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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 5, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews , Senate  
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Comments

Don't worry Senator Bennett. You will have other things, rather than the filibuster, to worry about when you are looking for a job next year.

Posted by: Jenga918 | March 5, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Was Bennet appointed or elected?

Posted by: rmgregory | March 5, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Rational assessment and conversation from a Senator.

Weird.

Good luck to him. The zero-sum thing is pretty ingrained, so I don't know how this'll work, but my fingers are crossed. My personal view is that we'll have to have total gridlock, for both parties, over a period of a couple different congresses before the mood will change. Each party will have to be convinced that being the majority is essentially worthless before they'll have any incentive to change it. I don't think we're there yet. Not by a long shot.

For all the headaches Republicans may have faced in the 2000s, they still got massive tax cuts and a couple wars. For all the Dem headaches so far, they still got stimulus, equal pay act, likely health care, etc... etc... it's still valuable to be the majority, even with the dysfunction. As such, the minority still has an incentive to tear the majority down and become the majority themselves, i.e., keep the tools in place that allow them to do that best: filibuster, holds, etc.

On a broader point, as usual, I think the dysfunction looks worse in the moment than in retrospect or on paper. I'm not saying that dysfunction isn't there and isn't getting worse - on both points, that's certainly true. But this is still (if HCR passes) the most productive congress in modern history and the most successful legislative score for the president according to CQ. I think the dysfunction is bad, but it's by no means crippling the congress if you're just looking at the cold, hard data.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 5, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I think it'll be rather ironic that if healthcare fails the first vote in the House, it will all be because a supposedly grounded Senator Boxer had to try and exploit the healthcare bill as an opportunity to circumvent the House's Hyde Amendment.

In other words it will be because the Senate proved to be too rigidly liberal in its ideology to pass a bill palatable to moderate House members.

I will forever keep a photo of Barbara Boxer near and dear to my heart.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | March 5, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this. Saw Bennet on Maddow Show the other night and was energized by his "normalcy" and common sense thinking.

We need more like him in Washington. Hopefully, he (and his good ideas) won't be trampled by status quo before he can do some good there.

Posted by: onewing1 | March 5, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

In the Seven Habits, Win-Win can only happen when two opposing groups seek a third alternative. In this case either the Senate as an institution or the people who elected them. As long as the only goal is to beat the other party it will always be a lose / win or win / lose proposition and ultimately the people are the biggest losers. I like what Senator Bennet is saying and I hope the leadership in the Senate listens to him before it is too late.

Posted by: enr1025 | March 5, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Two things I wanted to know, but didn't see, are:

1) Were his education/school reforms successful? Lots of talk about how bad things were, but doesn't say what he did, or if it worked.

2) How does he plan to try to get this bill passed?

Posted by: JERiv | March 5, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I wish Mr. Bennett would be open and honest about the health care bill and amnesty being pushed right now in the White House.

This is how it goes down:
1) Health care is passed
2) 11 million illegal immigrants are granted amnesty
3) "Newly-legal citizens" apply for free medical care under the New Health Care plan.

Why not talk about this?

An honest, logical leader is what America wants - it is the lying, thieving, bi-partisanship that is rending our country apart.

Posted by: easttxisfreaky | March 5, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Have I told you how much I enjoy these interviews? I so seldom see interviews of any length on policy grounds with politicians.

Posted by: adamiani | March 5, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Nice interview, Ezra, as always.

I think some of Sen. Bennet's proposals are very good and others not so much. I definitely agree with Sen. Bennet's proposal on holds (both anonymous and non-anonymous), eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed, and lowering the requirement for cloture to be invoked. Congressional staffs, I don't believe, should be subject to salary freezes the way members themselves are. The lifetime ban on lobbying is too long a period -- 5 years would be more appropriate.

Posted by: moronjim | March 5, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

i don't think you can reform the Senate (or the House) without dealing with Seniority. Seniority is why long-term incumbants don't lose (and why it is in voters' interest to re-elect a mediocre senior congressman as opposed to a brilliant freshman). Seniority is why pork gets handed out to the powerful senators, etc.

Posted by: Levijohn | March 5, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Agreed, I can't think of anywhere else that gets as interesting a group of people for interviews or where the interviewee is so frequently candid and interesting. I don't know if it's because they don't take your blog as being as dangerous a place to be honest as a TV show or is you're just really good at conducting the interview, but the results are great.

