Senatorial Sitdown: Q&A with Mark Udall (Part I)

January 25 2012, 3:10 PM

Last night, President Obama laid out his initiatives—and his campaign strategy—for the coming year. Last month, Colorado Senator Mark Udall visited the 5280 offices to talk about what ails Washington and what he’s doing to try and fix it. In Part I of this extensive interview, Udall shows us how the Congressional sausage is made and offers his thoughts on what D.C. can—and should—improve. Check back with 5280.com on Thursday for Part II, a look at the Senator’s Colorado-specific endeavors.

5280: For the past few years we’ve been hearing that there’s insurmountable gridlock in Washington, yet you’ve been quietly working on a number of successful initiatives.

Udall: In an environment where not a lot is getting done, I’m going to be a bit immodest and say I am getting a few things done. It’s been a satisfying year. I love that earmarks and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell are both gone. Military children up to age 26 are covered under their parents’ policy. There’s all that talk about regulations, some of it’s way over the top. You need clean air, clean water, clean and fertile soil, and food that’s been produced in the right ways, and to lift all the regulations on those sorts of things is not very thoughtful.

5280: What else have you been working on?

Udall: We’ve had a couple of great fights recently. Detainee policy, which to my chagrin and worry will be changed, I think it’ll end up in the Supreme Court again for the third time. In the meantime, civilian courts are going to continue to try, prosecute, and convict people who would do us harm and the military system is going to lie fallow. We’ve convicted six terrorists, people who’ve committed acts against the United States, in a military tribunal system and over 300 in the Article III courts. These changes are now requiring the military to take possession of anyone who’s charged with acts against the country, including American citizens, which I believe is a violation of the Bill of Rights.

Every year, for 50 years now, Congress passes a bill that sets everything from health care premiums to where the new bases will be built or closed, what hardware will be purchased, from fighters to ships to software. It’s a massive, important bill, and this set of provisions was included in it as an attempt to clarify how we treat detainees. Guantanamo policies are also part of this, and that was another important debate. But we let partisan politics, or maybe just strongly held ideological views, get in the mix, and we’re not on track now to close Guantanamo. It’s still a black eye. President Bush wanted to close it, this President came into office and wanted to close it, and we haven’t found or put in place procedures to do that. The world is taking notice, and it undercuts our strongest weapon, which is our Bill of Rights.

5280: How did Senator McCain end up opposed to that given his anti-torture stance?

Udall: He and Carl Levin are the two leaders of that committee and they worked closely on that. John, in the end, was convinced that we needed to put more emphasis on the military prosecuting and holding these people, versus using the Article III of the Constitution. Lindsey Graham, who’s a friend of mine, really feels strongly about this. I don’t agree with him, but he has additional standing because he’s a reservist JAG officer in the Air Force, so every year he does two or three weeks of duty.

We came up short, but the debate was really hearty. I want to strip the provisions out, hold hearings, and then this spring come back with another plan, or perhaps make agreements with Graham, McCain, and Levin. But when you have the FBI Director, the director of the CIA, the Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, the White House, and the Head of the Intelligence Committee all saying this is a bad idea? These aren’t lefties, or pacifists, these are people who are delivering on the national security policy and they’re saying, don’t do this, you don’t want this responsibility. When you look around the world, the military is often used in countries with dictators to oppress people. And you say that’ll never happen here, it probably never would, but why would you open the door? Why would you even give a president that kind of power? We wrote a lot of checks and balances into our Constitution, and it’s embedded in us that we don’t want a monarch.

5280: You just listed a half dozen leaders of various government agencies that collectively might be the most powerful people in the country and yet they still can’t get this thing done. What do you attribute that to?

Udall: I attribute it to the momentum from this summer when it was first passed. The committee spent two days, 12 to 16 hours a day, working on it. The 27 of us, we sit around at a long table and offer and withdraw amendments, and we debate. This idea came up in that committee. We hadn’t had a lot of time to look at it; there hadn’t been discussions about it. And I was the only no vote, it was a bit lonely, 26-1, but I thought it needed some more time.

Then it traveled under the radar, and once it got to the floor of the Senate, it just had enough momentum to get past the finish line. I proposed we strip it out and study it, because we do need to be more clear with how we deal with these enemy combatants, and Americans, in a war that has no front. But when it got to the floor, I got almost 40 votes, but I couldn’t get the next 10 votes that I needed. Those fights are important to have because you draw attention to important policies. Sometimes even when you lose in the short term, it’s a tactical fee, you’re continuing the battle in a healthy way.

5280: Given this largely gridlocked Congress, do you cherry pick issues that you think you can make some headway on?

Udall: It’s subjective, and it’s kind of an art and also kind of a science. It’s what legislating is about, particularly being a senator. There’s a great axiom, what’s the difference between a senator and a governor? A governor makes decisions and a senator gets to express his opinion. There are days when I yearn to be a chief executive, because you create a plan, you deliver a product, and you can see the fruits of your labor. But as a legislator, it’s more diffuse. It’s harder to wrap your hands around it. Sometimes I just have to clarify how I can be effective. We try not to be all things to all people, but I know why the President’s hair is turning grey. I have this intelligence committee, which, I wish I could tell you...

5280: So do we.

Udall: The president hears every day what I hear maybe once a week. He’s got briefings on North Korea, a briefing over Iran about this drone that was lost recently, a briefing on what’s happening with Syria, just to name three countries. Hopefully there’s good news in that briefing. But every day, and sometimes during the day, he’ll get an update on an event that maybe depends some action or at least attention. Senator Bennet would tell you the same thing, in his three years in the Senate. It’s, even when people are coming at you, waving more than one finger, you feel like you’re making a difference and getting stuff done.

