The Senate might hail itself as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” but like all democratic institutions, it has had an incredibly mixed history, with moments of genuine achievement—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance—tarnished by moments of cowardice and moral failure, like the Iraq War. If you can say anything about the tenure of Nebraska senator Ben Nelson—who announced his retirement this afternoon—it’s that he strove to embody the worst of the Senate during his two terms in office.
During the Bush presidency, in addition to his support for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, Nelson voted to restrict marriage rights for gay couples and to make reproductive healthcare more difficult for women. He voted against legislation to raise the minimum wage, against attempts to increase Pell Grants and for the 2005 bill to make bankrupcy proceedings more difficult for ordinary Americans.. He voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and voted in support of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and its draconian attacks on civil liberties for detainees (and everyone else). He voted against President Bush’s bill for comprehensive immigration reform, and voted in support of a bill to establish English as the official language of the United States.
During the Obama presidency, Nelson turned his loathsome behavior up to eleven, as he obstructed the stimulus bill and worked with Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to needlessly strike tens of billions in aid to state governments. As a marginal vote in the Democratic caucus, Nelson was key to the passage of healthcare reform in the face of unified Republican opposition. True to form, he used that power to extract ridiculous concessions from President Obama and in the process nearly scuttle the bill. Since then, he has done everything he could to undermine liberals in Congress, from coming out against provisions in financial reform (that he voted for), to dragging his feet on “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal (he eventually voted for it), to acting as a constant deficit scold, urging President Obama to ignore unemployment and sluggish growth in favor of austerity.
With his parochialism and narrow concern for his own influence, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ben Nelson represented the worst of the Senate. His retirement is a good thing for Congress and a good thing for the country.