One thing I'd like to see some discussion on is how much of the degraded institutional identity is due to the increased view of the President as the head of his party and his agenda as Congress' agenda. It seems like right now presidential elections are as much about his coat tails and getting a Congress that can pass his agenda as anything. If you're a member of Congress that owes your election to the President and his platform it makes sense to make his platform your primary goal. On the other hand, if you're elected primarily as a reaction against the President, as opposed to be elected as a reaction against your opponent, it makes sense to make obstructing the President's agenda you main goal.

Posted by: MosBen | March 5, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I am totally going to Bennet's website right now and donate to him. We need to support people like him who bring a fresh perspective to these issues!! I didn't see a place on his SEnatorial website to donate but here is an ActBlue way to do it ...

http://www.actblue.com/page/mcintiretuchman

Posted by: LindaB1 | March 5, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - you have done your homework. Please get this video with Micael Bennet. This is the most awesome information by a great man that I've heard in many moons.

Please continue doing what you're doing for your Nation and fellow Americans.

You deserve a big hand for this Ezra, thanks so much. May God Bless America

Posted by: annie21 | March 5, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Wow! A Senator with common sense! How unique. Keep up the good work Sen. Bennett. Never give up! We need reform in Washington like never before.

Posted by: davidkrueger | March 5, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

All that blather when three words would have sufficed...vote them out.

Posted by: bgreen2224 | March 5, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Good news Sen Bennet, you won't have to work here for long as you're going to be looking for another job in 2010!!

Posted by: houston123 | March 5, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

What? Do we really have a politician with concern for more than just getting reelected? Do we have someone who sees a problem with the current business as usual status quo? Is there actually someone holding a light in this dank, dark tunnel of the current self centered Party First mindset that has developed over the last 15 years? I am in a state of shock. Imagine that, do what is right for the country, its people, and not just your party or your pet issue. Simply a unique and unheard of concept!

Posted by: atc333 | March 5, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Bennet was appointed when Ken Salazar became Interior Secretary. He has been in DC about a year, maybe a bit more. He isn't a politician, as his jobs have been appointive. That's why he sounds like a normal person. And he does have a lot of interesting experience and insight.

Posted by: Mimikatz | March 5, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I like the sound of this guy. He says what I want to hear. But this interview was a little weird to me. I felt like his responses to, what I thought were, very good questions were fairly talking point-ish. At some moments his responses seemed like near non-sequiturs. So, I don't know. He's saying the right things, but he also appears a little...shallow? I can't put my finger on it. And needless to say, I'd be happy to be wrong. If he's really serious, let it be known through his persistence and dedication to instituting some of the changes he's mentioning here.

Posted by: slag | March 5, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Can you imagine a Congress that was full of senator's such as Michael Bennet? Think of how much could be accomplished for this country and it's citizens.

This man is the very reason why term limits need to be established in Congress. Instead of dealing with those who do no more than stand in the way of progress (Senator Bunning and so many, many more), we could have people like Senator Bennet, who could actually be achieving results that work for everyone.

Wonderful article Ezra.....

Posted by: liberalwesterngirl | March 5, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Wow...this is incredible. Thanks for the column.
Getting rid of lobbyists would be the biggest boon to fairness for our country. Recently watched "the Corporation" and their power is scary.
I will support this guy wholeheartedly.

Posted by: feministobserver1 | March 5, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Bravo for Senator Bennet. Such a fresh, unbiased ideas and approaches are needed. Regarding the 12 trillion debt legacy Senator Bennet underlines, we Mexicans can tell a lot of horror stories about how families are affected by deep and mismaneged recessions linked to Government and private abuse of debt!.
It´s one of the main roots of our present ultra violence and lost of security in my country - that by the way, it´s already damaging and spoiling US citizens and cities far north of the border...
José Mari

Posted by: jmvillaro | March 5, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Well, Ezra, nice piece.

Senator Bennet is doing a very smart thing and its odd that more haven't seen it: He's leveraging the anger on both sides. Instead of being afraid of his own shadow, he's targeting entrenched habits that define a common enemy.

This isn't the first smart thing I've seen him do. President Obama would do well to align himself with this. Change indeed.

Posted by: sdavis3398 | March 5, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Great interview, Ezra. I think Bennet's proposed reforms are for the most part quite good. I don't particularly like the core of his filibuster reform, though.

What he suggests is that after the third cloture vote, the threshold for maintaining a filibuster falls to 45 *UNLESS* the minority party recruits a member of the majority to support a filibuster. Then it stays at 41 *UNLESS* the majority then recruits three members of the minority to vote for cloture, in which case it again goes back to 45.

