Michael Bennet is battling hard in a nasty Democratic primary for the right to keep his seat in the U.S. Senate, even though he finds the place shockingly dysfunctional.
“Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?”
That’s the first of many gems Bennet tossed up for New Yorker writer George Packer, who chronicles the deadlocked chamber in excruciating detail in the coming edition of the magazine. Packer’s story on the Senate will hit newsstands roughly the same day Bennet will discover whether Colorado Democrats choose to send him back there.
There were times when [Va. freshman Mark] Warner wondered if anyone had ever quit in the first year. Michael Bennet said, “We find ourselves at a moment in our history when the questions are huge ones, not small ones, and where things have been put off for a really long period of time.” He mentioned the national debt, energy policy, and the financial crisis. “Yet you have a Senate that’s designed not to advance change but to slow it.”
We were talking in his hideaway, a windowless room in the Capitol basement, which had a mini-fridge stocked with bottled water, black leatherette furniture circa 1962, and a TV tuned to C-SPAN2 on mute; Senator Kyl’s mouth was moving. Bennet, the former superintendent of schools in Denver, was appointed to a vacant seat in 2009, and already has to defend it this year. He described the Senate with the dry bluntness of an outsider who hasn’t allowed himself to grow too attached. Bennet repeated a story he had heard about a new congressman giving his maiden speech: “And then some more veteran guy came over and said, ‘Son, you’re talking like this place is on the level. It’s not on the level.’ As the fifteen months or so have gone by that I’ve been here, the less on the level it seems.”
On being driven nutty:
I noticed Robert Kaiser, the author of “So Damn Much Money,” in the press gallery. I later asked him if, with the passage of two big reform bills in three months, we were witnessing a possible renewal of the Senate. “If you can engage public opinion in a way politicians can understand, public opinion can still blow away money and interest groups,” he said. “But over the past few decades the reflex has grown in the Senate that, all things considered, it’s better to avoid than to take on big issues. This is the kind of thing that drives Michael Bennet nutty: here you’ve arrived in the United States Senate and you can’t do fuck-all about the destruction of the planet.”
On the single-greatest time-sucking activity engaged in by our senators:
Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. In addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party (in the Democrats’ case, from a three-story town house across Constitution Avenue from the Senate office buildings, since they’re barred from using their own offices to raise money). Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”
And, last, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart on Dan Quayle and the great modern decline:
The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today.”