Sen. Michael Bennet this morning made a pitch to the state’s water community for sending him back to Washington, despite the rank partisanship that characterizes Congress these days.
Colorado’s senior senator spoke this morning to 340 water leaders attending the summer conference of the Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs.
In prepared remarks, Bennet cited his bipartisan efforts on immigration, the farm bill and education, and touted his ability to work across the aisle with Republican senators such as Cory Gardner of Colo., Roy Blunt of Missouri and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
He also spoke about the continued efforts to clean up the Gold King mine disaster in Durango, stating that when it comes to water issues, the federal government should “do no harm,” although the Environmental Protection Agency caused the Gold King leak. The efforts of the local community trying to protect its tourism industry have been impressive, he said, and as a result the Durango area’s economy is doing well.
Bennet pledged to continue to push the EPA to reimburse the community and the tribes for the damage. He also will continue to work on legislation with Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez on so-called “Good Samaritan” legislation that would allow mine cleanups without fear of lawsuits. “The spill was a reminder that there are thousands of abandoned mines across the West,” yet the nation’s mining law dates back to 1872. That’s also legislation that he’s working on with New Mexico lawmakers.
Bennet also took aim at those in Washington who are more interested in playing politics than in making constructive change.
“What we’ve lost in Washington is the ability to have these differences in a way that’s constructive for the country,” he said.“It’s inexcusable. We have a moral responsibility to make sure we’re moving this country ahead.”
In a free-flow question and answer session after his speech, Bennet took off the gloves and talked at length about what frustrates him most: Congress’s broken culture and its inability to do anything.
He started off by noting a poll that showed only 9 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and comparing it to other things that have higher approval than 9 percent: the Internal Revenue Service (40 percent), reality TV star Paris Hilton (15 percent) and the percentage of people who want the United States to turn communist, at 11 percent.
While he believes Congress is hamstrung by partisanship, Bennet also said that some of those who say Congress is broken “are the arsonists lighting the house on fire.” Their fuel, he added, comes from both sides of the aisle.
At times Bennet appeared exasperated – not at the audience, but at the partisan problems he says infest the nation’s capitol, a city where he grew up. It was an unscripted Michael Bennet, one who momentarily stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head.
Bennet cited a Democratic caucus lunch in which a senior Democrat (he didn’t name names) pointed to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, stating that the crisis is “what separates us from them. We believe in government, they don’t.” Bennet said he realized some of the decisions were made by a Republican governor, but in the end it was government as a whole that’s culpable. Even before the water crisis, there isn’t a single school in Flint where any senator would send their kids. “This can’t be what divides us.”
Bennet said he has tried to work with his Republican colleagues – such as Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina on improving the approval process of the Food and Drug Administration. Before that legislation, the FDA would approve 1 or 2 drugs per year. But in the past four years the FDA has green-lighted 50.
Bennet also gave a strong defense of the science backing man-made climate change. He noted polls of independent voters who overwhelmingly say they would be less likely to support someone who denies that climate change is real and/or caused by people. It was a subtle dig at his Republican opponent, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who has said he’s skeptical of man-made climate change.
The time has come to adopt policies at the national level to prepare for climate change before the trend becomes unfixable, Bennet said. Colorado’s economy is already threatened by climate change, such as increasingly extended fire seasons and the threats wildfires pose to forests and the state’s water supply.
“I’m optimistic,” Bennet said. There are real opportunities to get results for Colorado and the nation. “The public is sick and tired of rank partisanship,” and Bennet said he hopes that this year’s election creates political momentum for that to change.
And “if the election goes the way many think it will go, I hope it will incentivize the Republican party to put the capitalists back in charge,” he said.
“I wouldn’t go back if I didn’t think we could improve it.”
Bennet recalled a town hall held in the “worst tea party town in the state” (which he didn’t identify), with people calling him a socialist, and claiming President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
That kind of partisan politics has made it impossible to fix the real problems, he said. “We don’t have the decency to maintain the assets and infrastructure that our parents and grandparents had the decency to build for us.”
Bennet encouraged the audience, who sat mostly silently during the remarks, to hold their congressional representatives accountable in the same way citizens hold local officials accountable. “If we hold Washington to the same standard” as mayor, city council or school superintendents, “there’s no way we’d be having the problems we’re having, and there’s no way you would shut down the government for politics.”
The only antidote to partisan politics is to vote out of self interest, state interest and in the interest of the country.
“If we do that we’ll be fine,” he said. “If we leave it to Washington to play the political game, there’s no reason for optimism.”