This strikes me as overly complicated and likely to lead to even more gamesmanship in the majority caucus (esp. among the Democrats). For example, during the health care debate, if there were only 59 Democrats, then so long as the Republicans could bribe Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman into supporting their position, the threshold would remain 60.

I think that by Harkin's proposal to make the filibuster graduated - 60, 57, 54, 51 - makes much more sense. It's a lot more straightforward and it has the virtue of eventually requiring a simple majority vote.

Posted by: Isa8686 | March 5, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

The new senator is correct in his assessment that nothing gets done in the Senate. That is by an elitist design, complicated by the blatant ego of the Republican party. When they were the majority, they ran roughshod over everything, passing at will the bills that would one day bring us to our institutional knees. They ran two wars on a credit card and created a drug feature for Medicare without a dime to pay for any of it. They admit that they never paid for anything. When someone comes in, tries to straighten out the mess, calls out the guilty, the Republicans sit on their hands and just say no. When they lose even more seats and the Democrats don't have to worry about filibusters coming from them, we might get some work done. They are sitting on over 200 bills from the House and doing nothing with them. Blatant arrogance that borders on stupidity. They all should be penalized 50% of their pay for the rest of the year.

Posted by: ronjeske | March 5, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I think the best strategy is one of the following:

(1) Amend the Senate rules, but provide that the change won't come into effect until a future date, such as after the 2012 or 2014 election.

(2) Pick a fight with Republics over something which they hate but has overwhelming public support (such as bank regulation) and then have Joe Biden rule the filibuster unconstitutional.

(3) Make filibuster reform a part of the Democratic manifesto in November then, if Democrats retain the Senate, declare that it is a new Senate and has a mandate to adopt new Senate Rules.

Posted by: Modicum | March 5, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Sounded pretty good until he got to government-run health care. Everything that Congress has done for decades has created a disaster. Gridlock is much more preferable.

The best health care in the world is a product of the free market. The high cost of health care is a product of government intervention.

These guys have spent, given away, wasted, and stolen $13 trillion dollars that they didn't even have. Now that the country is collapsing under the weight of the debt that they have piled on its shoulders, a few of them want to get religion. They should all be doing Bible studies with Madoff. $13 trillion worth of Bible studies.

Bennet is just another guy whining about not being able to impose his misguided and destructive agenda. If he wasn't, he would not be trying to tax and spend more.

Posted by: websmith1 | March 5, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Option (3) should "...and has a mandate to adopt new Senate Rules by a simple majority vote."

Posted by: Modicum | March 5, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Hey Modicum,

You sound like a real moderate guy. You would fit in quite well in the current Senate.

Posted by: bruce22 | March 5, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

This reminds me of David Brook's observation that when he talks with many senators one on one they seem reasonable and thoughtful and insighful. And then he sees them stand in front of a microphone and out comes all kinds of blather and nonsense.

All of which suggests that one simple (not easy) solution is for all senate terms be for one year only. Give each one 6 years to do their best (however they define it) and not worry about raising money or voting for party over country. What a great experiment that would be.

Posted by: gradice | March 5, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

"This man is the very reason why term limits need to be established in Congress. Instead of dealing with those who do no more than stand in the way of progress (Senator Bunning and so many, many more), we could have people like Senator Bennet, who could actually be achieving results that work for everyone."

liberalwesterngirl,

Jim Bunning's long strange ride in the Senate is a product of the Kentucky electorate, not term limits. While I'll be the first to agree that Bunning is a poster child for the idea of term limits, I don't think it follows that when Bunning's time runs out, Kentucky would turn to a guy like Bennet.

Rand Paul, anyone?

Personally, I want voters to be free to choose whomever they wish, even if the man or woman they elect has been there as long as Robert Byrd. Many Senators don't fully hit their stride until they have been around for a couple of terms -- many do their very best work after 15 or 20 years in office.

I don't like term limits...It is a freedom thing for me.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 5, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Thanks for doing this interview. I was really mad when I discovered that the senate had filibustered the bipartisan deficit commission. This has become my strategy to fix the health care system. When you establish a vanguard for change outside of the political realm you can create some objective thinking.

I like this guy. It takes a lot of problem solving ability to turn a school district around. I believe the president would help him if he asks him. He should work more closely with the president and vice president to create a way to introduce change within the senate. Oh, and by the way, I am a republican.

Here was my idea on health care reform that will be lost in the filibuster of the deficit commission. http://pov9.blogspot.com/2010/02/blind-spot-of-obama-health-care-hc.html

Posted by: pparris | March 6, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

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