Election 2010: Michael Bennet

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Millions of dollars have poured into Colorado for one race in particular this election. That’s the contest for U.S. Senate. Democrat Michael Bennet has the job. He was appointed last year when Ken Salazar became the head of the Interior Department. Monday, we heard from Republican Ken Buck, who wants Bennet’s seat. You can hear that conversation at cpr-dot-org. Bennet joins us from his campaign office in Denver as we cover Election 2010.

Listen to our interview with Ken Buck.

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Colorado Matters

Election 2010 Interview with Sen. Michael Bennet

October 19, 2010


From Colorado Public Radio, I’m Ryan Warner and this is Colorado Matters.

Millions of dollars have poured into the state over one race in particular this election. That’s the race for U.S. Senate.

Democrat Michael Bennet has the job now. He was appointed last year when Ken Salazar became the head of the Department of Interior.

Yesterday, we heard from Republican Ken Buck, who wants Bennet’s seat. You can hear that conversation at cpr.org. Today we spend the next hour with Michael Bennet. He joins us from his campaign office in Denver as we cover Election 2010.

Michael Bennet, thank you for being with us.


Thank you for having me back.

Warner: Let’s start with a question from David Steiner of Allenspark, Colorado. He’s a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and he used to teach public speaking. He contacted us through our Public Insight Network.


All I’ve heard are the negatives, just plain negatives. I would just like to hear from you one specific thing you hope to accomplish if you’re elected.

Warner: How do you answer that, Michael Bennet?

Bennet: Well, I would say that whatever I can do to help get this economy moving again I want to do. That’s not as specific as David would want, so I’ll be specific about it, which is that in the short term we have to get small business access to credit again.

They’ve been shut out of the credit markets since this entire episode, this worst recession since the Great Depression, started. They remain shut out of the credit markets and we need to work on that.

In the medium term, I strongly believe that we should commit ourselves to energy independence in this country, break our reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf and instead invest the billions of dollars a week we send over there here, creating jobs in the energy sector. That would be not only great for the country, but particularly good for Colorado.

Warner: In terms of capital for business, how do you unlock that?

Bennet: I think there are several different things at work here. One is that the regulator, the people that pay attention to banks’ balance sheets, which-- who was very permissive during the last economic boom, now has swung all the way in the other direction and I think we need to bring them back to the middle, because they’re preventing banks from making these loans.

Warner: Bringing them back with what? I mean, how do you bring them back?

Bennet: Well, you-- the regulator, I think, should be more discerning about what are good loans and what are bad loans. Right now, even small businesses that can pay on their loans can’t get access to credit, because the regulator is saying to the banks, you can’t lend to these businesses. And what I have argued with the Federal Reserve chairman and with the secretary of the Treasury is that--

Warner: The regulator in this relationship.

Bennet: Yeah, that you can’t treat everybody the same and since 80% of the jobs that are going to drag us out of this economy are small business jobs, they need access to financing.

Warner: And what role, specifically, does Congress play in getting that kind of change of the regulator?

Bennet: Well, finally, right before I came back for the final recess, if you can call it a recess — they do — we finally passed a small business bill that would do two things. The first is that it would increase the levels for Small Business Administration loan guarantees to small businesses in Colorado and across the country. That’s been widely supported by groups on every side of the issue and very strongly supported by our small businesses.

The other thing the bill does is create a fund that will allow for low-interest-rate loans to be made to community and regional banks. The interest rate would go lower and lower as those community banks demonstrated they were lending, re-lending the money, to small businesses.

Warner: What does that mean, practically, for a small business in Colorado? I mean, what does that mean?

Bennet: It practically means, for example, that one of the loan programs that today has a $1.5 million limit on it goes up to $5 million, which has really strong implications, not just for small business who has access to that credit now, but to all of the suppliers.

I was in a dog grooming store in Denver a number of weeks ago with a couple that have been very successful in their very small business. But there are capital improvements that they want to make to their business so they can grow it, you know.

And this is what works itself out in the daily lives of ordinary Coloradans. They want to change the bathtubs that are in this business for the dogs that come there to grow their business. And they’re unable--

Warner: And they needed a more generous amount from the SBA to do something like that?

Bennet: Yeah. Yeah.

Warner: And does that mean more of those loans are also being made or that the loans that are being made are just for bigger amounts?

Bennet: Both.

Warner: Both.

So many voters this year are concerned about the debt. Why should they vote for Michael Bennet over Ken Buck?

Bennet: I have a huge and abiding concern about not just our debt but our annual deficit as well. And one of the things that I’m being attacked for with millions of dollars of out-of-state money is for having said that we have $13 trillion of debt on our balance sheet and not much to show for it. And that’s true.

You know, and the “we,” by the way, is us as a generation. That’s how I think about it. I was born in 1964, the last year of the Baby Boom generation and I don’t think there’s been a generation of people in the history of the planet given more opportunity than we were given and we now are at risk of finding ourselves being the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity, not more, to our kids and our grandkids.

