The Senate moves with all due deliberation. The federal government changes direction slowly. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it is bad, oftentimes it is frustrating. But our government was designed to change slowly and in this the founding fathers were very effective.
Michael Bennet is a Senator. And the thing that most struck me in this interview is that he talks about what can be done, and how items need to be accomplished. Not a word railing against the constraints of the system but instead straightforward discussion of getting the job done. Senator Bennet's approach will tend to be less satisfying to those that want major changes, and want them now. But his approach will also make him a much more effective Senator. I prefer effective.
On to the interview. This was over the phone as the Senate is in session this weekend and so Michael is stuck in D.C. And it was just ½ hour long (actually 35 minutes). I haven't interviewed over the phone before and it does reduce the level of communication. It is a much more cut & dried conversation.
We started on Afghanistan. This was a long discussion which pretty much mirrored President Obama's speech at West Point. Michael does acknowledge that the real fight is occurring in Pakistan and that is being conducted by the Pakistani Army. That the job in Afghanistan is to not let the terrorists retreat from Pakistan to Afghanistan which would then eliminate the effectiveness of the fight in Pakistan.
He then discussed how the present effort is very limited in scope. It is focused in the South & East, it is working with the local governments (because of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the central government), and it is limited to building up an honest & effective police force and otherwise providing security. He even specifically called out that this is not about building schools and other "nation building" efforts. (Even the limited effort, I think, qualifies as nation building – although on a more limited scale.)
He clearly does have well informed view of the situation there and spoke bluntly of the problems. A critical step 1 is to have a clear picture of the problem. Senator Bennet does have that and speaks of the situation as it is. He also said multiple times that Congress needs to "hold the administration accountable" while watching their efforts on an ongoing basis.
Next was the question about why we gave the large banks everything they wanted, but have nothing substantive for everyone else. Michaels's reply was to discuss the needs for credit to be loosened up for small business. This seems to be the conventional wisdom in D.C. right now – that the big issue for the economy is to get credit to small businesses, and from that there will be more jobs created. I agree this is needed (at my company we have to pay our credit card bills every 2 weeks because they won't give us a limit that can handle a month's worth of charges – and we have zero debt). But I don't think this is going to bring us out of recession.
On that note, I asked what are they doing in the Senate to address this issue as they keep talking about it, but we need action. Senator Bennet's reply was "they [the White House] seem to have finally got it because they had their jobs summit this week and we'll have to see what comes out of that." I am disappointed that I heard nothing else on this issue – not even thoughts on things they might consider to address the economy.
Note: Every interview, after it ends, I think of one question I should have asked. For this one I should have asked him how we're going to address the Craigslist effect. Ten years ago the newspaper classified industry probably supplied 100,000 jobs. Craigslist with 28 people eliminated those jobs. How do we find jobs for all the cases where massive numbers of jobs are eliminated with new technology.
I then asked Senator Bennet if he was too tied to the financial industry to be willing to address the changes needed. He came back speaking with great emphasis that he is not worrying about protecting Wall St. He then read me the statement he put out on this issue (the one time in the conversation he was reading from a script). His concern is the community banks that did not cause this problem, are by and large not an issue, and he doesn't want them "to have a series of regulations that further constrain their lending."
He also discussed how his financial background is a benefit as it lets him better understand what happened. And he called out the disaster as being driven by "pure greed" on the part of the major banks. His desire is to address the "massive irresponsibility of the Wall St bank holding companies." He also wants to make sure we don't bring in regulations that cause problems while not helping.
We then went on to "too big to fail" and Bennet immediately launched in to the moral hazard of the bank rescue because we've now made it clear that the government does back the large banks which, by itself, will allow even greater risk taking. Here's where he had a very interesting choice of words, that "we need to put very onerous capital requirements on financial institutions that get to a size…" If Senator Bennet is in thrall to the big banks as some have claimed, I don't see why he would use phrases like this in passing. This is the phrasing of someone who is looking to bring in some real restraint on the system.
