Sen. Michael Bennet: 'Nothing in the rest of the world operates like the U.S. Senate. Nothing.'
Michael Bennet is a freshman senator from Colorado. Usually, freshman senators keep pretty quiet about the institution, as you don't get to be the old guard by giving the old guard headaches. But yesterday, Bennet unveiled the most comprehensive Senate reform proposal we've seen in some time. I reached him earlier today to talk about what persuaded him to treat the Senate as a policy problem, and what would be required to solve it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I didn't know much about your background before this week, but your professional experience has mainly been working at troubled institutions and attempting to turn them around. That was true in the business world, and in the education sector, and now it seems to be your approach to serving in the United States Senate. So before we get to the specifics of Congress, tell me a bit about what you did before getting to Washington.
The business experience was in the world of restructuring. I was at Anschutz Investments, and the companies we worked on were largely well run but had terrible balance sheets. The owners had taken enterprises that were working well and they'd borrowed too much money and gotten into trouble. We consolidated a number of movie theater chains, for instance: Regal, United and Edwards. In three separate bankruptcies, we restructured their total debt from $3 billion to $400 million. It turns out that if you charge people enough for soda and popcorn, those business models can work.
What was important in that work was for the company to not stay in bankruptcy forever. The asset wastes away if you do that. So my job was to get the constituencies around the bankruptcy table to agree that getting the company in and out of bankruptcy quickly was in everyone’s interest. The theory was you might not get the last nickel for your bonds, but your total equity would be worth more. Every one of those negotiations was about getting people to see their self interest in moving the institution forward.
And then you moved to the education sector.
When I took over in Denver, the statistic that astonished me was that on the 10th-grade math test, in a district of 75,000 kids in a city of 500,000 people, there were only 33 African American students and 61 Latino students who were scoring as proficient. And that’s a junior high school standard of mathematical proficiency in Europe.
Virtually all of the incentives and disincentives in our delivery of public education today are out of whack with the outcomes we all want for kids. But the unusual thing about schoolwork is that everybody wants our kids to succeed. The system's problem is that it's stuck in a different era. We've got to find a way to drag it into the 21st century. And part of the issue that faces every urban district is that there's an incredible culture of mistrust. That’s problematic when you need radical transformation, because you need people to work with you.
I liked to say that our instructional reform was absolutely breathtaking in its lack of originality. The original part was our approach. The approach was to try very hard to establish a culture that would be receptive to the change. I would start every day meeting with principals. That’s middle management. But there's a huge bureaucracy separating the office of the superintendent from the principals running the building. So I grouped our principals into groups of 15 and so every three weeks, I'd see all of our principals.
The Machiavellian part of that effort was to create a vanguard for change in the principal corps. To create people who felt their job was to change the systems.But it wasn't done divisively. It was interesting to see that on the union's own teacher's survey, there's a question asking whether principals respect me as a professional, that went from about 30 percent to over 70 percent.
I also committed to do a faculty meeting with every faculty in the district once a year. I would talk for three or five minutes at the beginning. Then the rest was discussion. The first meeting everyone said the same thing: We were here before you, will be here after you and you don’t know anything of what we do. But then the next year, the faculty meetings had people making observations and suggestions about what's working well and not working well and we said here are the changes we’re going to make. And people came to realize there was a benefit of the conversation. We weren’t at war anymore. And people began to realize that nobody, given a blank sheet of paper, would design the system as its been designed. And the question was how could we get as close to that blank sheet of paper as possible.
Then you get appointed to the Senate. How do you go from saying, "I'm now a senator, that's terrific," to saying, "This institution is broken and I'm going to propose a set of changes to reform it"?
I'm sure as long as the Senate has been around, you’ve heard people complain about things. But nothing in the rest of the world operates like the U.S. Senate. Nothing. What became apparent to me pretty quickly was that one of the consequences of the way it operates is that we move in an enormously slow pace on the one hand, but in a way that terribly compromises outcomes on the other.