And one of those places is with that debt. Because when you think about it, it’s not just the fact that there’s $13 trillion of debt, although that’s a huge issue. We’ve managed to amass that debt without even maintaining the assets that our parents and grandparents built for us --

Warner: You’re saying roads--

Bennet: --our roads, our bridges, our wastewater systems, our sewer systems — much less build the infrastructure we’re going to need in the 21st Century to compete — transportation, transit and energy infrastructure, as well.

So I would say that on my list of priorities none is higher, other than the economy, than trying to get a hold of this deficit and this debt. I was in a living room not-- I guess now it’s probably about six months ago or maybe eight months ago. I’m losing track of time. But I was talking about how immoral it was that we were shouldering our kids with our inability to make tough decisions and lay this debt on them and my daughter Caroline, who was 10 at the time, followed me out of this living. And she said, “Daddy?” And I said, “What?” She said, “Just to be clear” — she was making fun of me, because I use that expression sometimes — she said, “Just to be clear, I’m not paying that back.” And that’s the right attitude for her to have.

You asked why me and not Ken Buck--

Warner: Yeah, give me a specific--

Bennet: --in this context.

Warner: Right. Yeah.

Bennet: And the I would answer that is by saying Washington is full of people that have spent their careers in politics and government, running for office. I’ve spent my entire life outside of politics and have extensive experience in business, turning around failing companies. But I also have experience public experience, turning around-- working on the reform, for example, of the Denver Public Schools, balancing with Mayor Hickenlooper the city’s budget in a very difficult time.

And what I’ve learned in that work is that screaming at each other doesn’t help. Playing politics doesn’t help.

What you need to do is establish as shared an understanding of the facts as possible — in this case, that the deficit and the debt are unsustainable and here are the reasons why — and then begin to make your way through the problem in a way that is solution oriented.

Warner: What is a specific approach to making sure it isn’t on her back?

Bennet: It begins with understanding the nature of the problem and if you look at our operating budget, as a country, federal government, 17% of what we spend is non-defense discretionary spending. So another way to think about that is every school or teacher that’s paid out of these funds, everything Ken Salazar does at the Interior Department, that’s all in that slice. 18% is military spending. And, by the way, we represent-- our spend on military, if you look at all governments around the world, the United States of America represents 48%, almost 50 cents of every dollar, that’s spent on the military. So that’s the discretionary side.

On the other side, is Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on our debt. And I think that those two sides ought not be treated the same. On the discretionary side, we need to cap discretionary spending and we need to set priorities about what we are going to spend and my own view is that it’s part of what is going to make us the most innovative economy in the 21st Century is how we think about that question. But it’s about establishing priorities.

Unfortunately, the larger problem is on the other side, in the 65% and that’s a combination of having some hard conversations about what we’re going to do to make sure that Medicare doesn’t go bankrupt or bankrupt our federal or state and local governments, what we’re going to do to make sure Social Security is there for people my age and younger. And that’s going to involve some very hard choices.

For example, on Social Security, I think people my age and younger than I am know that the deal’s not going to be the same for us as it is today. For our senior citizens and for people that are older than I am — I’m 45 — we need to keep the promise as it is for them. And we can do that. Fortunately, we’re going to live longer.

Warner: You’re tuned to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. Our guest is Michael Bennet, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. When we come back, Bennet’s plan to shore up Social Security and what he says is the bigger challenge, Medicare. Plus, we ask if the stimulus was worth it. He also shares his views on how the Senate runs or, shall we say, doesn’t run. This is Election 2010 coverage from Colorado Public Radio.

It’s Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. Let’s get back to Democrat Michael Bennet, who’s fighting to keep his seat in the U.S. Senate. Yesterday, we heard from his opponent, Republican Ken Buck.

Well, let’s talk about Social Security. You, in our conversation during the primary, talked about the possibility of raising the retirement age. Have you settled on what that age might be?

Bennet: What I think that looks like is that for people born in 1965 or after 1965 or let me say it this way, for people born in 1964, so let me bring myself into the conversation, we’re going to, I think, say to the folks that are that age, that your-- the retirement age probably isn’t going to be 66 any more. It’s probably going to look more like 68. We need to make sure that everybody’s paying their fair share into the Social Security system, as well, over time, to make sure that it’s solvent.

But I actually believe Social Security is the easiest problem to solve and, at the same time, protect the promises that have already been made to seniors. Medicare is a much tougher problem.

Warner: Why is it a bigger problem? I mean, what are the obstacles that make it more difficult than Social Security?

Bennet: Well, it’s a bigger problem because, first of all, it’s more urgent. Social Security is going to be solvent for a lot longer than Medicare is going to be solvent, even if we do nothing.

And it’s been interesting, because the heart-- in many ways, the heart of the healthcare reform bill was to change the way the Medicare incentive structures work so that we were reimbursing the healthcare providers based on outcomes and performance, how well they did, versus just having a fee-for-service system of reimbursement, which is what we had.

