Ted Kaufman was a model U.S. senator
Most Americans do not know who Ted Kaufman is.
Kaufman, who was appointed in January, 2009 to the Senate seat Joe Biden vacated, gave his final speech from the Senate floor last week and, having not run to retain the seat, will leave office following next month’s midterm election.
His service as a senator, brief though it was, made a lasting impact and provided a model for the sort of leader all citizens should seek. Ironically, Kaufman’s exemplary service also exposed part of what ails our political system.
I followed Kaufman’s service closely because my son worked for him this past year. I am biased, but expert observers share my admiration for Kaufman. For instance, Norman Ornstein, a leading authority on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Roll Call last spring that Kaufman is “always high on my list” of admirable members of Congress.
Ornstein could think of no one who had come to Congress “better prepared to contribute immediately across the widest range of issues or with more of a commitment to act in the public interest.”
A few samples of Kaufman’s work are suggestive. Kaufman authored the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act which Congress passed last week to enhance the ability of a new administration to hit the ground running. Kaufman became the leading spokesperson for the need to reform securities markets to protect average investors and he pressed regulators to remedy market bias which favored high frequency traders and to make markets more transparent. His proposed legislation to break up megabanks was unsuccessful but it focused attention on the perils of a system in which certain institutions are “too big to fail.”
He promoted education in science, technology, engineering and math, played a leading role in combating financial fraud as a co-author of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, and encouraged public service by spotlighting the work of some exemplary government employees.
In addition to his intelligence, knowledge of public policy and deep understanding of the Senate, Kaufman brought other rare qualities to his public service which all should value in their representatives. He was willing to invest time on complicated problems which attracted few headlines but impacted the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. His pioneering efforts to reform securities markets and his legislation on presidential transitions offer two examples.
He acted independently and courageously in discharging his public duties. Witness his legislation to break up huge banks, an effort which was opposed by the White House, many Democratic leaders, the financial interests who would be affected, and virtually the entire Republican Senate caucus. Or his support for the filibuster notwithstanding recent abuses and criticism of it by many Democrats.
And Kaufman worked in a bipartisan manner on various initiatives. He co-authored legislation with Senator Johnny Isaakson (R. GA.) to curb abusive short selling, founded a Senate caucus on global internet freedom with Senator Sam Brownback (R. KS.) and teamed with Senator George Voinovich (R. OH.) on the presidential transition bill.
In addition to his talents and character, Kaufman had an advantage over many of his colleagues. Because he was not seeking election he could be a full-time senator and focus all his attention on legislating in the public interest.
It is a sad commentary on our democracy that the burden of raising money to fund re-election campaigns and the never-ending campaign cycle prevent many senators from being effective legislators. We must address this problem to heal our political system.
In the meantime, we should appreciate the enormous contributions Kaufman made, and look for others who share his qualities.
Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at the Saint Louis University School of Law.