In last week’s column I wrote about Senator Johnny Isakson’s
farewell speech. It was a direct charge
to his peers to get beyond today’s hyper-partisan rhetoric and solve our
country’s problems. It was not an appeal for bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s
sake, but for a return to a focus on the role of the legislator.
There was a time, not long ago, when legislators sought to
pass legislation to address actual issues of the day. Now, it appears too many
see their role as fortifying gridlock while an executive branch establishes
policy and the judicial branch legislates from the ninth circuit.
Make no mistake, Isakson’s career of public service has been
as a legislator. Over 45 years he’s
served in the Georgia House, Georgia Senate, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate.
Legislators want the solutions they propose in legislation
to reflect their ideology. Legislators in the mold of Senator Isakson also understand
what is rarely if ever said in Washington these days: many routine issues of
government transcend the rigid boundaries of partisan ideology.
Because he chose not to make the focus about him, Isakson’s
speech avoided listing his own accomplishments as a legislator. A complete look at his charge to fellow
Senators to solve problems and get things done requires a few examples of what
the Isakson approach has accomplished for Georgia and our country.
In 2006, Delta was in a quite different financial position
than it is today. Still recovering from
9/11, the airline was in bankruptcy reorganization and was preparing to
terminate its pension plan.
It wasn’t that the airline couldn’t make pension payments,
but that it didn’t meet the reserves required by the government to maintain the
plan and couldn’t replenish them as quickly as the government required. Delta projected it needed a couple more years
to solidify the program for 91,000 retirees, but the Government kept saying “no”.
Had the status quo prevailed, a lot of Delta pensioners
would have lost a significant portion of their retirement savings. Worse, taxpayers would have been forced to
pick up the bill for much of what remained.
Allowing Delta extra time to fortify their plan had little financial
downside, and significant upside for taxpayers and pensioners alike.
Many politicians still didn’t want to put their name on that
risk. The era was post-Enron, and as the
real-estate bubble was collapsing. No
one wanted their names on what might be criticized as a favor to Wall Street,
despite the benefits landing squarely on Main Street. Even the Bush White House threatened a veto.
Undeterred, Isakson went to work, got a bill passed and signed
after earning the support of the President.
Taxpayers didn’t have to bail out the system, and Delta’s employees have
had their pensions paid as agreed.
In 2009, Georgian Kate Puzey was murdered in the African
country of Benin, where she was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The investigation was stymied locally and it
became clear that the US was sending volunteers into often dangerous conditions
as volunteers without sufficient protections from local governments or the US
institutions that should have been backing them.
Isakson himself went to Benin to secure justice for Puzey and
her family, and drafted bipartisan legislation to protect other volunteers like
her in the future. President Obama sized
the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in 2011.
Isakson’s most enduring legislative legacy will likely come
from his Chairmanship of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. During his tenure the committee has passed 56
pieces of legislation to reform the VA.
Reform of the Veterans Administration continues to be a
daunting task. The Isakson approach has
been to break the overall problem down into smaller pieces to spotlight individual
issues and build consensus around fixing those, building up to what will amount
to a comprehensive overhaul of the agency.
These examples are but a small snippet of the legislative
resume of Senator Johnny Isakson. The
do, however, represent the ability to see a solution when others see problems
and see a path to victory when others see talking points for a stump
speech. These are qualities we should
seek more often from those we send to Washington and Atlanta to represent us.