And, interestingly enough, during the debate people that opposed the healthcare reform largely opposed it on the grounds that we were, quote, “cutting Medicare by $500 billion” or that we were cutting seniors’ benefits.

Warner: A lot of ads running to that effect (inaudible).

Bennet: Precisely. I mean, in the first place, it was my amendment that passed with 100 votes that said that in bright lines, nobody’s Medicare benefits are going to be cut as a result of this legislation, their guaranteed Medicare benefits, and that passed with 100 votes.

Nevertheless, there’s been this attack about the $500 billion and you just mentioned the television ads. Millions and millions of dollars that are being spent by Karl Rove’s, the old Bush advisor’s, campaign organization are asserting that on television. Every night, people turn it on and they see that, you know, there’s been a cut of $500 billion in Medicare. It’s not true.

What we did was change the incentive structures — and we need to do more of that, by the way, not less — in order to deal with the fiscal questions that you’re talking about.

Warner: Yeah and so what does that-- what does that look like?

Bennet: I’ll give you one example, which I think is a really good expression of what we’re talking about, because, you know, we’ve heard a lot about death panels, we’ve heard a lot of Bolshevik takeover of the United States and all that kind of stuff.

Here’s the reality. The current hospital readmission rate in this country is 20%, which means that one out of every five Medicare patients that’s released from the hospital ends up back in the hospital within a month. Today, the current system reimburses the hospital for the first admission and for the second admission.

St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, just to take them as an example, although I could pick University Hospital. I could pick Denver Health. St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction has a 3% hospital readmission rate because over the years they have put a system in place where they follow the patient from their emergency room to their hospital bed to their primary care physician. They have a great system of electronic medical records and-- and even the pharmacist, you know, where somebody goes to fill out their prescription, knows whether the prescription’s been filled out.

If we had those systems in place across the country, we would save $18 billion a year and reduce the incredible inconvenience for people of having to be readmitted to the hospital one out of five times.

Warner: And how big a dent is that in the overall needs of Medicare?

Bennet: That’s a pretty-- that is a modest dent, but there a million other things, just like what I just described that would change the way the reimbursement works to drive higher quality at a lower cost. And electronic medical records, for example, are a really good example. That was a big part of both the healthcare bill and the recovery act.

Only 3% of hospitals in this country have the system of electronic medical records that the hospital I was referring to in Grand Junction, St. Mary’s, has. Only one out of 25 doctors’ offices has this.

This is why, when you go to the hospital or you go to your doctor’s office so many times you have to repeat what the last person told you or you have to wait while you’re filling out a bunch of forms that you’ve already filled out three or four times or that you get into conversations like the ones I’ve had over the years with my daughters in the doctor’s office where they’ve heard the doctor say one thing in the last place and I’ve heard them say something else. That is a problem that’s a significant cost to our country, but it is easily remedied if we bring our system of medical records into the 21st Century.

None of this, by the way, is made for headlines or for sound bites or for good politics, I guess. But these are the things that have to be addressed if we’re not going to continue to bankrupt our families and small businesses and state and local governments and the federal government.

We spend on healthcare roughly 18% of our gross domestic product. That is twice or more than twice what every industrialized country in the world spends.

Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and we’re talking with the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Michael Bennet. He was appointed to the seat and is seeking election to it. This is part of our coverage of Election 2010 at Colorado Public Radio.

On the question of healthcare reform, there is a movement in this state in the form of a ballot measure that is forwarded by people who feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea that there be a mandate to carry insurance, what’s called the individual mandate, that the federal government should dictate the purchase of a product. Just very quickly, the-- your philosophy there. You support the approach. Why?

Bennet: Well, I’ll say, first of all, for me it’s less about philosophy than it is about solving real problems. I think it’s very clear that this is not unconstitutional, which is what many of the opponents have said that it is. So let’s look at it from a practical perspective, not a philosophical, ideological perspective.

Before the healthcare reform bill was passed — and, by the way, this is still true now, because it’s not a perfect piece of legislation, it needs a lot more work. But before it was passed, there were thousands of people, millions in the country, being thrown off of their private insurance because of the cost. And they were ending up in one of two places. If they were poor enough, they were ending up on Medicaid, a public plan. If they weren’t poor enough, they were ending up getting uncompensated care in the emergency room, which we the taxpayer and we the policyholder, are all paying for.

That, in effect, is a mandate, by the way, on us. It’s a mandate that says you have to pick up the bill for people that are uninsured. And it’s non-trivial. There was a year a couple of years ago when Denver Health’s cost for treating people in their emergency rooms that were employed by small business, people employed by small business, was $180 million in one year. That’s a heck of a mandate to put on taxpayers and on policyholders.

And, you know, the other thing that just drove me crazy about the healthcare debate was the consequence of people being thrown off their private insurance and ending up in those two places I just described, the public plan or getting uncompensated care in the emergency room, was itself a government takeover of healthcare. It was just the most expensive and least intentional way of doing it you could imagine.