I'd connect that back to something you said about private-sector restructuring: You made the point that the hardest part of the job was convincing the different players to stop fighting over scraps in order to save the underlying institution. And that's one of the problem we're having now: People have become very good at fighting for political advantage in the Senate, but the result is that they've so devalued the institution in the eyes of the public, that no one trusts the body to do anything. So then they get back into the majority -- they win -- and they can't solve the problems they want to solve or make the sort of progress they promised the voters. The political wins are coming at a terrible institutional cost, and that's making control of the Senate worth a lot less than it might otherwise be.
No question about it. The polarization that exists on the floor of the Senate does not reflect the American people. Let's look at the recovery package. This was a package where almost 40 percent was tax cuts for middle-class families. But not one Republican vote in the House for it. If you look at the health-care package, with so much polarization, the amendments we worked on, often passed with bipartisan support. One of my amendments had 100 votes in the Senate.
But one of the problems here is that people aren't acting badly. They're just following their incentives. In 1994, this was how the Republicans regained control. In 2006, it's how the Democrats did it. If you deny the other side votes, if you obstruct their initiatives, if you make them into a failure and you make people disgusted with Washington, the American people then throw the bums out. But then the next group of bums faces the same tactics, and they can't govern.
I believe we are right now going through an enormously profound test of our democracy and our democratic institutions. We do, as a country, face some enormous challenges. Even before we were driven into this recession, the last period of economic growth is the first time our economy grew and median family income declined. We've created no net new jobs since 1998. And we’ve done nothing to change educational outcomes for kids going to school in our country. We’ve managed to burden our children with $12 trillion in debt. Think about the policy decisions that have to be made amid these political incentives. We have to figure out how to change the political culture so that people’s incentives in this job point in the right direction.
What always puzzles me about this is the decline of institutional identity. You've got two parties in Congress who are strongly committed to their party, but few seem strongly committed to the Congress. That's a real problem, as I see it, because the Founders set the body up on the assumption that it would be in competition with the executive branch and other agencies. Instead, it's ceding power to those agencies and branches, because the majority can't govern and so they decide to let other institutions do the work for them.
We had a vote three weeks ago on the debt commission which was meant to establish a rational conversation on where we’re headed. There were 53 votes to pass that commission. And it failed because of the filibuster -- even though it had broad bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans both voted for it and it failed. It wasn’t an issue of Democrats trying to ram something through or Republicans trying to stop it at all costs. But even then, with a bipartisan majority, it couldn’t get done. That was the last straw for me.
The difficulty, however, is getting this out of the short-term political context. People are vying for the next election, not setting the body up to work 10 years from now. But don't people of both parties want to govern when they're in the majority? It feels like the place is being increasingly structured to ensure no one is in the minority very long and no elections are boring, rather than to make sure the majority party, or the two parties, can successfully govern when they're in charge. Is there any latent institutional identity that, when people are away from the media's glare, emerges and worries about this?
I think there is a lot of concern, but I think people don’t know what to do about it. They're so fearful of yielding political advantage to the other side. You said that’s people acting in their self interest. And that’s true if the incentives are that anything that politicians need to do to get elected, they're going to do. I thought the president put his finger on it at the State of the Union when he said our job is not to get elected. He’s right about that. But the pervasive view is that our job is to get elected. The question is whether you can construct a politics that rewards people for getting things done. And that’s not trivial in a 24-hour cable-news echo chamber that ignores substance and focuses on people saying idiotic things. I’m not complaining about that. It is what it is.
That bring us back to your time as head of the schools. The big challenge there, you said, was convincing people that reform wasn't a question of advantaging one group over another, and that they needed to trust each other long enough to do hard things if they were all going to be around in a couple of years. How do you do that here?
I’ve thought a lot about that. In business, the interesting thing was we knew how to do what we were doing, we just didn’t know if it was the right thing. We didn't know where the market would be. In the schools, we knew where we wanted to go, but we didn’t know how to get there. In Washington, the political game is as much about making the other person lose as about your winning. That’s not going to get us where we need to be. An attitude that says my political success is predicated on the other party’s failure is never going to drive the solutions we need.
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