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An Interview With Senator Mark Udall

01/21/2011 12:52 pm 12:52:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

Senator Udall was gracious enough to sit down with me for an interview this past Monday. In the spirit of bipartisanship, we talked at the same table in the same coffee shop where I interviewed Ken Buck a year ago. Mark Udall comes across with the gravitas most Senators have, but does so in a way that is personal and friendly. He also provides the most wide-ranging answers of anyone I have ever interviewed. (In a good way - lots of interesting additional details.)

He first talked about the MLK parade he had just come from. He said it is the largest MLK parade in the country (go us!). He talked a bit about the history of trying to get MLK day made a state holiday here and his involvement in making that happen.

Mark next talked about Governor Abercrombie (HI) who he knew from when they both served in the House together. He made the spot-on observation that some legislators are able to transition to the executive job, and some aren't.

I first asked about his proposal for mixed seating at the SOTU speech. Senator Udall said "I'm going to call Senator McCain and ask him to be my date." (If you see them together at the SOTU - don't ask if they're on a date, and Senator McCain won't tell.) He is hopeful that we will dial back the hateful political speech to some extent.

I followed up asking why he thinks we have such violent and extreme speech. Mark first brought up that democracy is a replacement for physical battle and as such it is only a bit removed from that level. He next talked about the political discussion at the time of our founding fathers, which was even worse than what we have today. He then said to all that you add in the large number of 24/7 news sources, and you have this talk constantly bombarding everyone.

He then discussed how people are mostly involved on issues they are passionate about. And passion tends to make you view an issue in black and white and that also leads to this extreme discourse. I asked if things would get better as we learned to handle this new (and still changing) world. His answer was that he doesn't know. Senator Udall does see part of the problem being that people are facing economic uncertainty and that also leads to a more divisive discourse.

Mark then shot into the economic picture most people face, where they took out a home equity loan figuring the economy would continue to grow, and now find themselves faced with the payments on reduced (or in some cases no) income. He used himself as a personal example where he took one out to put solar panels on his house. (This is a good sign that Mark Udall has not been bought by lobbyists - he's still paying that loan off.)

I next asked about what do we do if 70% of the workforce can provide for 100% of the populace (I call it the Craigslist effect). He talked at great length about the need nowadays for a college degree for a good job, and how for most people with a degree there's a job out there for them (true on both counts). Mark then went on to say that he had not thought about the possibility that with the technological advances now occurring, that we might be facing a permanent lack of jobs even with more college degrees. He then said that this is something they will need to take in to account.

The next questions was how do we address our increasing debt rate. Senator Udall immediately replied he would like to see an up or down vote on the Bowles-Simpson proposal. He said that while there are elements in it that he intensely dislikes, he would vote for it because in sum total it is a good start on addressing our debt problem. He then talked about how we have so many special interest groups, and all of them are fighting to protect their one piece of the pie.

He then discussed the line item bill he was a sponsor of back when he was in the house. How the president could use that to reduce spending and say no to the lobbyists that were able to get their piece protected in Congress. This segued into a discussion about earmarks. He discussed how the true cost of earmarks is much greater than the actual dollars allocated. First is the immense amount of time required to wade through all the requests, research them, talk to everyone asking for one, etc. And all that is time that is not spent on oversight, on discussing legislation, on all the other parts of the job that are much more important.

It also skews priorities based on political effort instead of dispassionate ordering. In some cases it moves items to the head of the line, which then teaches everyone else they should also lobby for an earmark to boost their priority. Even worse, in some cases it pulls money where it is legitimately needed to use it on something much less important. He brought up the example of money needed by NIST to upgrade some decades old parts of their facilities, and that instead was sent to an aquarium.

And then once the earmarks are in the spending bill, then there is a ton of pressure on each Congressperson to vote for the bill, because voting against it means voting against their earmarks.

My $0.02: I think Senator Udall is spot-on here and that ending earmarks would dramatically improve Congress, both for the reasons he lists and because it is inherently corrupting of the political process. He feels passionately about this, here's hoping that can be part of ending the practice.