And I think that if we put the politics aside and just tried to define the nature of the problem better and explained how certain policies were going to lead to a world of higher quality at a lower cost, that we could actually get a lot done and there’s a lot more work that has to be done.

Warner: President Obama wants to end former President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, families who earn more than $250,000, and continue them for people who earn less than that. What do you think?

Bennet: Well, my priority is extending the middle class tax cuts. We also have to find a way to pay for this and what I have suggested is a compromise, because you’ve got one group of people on the one side saying we should just extend the middle class tax cuts. You’ve got another group of people on the other side saying you can’t-- we’re not going to vote to extend those tax cuts unless all the tax cuts are extended. What I have said is that we ought to extend all of the tax cuts for one year and my priority would be to extend the middle class tax cuts beyond that.

But we need to recognize that we’ve got to find a way to pay for this. And so I would like to take the time over the next year to figure out, if we are going to extend them, how we are going to pay for it. Because if you look at the history here, when Bill Clinton left the White House there was a $240 billion surplus in our annual budget. The nation’s debt was at $5 trillion and there was a lot of commentary being written about how this debt was going to be paid off. In fact, the Clinton budget suggested it would be paid off over that period of time.

And instead what happened was we fought two wars that we didn’t pay for. We borrowed the money from the Chinese to pay for those wars and we stuck our kids with the bill. And we cut taxes for the first time in our country’s history while we were at war.

And the net result of that, plus some other things, was that we went from having $5 trillion of debt when George Bush came in to having almost $11 trillion in debt when he left. It’s staggering.

Warner: And so that’s a mitigating factor for you in considering the extension of the tax cuts and why you come to that.

Bennet: You know, it-- yeah. And it ought to be a mitigating factor in the way we think about all of this. So I wrote a bill in 2009 called the Deficit Reduction Act of 2009. It hasn’t passed, I should say, but it gives you a perspective.

Because what I’ve said is that as the economy grows, we can’t forget the obligation we have to our kids and our grandkids. And what typically happens is that in a growing economy politicians spend money they don’t have or they cut taxes that they don’t pay for.

And what I say is that as we grow out — you can’t do it when you’re in the worst recession since the Great Depression. I want to be clear about that. But as we see growth in the near years--

Warner: And this is what your legislation says?

Bennet: This is what my legislation says. It says that Congress ought to have an obligation to produce a budget that has a deficit that is below 3% of our gross domestic product and then 2% of our gross domestic product. I’d love to see it at zero, but we’re at 12% today.

Warner: And would that legislation make it a mandate?

Bennet: What that legislation would say is that if Congress is incapable of doing it that we would sequester funds and that the Administration would have to make cuts to get to that number.

Warner: Is that smart? I mean, does that sort of tie the hands of government if you need flexibility?

Bennet: I think it’s actually a pretty responsibly drafted piece of legislation, because, among other things, it does what TABOR does not do, which is the state Taxpayer Bill of Rights. TABOR doesn’t recognize the difference between a bad economic time and a good economic time. My legislation does.

So if we are in an economic crisis like the one we’re in right now or we’re fighting wars, like the ones we are fighting right now, it doesn’t apply. It applies to the times-- the sunny times, when politicians forget their obligations to the next generation.

Warner: That just hasn’t gotten a vote in the Senate.

Bennet: It hasn’t.

Warner: The leadership isn’t bringing it or what--?

Bennet: (inaudible).

Warner: Okay.

Bennet: I’m going to work very hard. And I don’t have a monopoly of wisdom on this, either. I just am very skeptical about the ability of the Congress, especially at this point when you see all the rock throwing that’s going on back there, really skeptical that in the ordinary course of business they’re going to sort these problems out.

Warner: You’ve talked a lot about the debt and the deficit that is, from year to year and more long term. There are voters who will say, “Michael Bennet voted for the stimulus. How can this possibly be a guy who’s concerned about the debt?” I guess I’d like to know, first of all, do you think the stimulus should have gotten more bang, more jobs, for the buck, first of all? And second of all, how you square this idea of being concerned about the debt and voting for the stimulus?

Bennet: Well, I certainly can understand why people would say that. I mean, it-- and it’s very hard to prove the counter factual that things would have been worse if we had not passed the recovery package. That’s just a fact.

Warner: It’s a hard platform to kind of stand on.

Bennet: It is. It is and since you asked, I think it would have been worse. I mean, when I read the front page of, for example, the Wall Street Journal and I see both Republican and Democratic economists saying that they think that the recovery package saved somewhere between 2 million and 3.2 million jobs, that gives me some comfort that things are better than they would have been if it hadn’t passed. When they say that it was responsible for 3% of growth in our gross domestic product, that gives me some confidence that it might have been worse, but it is hard to prove.