He sees the solution having two main parts. First that the TB2F banks will have significantly increased capital requirements. Second will be a fund used to handle the failure of any TB2F bank, self-funded by those same banks. He believes that this self-funding will cause the institutions to self police as they are the ones that will have to pay more into the fund if one of them goes belly-up. (I'm not sure the self-policing will do much to stop all of them racing off the cliff together.)
I then asked about full disclosure and transparency for the derivates market. He says we will have a clearinghouse model for most of them. But that there are some that don't fit this model and they will be handled differently. He believes they can stop people from trying to push everything through the exceptions case which don't have all the requirements.
He then brought up the very good point that the people who buy and sell derivatives are in favor of a clearinghouse as they will then get better pricing. He stated that the market has been opaque for no good reason. (Actually it was opaque for a very good reason – it let the banks make more handling the trades.)
Note: I did not ask him about his vote on cram-down because time was limited and I didn't think I would get a different answer from the other 40 times he's been asked the question.
Then on to healthcare. I asked if he thinks the public option will pass, and he thinks it will. He also thinks the chances of it passing are much better today than even 2 months ago.
I then asked about reducing what we spend on healthcare. Interesting answer – Michael then discussed the subsidies available to people to help them buy insurance. (That doesn't do squat to reduce what we spend as a country on healthcare, it just changes who pays for it.) He then brought up trying to move healthcare to pay for outcomes rather than procedures (this does reduce total costs).
He then discussed a number of proposals to give people more info about what procedures should cost, reducing administrative costs, etc. He further discussed the core issue – how well the administration implements the system. This is a giant piece of the puzzle and I think he is spot-on to bring this up as the biggest influence on costs.
I also asked about pharmaceutical research as that can bring us gigantic savings. He discussed a bill that helps pharma get a good return on their investments and does see this as a major solution to costs. But nothing else on this issue (I guess Senators can't be on top of every single aspect of every issue).
We were out of time so for the environment I asked what he personally thought cars will be running on in 10 years. He thinks fleet vehicles will be on natural gas and personal vehicles will be electric. (T. Boone Pickens will be pleased with that answer.)
On education I asked him what he thought of the idea of having a GI Bill type effort to pull a bunch of people out of the job market and push them in to college. He discussed the increases we have in Pell funding and how the colleges are full because so many more are going to college right now. He also spoke of the funding crisis state systems are facing, calling out Colorado & California specifically.
I closed asking when was the last time he went to one of the Smithsonian Museums. It was before he was a Senator. He once asked his scheduler if they ever got free time and she told him no. Personally, I think Washington would run a lot better if all of our Congresspeople would take an hour once a week to leave their cell phone in the office and wander the mall.Conclusion
First off, what I never heard. There was not a single word that could be viewed as partisanship. I don't think he ever said the word Republican and maybe said Democratic once. He said Iraq was a mistake but aside from that not a word denigrating anyone. Even when I made a comment about the Bush Administration ineptitude, he didn't pile on.
Second, not a single word that could be construed as campaigning. He faces a serious primary challenger and a really bloody general challenge – and not a word about what a great job Michael Bennet is doing, how much we get from him, etc. He's not an idiot and I'm sure he is thinking about the campaign at least some of the time. But in over ½ hour of an interview – not a peep.
Which leads to what we have with Michael Bennet – a Senator who takes the responsibility of his job seriously, is working to be well informed on the issues they face, and is giving a lot of thought to those issues. He also speaks directly and honestly to those issues, and that is of tremendous benefit in having effective conversations about what we should do.
I do think the people who call him a Conservadem are off-base. He is definitely more of a centrist (as is the state of Colorado – outside of Boulder). But a lot of that "centrism" is his trying to determine what will work best, what makes financial sense, how can we afford what we want to do. A lot of that deserves the label of being grounded in reality more than anything else.
Full interview: Michael Bennet Interview (podcast at end)