5280: You’ve also worked on a balanced budget amendment. That’s something that used to be advocated almost exclusively on the right. Why did you elect to do that?

Udall: I thought long and hard about it. We’re going to have to get our budget back in balance. I believe we have to find some way to bind future Congresses. The Constitution, in effect, does that. If you do it in a proper way with flexibility, it made sense to me.

We’ve got such tough decisions to make. We have to cut spending. We have to change the growth in Medicare. Social Security can be strengthened in some common sense ways. Social Security hasn’t caused this problem, by the way, but we borrowed three trillion dollars from it that we now owe. It’s been a wonderful program that let my parents live their lives out with dignity, and gave me the opportunity to have my own career and family. But that three trillion dollars is coming from taxes on us, or by printing more money. You have to put it in the mix.

And then tax reform. I think rates are going to have to go up, but if we do it in the context of everybody contributing, I think it’s time to reengage in that debate. You have to start with the mindset that what comes in annually needs to be balanced with what you spend. 

It’s part of the changing culture in DC. One of the reasons it’s so tense in DC now is that we’re undergoing a cultural change. Legislators are hardwired to see problems brought to their attention. Think of a solution, talk about it, put it into law, cut the ribbon with a big pair of scissors, then go on to the next problem. We haven’t been as focused on cost. Both parties are guilty. We’re in this painful transition where we say, What do we have to do? What would we really like to do? What’s nice but could be set aside for a few years? There are some great ideas, but do they really add to our economic strength or improve our quality of life compared to the other priorities? That’s what I want to do. That’s what’s happening right now. You’ve seen the change in earmark policy.

I differ with Republicans who say we can cut our way to prosperity. We can’t. Government has a fundamental role in things like education, infrastructure, research, and development. And Democrats, sometimes, have said you can tax your way to prosperity. You can’t tax your way to balance; you can’t cut your way to balance. You have to have a combination. What’s happening in DC reflects the mixed feelings of the public as well. We have our own dysfunctions, but we’re also reflecting with the country’s struggling with creating a new normal.

5280: Along those lines, ostensibly that’s what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is for, and you supported the President’s recess appointment of its director. That’s one of your less bipartisan efforts. Why do you feel so strongly about that one?

Udall: The people spoke about concerns they had about misleading financial products. In the past, my attitude has been that when opposing issues are passed with which I don’t agree, but the votes were in, you move on and find a way to make it work. I voted against the Iraq war because I thought we were taking our eye off of other threats. My point of view didn’t prevail. I had a real struggle when the vote passed, about the funding. The first vote we had, I voted no because we had been told it was only going to cost $5 billion dollars and we had been told the Iraqis were going to pay for it. Suddenly we were told we needed $25 billion dollars, so I voted no. When I thought more about it, I thought the more constructive voice is to push for ways to manage funding and oversee it. Given the troops and their families, the yes vote was then the right vote for me.

Back to the CFPB. The Republicans are saying, We didn’t like this; we’re now going to act as if we’re having to eat sour grapes, and we’re going to make you eat sour grapes. They’re holding up the appointment of the head of the CFPB because in the law, there’s a whole series of areas that are regulated now—payday lenders, mortgage underwriters, and so on—that can’t be regulated until you have a director in place. The law literally says you can’t go into those areas and educate and protect consumers. Republicans are going over the top to prevent the CFPB from standing up. We’ve done everything we can. We had a vote.

Hold me to this if I’m rehired in ‘14, and if at some point in my service there’s a Republican president. I’ve come to believe that the president of whatever party deserves the respect to put their people in place, and to let those people go to work. We’re making it more difficult for the president to drive their agendas, and the number of people that are in place after three years would still drive any CEO crazy. If your magazine didn’t have an HR person, or a top editor, how would you get the job done? That’s where this new attitude has been hurtful to the country. If and when there’s a Republican president, and if and when I’m still in Senate, my intention is to support that president’s nominees as a starting point. If there’s a high-profile debate, sure I’ll weigh in. But I think you ought to give the person an up or down vote. By and large, setting aside Supreme Court justices, and perhaps the odd Cabinet nomination, those people ought to get an up or down vote.

5280: So they can get to work.

Udall: So they can go to work! And if there’s a problem, if someone’s not fit and the stories come out, that nomination can still be defeated with 50 votes, a tie vote means the nomination doesn’t move forward. That still gives people a chance to weigh in. But 60 votes (to avoid a filibuster) is such a high threshold, and it means the minority in the Senate can, if that’s the intent, slow down the president.

5280: Do you think that 60-vote threshold is here to stay?

Udall: The newer members of Congress are having that discussion. Do we look at ways to change those rules? Is the super majority a concept the founders really believed in or a process that’s evolved? There are two competing camps. The newer senators are more frustrated with the Senate’s ability to work, particularly in a world that’s rapidly changing. One of the things I keep struggling with is how to protect the rights of political minorities? In the Bill of Rights, in the Senate’s rules at its best, you protect the political minority. And those rights are protected at the expense of the majority and the country’s need to move ahead.

That’s where we get into dangerous ground. One of the real questions that’s emerging is can democratic capitalist societies compete? Particularly economically, with state capitalistic societies such as China. That’s the great discussion right now. For example, they’re building all this transmission from Mongolia so they can get wind and solar to their cities. They’ve got a bunch of guys with hammers and signs, and they tack up signs saying, "Transmission lines being built, move out." Whereas we in the U.S. have a much more exhaustive, slow process. I’m still betting on us, but I think those of us at the federal level have to continue these important discussions about how do our roles as policy makers have to evolve in the 21st century.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II.