By: Nathan Williams
In his first public appearance since announcing his retirement, U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, (R-Ga.), welcomed guests Monday to the University of Georgia chapel alongside Senator Mark Warner, (D-Va.), as they prepared to take the stage for the Terry Leadership Speaker Series to address national economic issues. Directly addressing the youth in attendance, Senator Chambliss encouraged students to “engage themselves” as he stressed the importance of “bright minds and energetic people involved in the political process” before he and Senator Warner addressed issues like the national deficit and healthcare.
The United States Senate will lose one of its most prominent conservatives when the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015. Sen. Chambliss, the high-ranking two-term Georgia Republican, recently announced his intention not to seek reelection to a third-term citing “legislative gridlock and partisan posturing” as the rationale behind his retirement.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1994 on the ‘Contract with America’ wave that catapulted fellow Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich to the Speakership and Republicans to the majority, Chambliss will return from Washington after representing the people of Georgia for two decades when his term ends. He has served as a ranking member on multiple committees during his public service tenure, chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, and currently serves as the Vice Chairman of the powerful Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Chambliss’ membership in the controversial ‘Gang of Six’, a bipartisan group of senators who failed to divulge a deficit reduction solution during the debt-ceiling crisis two years ago, is likely a contributing factor behind his departure from public service. The Gang of Six sought to inject optimism in the hyperpartisan deficit reduction debate while designing viable legislative framework that would attract bipartisan support. The plan outlined reforming the tax code, cutting spending, and reforming the budgeting process – initiatives that embody fiscally conservative principles. Though the premise included restructuring government expenditures, many conservatives vehemently voiced concerns that a compromise with Democrats would not efficiently address the nation’s fundamental budget quandary – spending. At the Terry College of Business Leadership series lecture on January 28th, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia – also a Gang of Six member – passionately quipped, “there was no rational political upside for a safe sitting Republican senator from a state like Georgia to be willing to step up with a Democrat, and say hey, we need to go out and tell the truth about the issue around the deficit.” He later added “this senator, this individual, this Georgian, this American – in my mind – is a true example of political courage” as he defended Senator Chambliss’ involvement in what some consider politically unpalatable in a polarized state like Georgia.
The emergence of the Tea Party in 2010 heavily influenced the victories of three Georgia Congressmen in the Republican primaries, propelling Austin Scott, Tom Graves, and Rob Woodall into office. Though Chambliss has said he believes he would have been reelected had he sought a third-term, his embodiment of bipartisanism in today’s polarized political atmosphere likely influenced his decision to avoid what many had forecasted as a tough primary battle. The threat of ideological warfare against an almost certain Tea Party backed challenger prompted the well-respected legislator to retire peacefully without risking the loss of his legacy as a pragmatic crusader.
While most render compromise a fundamental necessity in democracy, crossing party lines on contentious issues like addressing the national deficit is equitable with political suicide, especially in one of the country’s most conservative states. Any deviation from conservative ideology is a political risk Republican officials in Georgia must calculate before constructing or endorsing significant compromise. Saxby Chambliss did just that again last December. Senator Chambliss recognized the potential consequences of sidestepping his party during the fiscal cliff debate last month where he became one of the first Republicans to publicly profess his willingness to increase federal revenues – raising taxes – to avoid what many economists predicted would be an automatic recession if Congress failed to reach a deal. His defiance to the conservative obstructionism against raising taxes drew the ire from many within his party, including anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Chambliss’ infidelity to Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge immediately sparked discussions regarding the emergence of a potential challenger during the 2014 Senate primary. Many GOP insiders considered Congressman Tom Price to be silently mulling a primary challenge, but now that the contest will be an open seat race, potential candidates include U.S. Reps Lynn Westmoreland, Jack Kingston, and Paul Broun, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, and even former presidential candidate Herman Cain – all of whom broker burnished conservative credentials.
The nation is desperate for solutions to solve our country’s fiscal dilemma in an unfortunate time when bipartisan leadership runs a deficit equally as threatening as our national debt. Senator Chambliss has fulfilled the obligations of public service over the past two decades during times that have demanded responsible stewardship and the political altruism to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, we live in a political climate that rewards subordination and punishes courage and virtuosity. Bipartisan, solutions-driven leadership will be the lifeline that saves our country from the divisive stalemate plaguing our democracy, but for now, solutions-driven leadership has driven this bipartisan crusader back home to Georgia. Though the statesman from Moultrie may have failed to break the gridlock in Washington, his career will end with no less honor or prominence.