators last October working on an opioids bill that was the most important piece of legislation on a public epidemic in our history, according to the president. And passing another bill that we’ve been working on for years to pay songwriters – of which there are a lot in Tennessee – fair market value for their songs.
And as I mentioned, I’m working with Republicans and Democrats on reducing healthcare costs and simplifying federal student aid and paying back your student loans. And that’s going pretty well. We had a good hearing today on campus safety, which involves the difficult issue of Title IX and sexual assault on campus. It was a very helpful, civil, good hearing.
So it’s still possible to get a lot done here and do it in a civil way. But it’s harder than it was.
Q: Any thoughts about the Mueller report – whether and when and how that should be made public?
A: I was one of a handful of people in Washington who for the last two years was not hyperventilating over the Mueller investigation. My view was, he’s a respected prosecutor, leave him alone, let him finish his job and let’s see what he turns up. So now what he’s said is the president was not guilty of collusion with Russia, that’s what he was supposed to find out. I think that settles that, and we ought to go on to reducing healthcare costs and making it easier for students to go to college.
I’m sure (Attorney) General Barr will do what he said he would do. He’s going to release all of the report that he legally and appropriately can. He can’t release classified information, because that would make it impossible for us to have a Central Intelligence Agency. Second, he can’t release information that a grand jury might be using. So there’s some information that he can’t release. But I expect him to release as he said he would, and we’ll read it and decide for ourselves what we think.
Q: You mentioned healthcare costs? What’s the magic bullet there?
A: There’s no magic bullet. But one thing that would make a difference is transparency, making it possible for patients to know the price of what they’re buying. It’s a huge part of our economy, 17 or 18 percent, and most of us have no idea what we’re paying for. We get these bills that somebody else pays for, or we have a high co-pay. We’re looking for ways to make it possible for people to know what they’re buying.
"(Healthcare) is a huge part of our economy, 17 or 18 percent, and most of us have no idea what we’re paying for. We get these bills that somebody else pays for, or we have a high co-pay. We’re looking for ways to make it possible for people to know what they’re buying."
For example, you can go to an emergency room and get a surprise medical bill because you didn’t know that the anesthesiologist that they used didn’t work for the hospital. And then you might get a bill for several hundred dollars, or $2,000, three months later that you never expected. I would say if there were a single magic bullet, it would be transparency, it would be to make the costs of healthcare more evident so it could operate more with the cost-saving discipline of a true market.
Q: Have you put any thought into what you’re going to do when you get back to Tennessee?
A: No. I’ll find plenty to do. (Laughs.) I’m too interested in what I’m doing now.
One other area, your readers are mostly around the Knoxville area, I’m working on a project with the Foothills Parkway. You know we have 33 ½ miles of right-of-way that’s not been built on, a thousand feet wide, it’s some of the most beautiful land in the Eastern United States. I’m working with Sevier County and Cocke County officials and the National Park Service and the Conservation Fund to see if we can put mountain bike trails and hiking trails on some of that 33 ½ miles.
I’m also heavily focused on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the building of the Uranium Processing Facility. The appropriations subcommittee that I chair sends about $3 billion a year to Oak Ridge for cleanup, the lab and the uranium facility. Ten thousand people work there. I think Oak Ridge as an asset for the Knoxville area is underappreciated.
If we advertised the Oak Ridge Corridor, it would become as famous as Route 128 (in Boston) or Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle of North Carolina. Because we have as much brain power, as many highly educated and smart engineers and Ph.Ds in the Knoxville/Oak Ridge/Blount County/Roane County area as they do around the Research Triangle. We just don’t market it as well.
Q: How’s the Uranium Processing Facility going?
A: On time, on budget. It should be completed in 2025 at a cost of $6.5 billion.