And that’s part of the debate that we’re having right now. I mean, if-- when I think about when I began this job and I remember the many, many people that I spoke to who are actively in our financial markets, I can remember how terrifying it was to them, much less the people that were already on the losing end of the economy before we got into this mess that we’re in today. And I think the chances of our slipping into another Great Depression were very, very real.

And if you look at where we are today, we are-- have a long way to go, especially when it comes to job creation in the United States and I’d love to talk about that if you’re interested. But the reality is, we’ve had three quarters of GDP growth. The stock market is back at 1,100. Almost all of the TARP money that was paid out to the financial institutions in New York has been paid back at a profit to shareholders. And GM is getting ready to go public.

Now I wasn’t there for those votes on the bailout. I hadn’t-- wasn’t there yet, but I think-- I can’t prove it to you standing here, but I think a fair reading of the evidence is that things would have been a lot worse.

And no one regrets more than I do that one of the parts of-- the results of passing the stimulus was that it increased our debt at a time when it had already been doubled by the previous Administration. I take some solace in the fact that unlike what the previous Administration did, this was one-time spending, which is going to come to an end.

Warner: It sounds there like you have more to say on job creation, more so than what you’ve talked to us already about in terms of freeing up credit.

Bennet: I think it’s important that we think about where we were even before we were thrown into this horrible recession. The economy was growing, but middle class income was falling. And what that meant was there was a huge gap between what our families were earning and what their costs were for things like healthcare and higher education.

That gap ended up getting filled by credit card debt and by home equity loans that were really cheap. And those home equity loans drove up the prices of our housing. It made us all feel like we were getting ahead. But the reality was, we hadn’t created any jobs. And now we’ve got to figure out how to create jobs over the medium term and the long term.

And I talked about energy before. I view it as a national security issue, because I think we shouldn’t have a policy of sending $1 billion a week to the Persian Gulf to buy oil, some of that money to regimes that turn around and send it to arm and equip terrorists who don’t have our best interests at heart, to say the least, but also because I think if we supported energy independence it would create an enormous number of jobs in this country.

But more broadly speaking, we have to remember that we have a history of being the greatest and most innovative economy in the world. And we’ve got to pull ourselves together and do that again. You know, today our single largest export from the United States of America is aircraft and it represents $35 billion to our economy every year, which is tremendous.

China’s export this year of solar panels, just this year, will represent $15 billion. That’s almost half of our single largest export. They didn’t export one solar panel seven years ago and we invented the technology here in the United States and here in Colorado.

Warner: So what’s the--

Bennet: In the 1970s.

Warner: What’s the U.S. example of that, then? In other words, what would you like to see in seven years, 10 years--?

Bennet: I’d like us to be--

Warner: --the U.S. to be doing?

Bennet: I’d like-- Well, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be exporting solar panels, just to take that as one example, since that’s what we were talking about.

Warner: And how does the senator from Colorado do that, encourage that?

Bennet: Well, we have a lot-- on that topic, we have a lot to learn from Colorado itself. We have a renewable energy standard in our state. It’s worked enormously well. We’ve seen 20% job growth in clean tech jobs as a result of that. We have legislation that’s recently been passed that encourages, with the support, by the way, of the utilities in Colorado, that encourages moving, where possible, our coal-burning power plants on to natural gas.

We have abundant wind and abundant sun and a lot of entrepreneurial horsepower that’s interested in driving us in this direction and we have a lot of natural gas. That’s a great combination of things when you’re talking about cleaner energy.

So, how does the senator from Colorado help? He rips off some of the great ideas that are happening in Colorado and he writes a piece of legislation, as I did and introduced it before I came back for this break, that would create a set of incentives that says if you are doing some of the following things like the renewable energy standard and the other things that I just talked about, that we will invest side by side with you in those projects to demonstrate to the rest of the country that might not yet be willing to compete with the Chinese, even though Colorado, for example, is willing to compete the Chinese, we will support that work.

Warner: So, in other words, it’s the federal government supporting other states doing that or companies doing that?

Bennet: States.

Warner: States. What would that look like in execution? In other words, so let’s take any state, I don’t know.

Bennet: Let’s take Colorado, because there’s where we live.

Warner: Okay. So Colorado--

Bennet: What it would look like in execution in Colorado--

Warner: Yeah.

Bennet: --is that, you know, we have a lot of the policies in place. We also have various energy conservation programs and that’s important, too, an important piece of the puzzle. We have a lot of wind and sun, as I said earlier, and natural gas. We have constrained capacity, pipeline capacity, on the natural gas side, grid capacity on the wind and sun side.

Those things need to be tied together in a smart grid and we simply can’t afford to do it ourselves. If we were able to get the federal government to invest side by side with us on that infrastructure, we could build a smart grid here in Colorado, create jobs and create energy independence for our state. That’s what it would look like.

Warner: Doesn’t that require federal money?

Bennet: Yes.

Warner: We’re back to the question of spending.

Bennet: This is paid for in the bill by taking a $4 billion tax break that we give to the five largest international oil producers, that is a tax break that shouldn’t have been there to begin with, and says we would rather use this to drive job creation here in the United States.