I followed up asking why is the federal (as opposed to state/local) government paying for all these local capital improvements. Senator Udall said that it is partially that the federal government stepped in to do so during the depression and then increased the effort a lot under the Eisenhower administration. And so we're continuing from that. He then added that legislators like capital expenditures because they can look at a specific positive result of their efforts and that makes them feel good.

The next question was the gigantic cost of our military. Mark first discussed the military expense in general, then talked about how he talked to a lot of people before voting against the Iraq war. That Iraq was a fight, and an expense, that we should not have incurred.

On Afghanistan he said we did need to go in, but that the Bush Administration then turned their focus to Iraq and ignored Afghanistan. He added that he supports the President's plan to get us out. Senator Udall then went on to discuss the wasteful military spending on projects we have no real needed for like the C-17. He also called out the military for leading on the issue of moving to alternative energy where possible because they realize that dependency on foreign oil and global warming are both major military threats to our country.

We then moved on to the cost of medical care. He talked about how the bill was primarily focused on providing care to everyone, but that there are items in the bill that there are items in the bill that will help decrease costs. He particularly called out the Medicare Advisory Panel that has power similar to the base closing commission to take an independent look at Medicare costs and propose a set of changes that the Congress must accept or decline in full. (Here's hoping they accept it.)

He then discussed how we have every type of medical system here from government run (VA) to government paid (Medicare), etc. And how we know how well these various approaches work. Mark then went on to discuss a book where a reporter with a bum shoulder went to doctors in multiple countries to get it treated, listing out the treatment and the cost. He concentrated on the treatment in India which was the cheapest, and one of the most effective (yet his insurance would not pay for it).

For my final question, I asked him about fundraising. He looked very pained at first as he discussed how awful that part of the job is and how much time it takes up. Time that cannot be spent talking to constituents or working in Congress. He first said that he sells it to donors not as an investment in him, but as an investment in Democracy. And that's the only way he is willing to ask for funds.

Mark discussed how the giant cost is TV time. He first discussed matching funds where candidates would have to raise a reasonable amount to show there were people who supported them. But with that minimum, on the order of $100,000.00, then there would be matching funds to fill out the campaign.

He next talked at depth about transparency so any donation was up on the web within 24 hours. So we would know who was pouring money into what. I asked if that included 3rd parties and he said yes 3rd party groups too. He also said ads funded by corporations should require the CEO at the end of the ad to say they approved the message (I love this idea!).

Mark then discussed removing all limits. He brought up the example of Eugene McCarthy ran for president and what made that possible as a 1 million dollar donation from one person. That donation, being from a single person, allowed McCarthy to concentrate on campaigning instead of fundraising.

My $.02: I think the trade-off of allowing unlimited contributions in exchange for immediate and full transparency is really good. I'd rather our Senators each got 1 million from 10 people, and we know who those 10 people are, than $2,400.00 from 4,170. Because we'll pay close attention to the interests of those 10 vs. our Senator's vote.

This then dove into the discussion of is a corporation a person. Mark is against both rulings on this account, but thinks it will require a constitutional amendment to change that. He also brought up the great point that if money equals speech, there's a lot of people not being heard.

I got a chance to sneak in one more question. I asked him who is his insurgent. He talked about a number of people, both on staff and friends, that he will bounce things off of. But it didn't sound like any of them were people that come from a significantly different perspective. (He's not different from the vast majority of representatives in this.) He did then say that his wife is probably the person who is his insurgent.

He then talked about how it is so important as a Senator to punch holes in the bubble that surrounds them and get out and talk to people. To get a clear picture of what people are concerned about, etc.

Finis

The most interesting part of this interview (to me) was Senator Udall's discussion of the negative ramifications of earmarks. It shows a deep understanding of the problem. And it was clear he has an equally strong understanding of numerous issues. That understanding, and openness to how to address issues speaks well to how he approaches legislation.

My regret on this interview was that the short time meant we did not get to most of the questions. I think there would have been some additional interesting answers, but a Senators time is extremely limited.