Warner: This is Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and, as we cover Election 2010 at Colorado Public Radio we’re talking today with Michael Bennet. He’s the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado.

The New Yorker magazine had an article earlier this year about whether the U.S. Senate is broken and you were quoted as saying, “Sit and watch us. Sit and watch us in the Senate for seven days, just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing.” What needs to change to make the Senate work?

Bennet: Well, first of all, if you look at that article and you see there’s a cartoon that goes with it and what it has is a whole bunch of people screaming at other in the well of the Senate who are all recognizable. You’d know who they were if you saw it and a little head sitting up presiding is me with a sort of quizzical look on my face about why are all these people screaming at each other.

And I’ve tried very hard not to contribute to that foolishness, because it’s not going to get us where we need to be. We do have to change the way the Senate works.

The first thing that I think we need to do is get rid of these anonymous holds where a senator can hold up a piece of legislation or a nominee without even saying who they are, that is, who the senator is or why they’re holding up the nominee or the piece of legislation.

Warner: How is the hold placed, then? I mean, just for those who don’t know the workings of the chamber.

Bennet: The way it works-- yeah, no. I’m learning it myself. In fact, there’s this thing called “rolling holds,” which I had never heard of before I had gone there, where if you think that they’re on your tail, that they’re figuring out who you are, you can pass the hold to another senator who will hold it for you. It’s ridiculous.

Warner: How do you--?

Bennet: The way it actually is accomplished--

Warner: Yeah, how do you place the hold?

Bennet: --is that the senator in the party that is placing the hold, so let’s, in this case, imagine that it’s the Republican Party, because it happens to be where most of the holds are right now, goes to the minority leader, in this case Mitch McConnell, and says, “I would like you to put a hold on this for me” and it’s never revealed who the person is.

Warner: And it’s never revealed who has placed the hold.

Bennet: Right, exactly.

Warner: So you would change that system?

Bennet: Now listen to how crazy this is. We have 70 senators out of 100 on a letter saying we need to change this rule and we should change this rule and it still hasn’t been changed. But I believe it will be changed.

I’ve made other suggestions on changes to the filibuster rule.

Warner: Let me interject with like the civics lesson here, which is to say the filibuster is, you know, the ability of the minority party to prevent legislation from moving forward that has a simple majority.

Bennet: Yeah. And actually, it’s even a little different from that, because what the filibuster was supposed to be about was having debate on legislation. And that procedural threshold has now become a complete obstacle to everything. And both parties, by the way, have done this over time, over the last 20 years or so. Every time it shifts it gets worse and worse and worse. It’s never been nearly as bad as it is today.

And it really is, in many ways, a very antiquated, literally, an antiquated rule, because there was a time when people had to ride their horse and buggies to Washington to get there to be able to have the debate.

So one of the proposals that I’ve made on that rule is that the threshold of whether something can move ahead or something ought to be held up maybe ought to go up or down based on whether you can show that there are people in the other party that support your point of view. And the reason I proposed that was that the people are so sick and tired of the partisanship that they feel like it doesn’t mean anything to them. There’s a screaming match going on that’s not relevant to what’s going on in their daily lives.

So I think we ought to be looking at procedures in the Senate to see how we can drive people to actually begin to cooperate and listen to each other.

Warner: I’ve heard the sentiment, keep-- you know, the logjam in Washington going, because then Congress won’t act, Congress won’t meddle, Congress won’t be in our affairs, Congress won’t continue to regulate and add regulations. What do you think about that idea that--?

Bennet: Well, I understand the sentiment behind it and, actually, I share the view, for example-- I don’t necessarily share the view, I’ve come to the view, that we should think differently about regulation, for example, that there’s a tendency in government at every level, you add regulation but you never take anything away. I think we should be looking at what we take away when we add regulation.

We need regulation. I mean, obviously, I think, when you look at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and realize what a catastrophic business and regulatory failure it was.

To answer the question you asked, I simply don’t think it’s acceptable to say that the best we can do as a generation of Americans is have a dysfunctional government and kind of hope for the best. That’s not what our families did for us.

You know, my mom and her parents and an aunt were the only survivors of the Holocaust in her family. They came from Warsaw, Poland, and they came to this country and they believed very strongly that this was the only place they can do it and they also strongly believed that they had a generational responsibility for the people coming after them.

I feel the same way and I think that it’s easy to say we should just accept the dysfunctionality as it is. I’ve got a lot of friends who say to me I don’t know even know why you’re going back there or why you want to go back there. And what I say to them is, what choice do we have? We have to fix it. It’s broken and it’s not just, by the way, filibuster rules or other kinds of things. I mean, I’ve also proposed extensive lobbying reform and other things that I think could help straighten out this mess.

Warner: The president recently proposed another $50 billion in stimulus that’s aimed at roads, railroads, airports, the kinds of things you’ve been referencing, but you opposed this plan. Why is that?

Bennet: Principally because we haven’t spent-- the federal government still has not spent all of the infrastructure money that’s available in the stimulus package and what I know from my town halls — there’s disagreement about this, but I believe the consensus is — that people are very worried about additional expenditures beyond what is already called for in the stimulus package and they certainly don’t want infrastructure that’s not paid for.

And we need infrastructure, though. And infrastructure will create great jobs and I think we ought to be thinking about how we establish a pool of capital at the federal level that can allow private sector contractors and others to get financing so that they can build infrastructure projects, which we will be able to do all over this country.

Warner: Would that--

Bennet: The current way we do this is not going to work. The current way we do this is we have a national gas tax. Vehicles are getting more efficient. They’re burning less gas and the gas tax revenue continues to go-- plummet. So I’m open to other people’s ideas on this, too, but I do think that we can think about the way that we do these financings, public-private partnerships, to be able to build the infrastructure we need.

And there isn’t a better example of that than the work that’s been done around FasTracks in the metro region, you know, which is a combination of public-- when you think about FasTracks broadly, both the transit lines and also all of the transit-oriented development that’s been built as a result of it.

Warner: This is across metro Denver.

Bennet: Yeah. It’s a great example.

Warner: Now when I hear “public-private partnerships,” that term has sometimes meant toll roads. That’s not what you’re talking about here.

Bennet: That’s not what I’m talking about.

Warner: It’s private investment in--

Bennet: It’s a way of being able to lever a smaller pool of money, because we don’t have a larger pool of money, a smaller pool of money, to be able to lever that to build these projects.

Warner: When you heard about this proposed $50 billion in stimulus from the White House, did you have a moment of “What the heck are thinking, Mr. President?”

Bennet: Yes, I did.

Warner: Tell me about that.

Bennet: But I think he’s probably thinking we have to find some way of creating jobs. But I was really surprised. And a lot of other people were surprised, too, because I think they’re hearing from their constituents such significant concerns about this nation’s balance sheet.

Look, this is a really, really delicate balancing act for our country. I don’t mean politically. I mean economically.

Because on the one hand, we’ve got very, very slow growth and very little job growth. And we’re coming out of a long period of time of economic and fiscal policies that have put us in a place where we’re not creating jobs. And on the flip side, simultaneously over that long period of time, we have this mounting burden of debt that we’re putting on our kids.

There’s nothing easy about how we’re going to get our way through this. It’s not going to be easy to solve and you do have to hold two conflicting things in your mind at the same time, in a sense. But that’s what people in Colorado do every single day in their lives is try to figure out where the smart investment is and where they’re going to have to cut back and I hope to be able to contribute to a conversation back there that says we need to balance these priorities.

Because it’s not acceptable to say, I don’t think, that the right answer here was to do nothing to help this economy in its struggle. Because-- and its struggle works itself out in the daily lives of people in our state that are being thrown off their jobs or thrown off-- losing their businesses. And at the same time, we’ve got to protect the interests of our kids.

This is a non-trivial set of issues.

Warner: This is Election 2010 coverage from Colorado Public Radio. Our guest is Michael Bennet, the Democratic candidate for Senate. After a break, Bennet, who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, talks about the current foreclosure freeze which has Wall Street and the banking industry in a tizzy.

This is Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio.

You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. Democrat Michael Bennet is our guest. He wants to keep his U.S. Senate seat. The Republican in this race, Ken Buck, joined us yesterday and you can hear that conversation at our website, cpr.org. More now with Michael Bennet.

You sit on the Senate Banking Committee and let’s talk about news that a good number of foreclosures have been improperly handled and that some lenders have frozen foreclosures as a result. Banks are worried. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are vulnerable here.

Housing and the banks kicked off this downturn.

Bennet: No question.

Warner: Is there a risk of another dip with what we’re hearing?

Bennet: No question. Yes, there is. I hope that it won’t happen and I think that what Washington tried to do at the beginning of this crisis, I think, was sort of a fool’s errand, which was they were trying to prop up housing prices as they were falling in this recession.

And what had happened before that was that housing prices had gone completely out of-- skyward, because of how easy it was to borrow money against your house. So it became this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of-- which worked great until housing prices actually started to fall when this recession happened and then the entire economy blew up as a result, not to mention those bank holding companies that then chopped up all of that home equity loans, all of those credit card loans, losing track of the underlying assets that supported those loans and then, in the name of mitigating risk, sold it off into the markets or kept it on their balance sheets. And when the housing prices fell, they all imploded, as a result of that, too, which created the catastrophe that we’re in now in our capital markets.

I really believe that while we can’t do much in terms of maintaining what was a false bubble in housing, nor should we, that there is a lot more that can be done to have homeowners be able to modify their loans and stay in their houses, which would be a huge benefit to homeowners. It’d be a huge benefit to the lenders. It’d be a huge benefit to everybody. Everybody’s interest is really aligned there.

Warner: What’s the obstacle?

Bennet: Well, the obstacle is people are, on every side of this transaction, worried that they are the ones that are going to bear the value destruction that results from falling housing prices. But it’s been my experience in business that at some point you’ve got to-- the economics have to affect reality. And if we can get to a place where those aligned interests actually result in aligned behaviors, I think we can begin to move forward.

It’s very, very complicated, I mean, which is one of the reasons why it hasn’t been solved.

Warner: And who starts-- and then, who feels the pain? In other words, if the pain hasn’t truly been felt yet, who-- what does that look like?

Bennet: Well, I think it looks like lenders having to take some pain, because they wrote loans at values that were unacceptably high. It means that homeowners, in many cases, are going to have to take pain, because their houses are not worth the loan that they took out.

But something has to be done, because what’s happening right now is, you know, there are people that are abandoning their homes that want to stay in their homes. There are-- and what happens is, those homes, then, are not maintained and they drag down the value of every other house in the neighborhood, which only creates more of a problem than they had before.

You have lenders that can’t lend new loans to small business, because their balance sheets are clogged with these other things. You know, it’s a Gordian knot.

Warner: Tell us about an issue, some time in your life, in your career, an issue you changed your mind about.

Bennet: Boy, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things, over the years. When I was superintendent of schools--

Warner: Here in Denver.

Bennet: --here in Denver, after the very painful experience for everybody, for the community and for the city, of the closing of Manual High School, which I believe-- still believe was the right thing to do, but--

Warner: We should say for folks out-state this is a high school in the heart of Denver that was having some real problems academically.

Bennet: To say the least. By the way, it’s today, having reopened, is one of the fastest-growing high schools in Denver in terms of academic achievement.

But I learned a lot from that experience about how to lead a better community process around school closure decisions.

Warner: What was the approach? Yeah, what did you change your mind about in terms of the approach of closing a school?

Bennet: Well, we just had exhaustive community meetings and exhaustive discussions with the community around the reasons why. And, actually, this is material to me now that I’m in the job that I’m in, because one of the things that I learned there was it was really important to take the time to diagnose the nature of the problem that we were all trying to solve, in this case, the very weakened academic environments for our kids and the fiscal problems that were in the school district at the time, spending too much money on empty space and not enough money on kids.

Right? That was the definition of the problem. Whereas before the discussion had been about, well, why are you closing this school and not this school and what about this school? And we were able, working with the community, to develop a set of very thoughtful criteria that the community developed about which schools or what kind of places ought to be closed and which not.

And the reason I spend some time on this is that what I learned was how important it was not to make assumptions that everybody saw the world the way that you saw the world, not to make assumptions that everybody understood the nature of the problem the way you understood the nature of the problem.

And I think the result of that was better outcomes for kids. And I wish Washington behaved more that way. You know, there’s a real temptation in Washington for people to leap to the policy conclusion before they actually understand the nature of the problem they’re trying to solve. That’s one of the perspectives that I’ve tried to bring in this job.

Warner: One thing you want to do before you die, besides be reelected to the Senate?

Bennet: One thing I want to do before I do before I die is make sure-- one thing I want to see or one thing I want to do?

Warner: Let’s say “do.” Or, sure, “see.” However you want it.

Bennet: One thing I want to see before I die is my little girls living successful lives as adults and all the children in our state being able to have the kinds of opportunities that all of us had. That’s what I’d like to see before I die.

Warner: Michael Bennet, thanks for being with us.

Bennet: Thank you for having me.

Warner: Democrat Michael Bennet wants to keep his job as U.S. Senator from Colorado. He’s running against Republican Ken Buck. You can hear our conversation with Buck at cpr.org. We’ve also posted transcripts of these conversations at our website.

Tomorrow, the first of our interviews with the candidates for Colorado Governor. Democrat John Hickenlooper is our guest. We ask if he’ll run with the renewable energy torch that current Gov. Bill Ritter made such a centerpiece of his Administration.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Democratic Candidate for Colorado Governor:

Well, I think that Bill Ritter did such a remarkable job of creating that legacy and he carried that torch, I think, further up the hill than any other governor in the United States and I think Colorado will reap the benefits for a long time. I’m not sure there’s enough oxygen to go — I’m just kidding — but to go higher.

At this moment, I think what we’ve got to focus on is back-filling and making sure that we support all those initiatives that he started.

Warner: Give me an example of one that--

Hickenlooper: Oh, I think that the weatherization programs that are just beginning to really gain momentum now. We need to make sure that we have some support.

Warner: That’s John Hickenlooper, currently the Denver Mayor, tomorrow as Colorado Public Radio’s coverage of Election 2010 continues. As for the other gubernatorial candidates, the American Constitution Party’s Tom Tancredo will be with us Thursday. And Republican Dan Maes is here Friday.

Michelle P. Fulcher is producing our interviews with the candidates. Senior Producer Sadie Babits and News Director Kelley Griffin are editing them and thanks to David Fender, our audio engineer. I’m Ryan Warner and that’s Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio.