FiveThirtyEight Interviews Sen. Jon Tester

Last Thursday morning, just before the Obama administration released its budget, I sat down with Senator Jon Tester of Montana for a full-scale interview in his Russell Senate office, and below is the transcript.

[Full disclosure, I worked for Sen. Tester on his United States Senate campaign in 2006, so it was a point of personal privilege to begin what we hope and expect will be a robust series of interviews with Senators, House members, and other notable political figures here in town. I plead guilty to any charge of bias. I think the interview speaks for itself.]

538: This morning GM reported their giant loss of $9.6 billion for the quarter, and the President said the other night, “We are committed to a retooled, reimagined auto industry… the nation that created the automobile cannot walk away from it.” Montana doesn’t have a lot of auto jobs… JT: No, but we are impacted by the auto industry because of mining. The mine is for the material you put into the catalytic converters. It’s a big market for ‘em. 538: It’s has been and is going to be a controversial issue going forward, as far as how much money we can give to bailout the auto industry? What’s been your take on money for the auto industry? JT: I didn’t vote for the bailout portion. I thought if they were going to take the money they needed to take it from the Wall Street bailout dollars. But I will tell you, if there’s some parameters put on the money, I’d take a look at it. I think that they’ve been out-competed at their own game. And I don’t see it as being a labor issue, as much as I see it as being a mileage issue, a dependability issue, making products that people want to buy. You know, we’re impacted, you’ve been all over the state of Montana. It’s a big state, we drive a lot of miles every year. Dependability and affordability is pretty darn important. I think getting down to it, I think there needs to be some parameters on what they’re doing. They need to get cutting edge again. They need to start building vehicles that – 25, 30 is fine but let’s start thinking 40, 45, 50 miles a gallon. Let’s start working towards battery technology or whatever it is, and even outside that box, to make things so that they’re energy efficient. I think it’s critically important. 538: Speaking of energy, that was one of the three big items the President had the other night in his speech. Obviously during your campaign, energy was a huge part – JT: Still is. 538: And because Montana is referred to as the Saudi Arabia of coal, how confident are you about things like clean coal technology? We’ve heard a lot of pushback about whether clean coal technology really can exist. In Montana it’s obviously a huge issue. Are you feeling confident that in this budget that’s being announced even as we speak, and in the Senate negotiations, that there will be monies for things like clean coal? JT: Well, I think it’s one of the things we need to do in Congress. The president’s going to put forth his vision, and we need to take a look at that vision and make sure it matches up. And if there are things we can do to make it better, we’ll make his vision better. For example, clean coal technologies. 50% of that (points to light) comes right from coal. Of our electricity, of our energy. So it ain’t going away. So let’s figure out a way to burn it better. And then let’s work on some other technologies too, like renewable energy. All the stuff that we can do – and there is all sorts of stuff out there including things that are long term, like fusion. But the truth is we have to figure out ways to can burn it better, burn it cleaner, so it doesn’t have the environmental impact. The climate instability factor right now is a big issue. I mean, it’s a big issue. We had a great December, and it’s been dry ever since then at the farm. Weather’s unpredictable in Montana anyway but it’s really unpredictable now. 538: A quick aside, you were legendary during the campaign to go work on the farm for I think it was a week, at least a week if not two weeks. JT: Harvest. 538: This may be a good time to ask about 2012, it’s obviously a long ways away but you know that your race will probably be one of the top races targeted, given the way Montana is and the fact that it’s become such a swing state now. And as a freshman Senator having that defense. Should we expect to see you on the farm in 2012 as well? JT: Yeah. (Smiles.) I literally can work, and I do, long, long, long hours. I’m used to it. It’s where I come from, it’s what you do. You get up in the morning and you work all day long, and when it works to the point that you can quit you go to bed at night and do the same thing (the next day). I think it’s good for me, I think it’s good for Montana, to make sure that I stay connected with the land, to make sure I stay connected with working folks, to make sure I have a sound understanding that there are challenges out there. And if you live those challenges, you can represent those challenges a lot better here in Washington, DC. Yeah, I mean, I’m a farmer. I’m a farmer first. I’ve always been a farmer, I always will be a farmer. When they put me in the ground, it won’t say “Senator” on it. It’ll say, “he was a farmer.” Or scatter my dust, I should say. Yeah, I’m always gonna be doing that stuff. It’s good for my mental health and it’s good for my physical health. 538: Let me ask you a couple quick questions about Montana. You’re on both the Indian Affairs Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee, and I know that has been very important to you, not only from the time that you campaigned, but during your time here so far. What are you proudest about that you’ve been able to do in the last couple years on those issues for Montana? JT: The mileage reimbursement was a big issue for veterans. When I got back here and found out it was 11 cents a mile I mean, that’s ridiculous. And I found out from a veterans on the ground too, a bunch of listening sessions that we had – I mean, a lot, I can’t even tell you how many we’ve had, somewhere probably close to 20. Well over a dozen. And one of the first ones we had, a guy said, “I’m a disabled vet, to get to the hospital or the clinic it’s 11 cents a mile.” And that was when gas was 3-and-a-half, 4 bucks a gallon. So getting that bumped up to (28.5 41.5 cents/mile) where it should be was important. And we took it in two steps, and I think it’s fair now. The issues as far as veterans go, the issues around those community clinics is important. And we’ve gotten some work done, you know, Cut Bank, Lewistown, in particular. Havre’s coming online. We’re getting a new clinic down in Billings. That clinic they had down in Billings was just a joke, to be honest with you. And so, that kind of stuff, access to health care for veterans is really important, it’s something I’m really proud of. And we’ve got more work to do, and I think there’s some work in the more remote areas of Montana, building partnerships with the local hospitals or community health clinics, things like that. That’s from the veterans standpoint, that’s it. Our next challenge is making sure we get the right kind of analysis as people leave the active military into civilian life to make sure they’re getting the right ratings. Particularly for unseen injuries like PTSD and TBI. That’s our next challenge. And if we do that right it will save a ton of money and the people who serve this country will be benefited so much better. From an Indian Affairs standpoint, the challenges there are many. In fact, when I first got here I met with the large land-based tribes, the ones that had a lot of land. And I said, “What are the issues?” And they started reeling ‘em off, and I said “Hold it. You’re gonna have to prioritize because you’ve got too many.” And it basically falls around – and this can be the order although sometimes the order changes – health care’s the big issue, housing and water. We did some stuff in the Senate, unfortunately the House, I mean we passed the HASDA, which is the housing bill, hadn’t passed in years. The House didn’t take it up, which is unfortunate. We’ve got some things that we’re trying to do. A lot of the health service stuff is a resources issue, it’s a money and manpower issue. We’ve introduced a bill called the Path Act that’s going to hopefully empower tribal colleges to have nurses in particular, and administrative personnel available, people on the reservation being trained for jobs on the reservation, that understand the reservation. So that, I think, can help, and quite frankly, adequate funding for Indian health services so they don’t have to cut the funding off, cut the services off 1st of July or 1st of June or whenever the money runs out. From a water standpoint, we’ve got the Crow water compact that’s setting in here, we’re going to try to get that through. That’s important. And then we’ve got some regional water systems that we’re working on. North-central’s Rocky Boy line and the northeast Fort Peck line are both a couple hundred million dollar projects, actually it might even be up to 300 million with inflation. That will supply the Rocky Boy reservation as well as Fort Peck and the rural areas, too. Kind of a win-win deal. So those are things I’m proud of that we’re working on, and we’ll probably be working on ’em for a long time yet to come. 538: I’ve noticed a theme in a lot of these different answers keeps coming back to health care. There’s health care in veterans affairs, in Indian affairs, and health care is going to be the biggest – JT: Absolutely. 538: – it seems at least from the president’s speech the other night, that that’s going to be the biggest challenge of the year. And I think it was$634 billion that’s been floated out there, I’m sure the details will become a little clearer and you guys will have your say, \$634 billion for health care that’s been set aside this year in the budget over a ten year period as a first shot.

JT: I have not looked at that –

538: It’s coming out as we speak, so I’m sure you’ll have time to reflect on it. I’m looking to hear your perspective on the difference between the 111th vs the 110th, where there are more Democratic Senators, closer to the filibuster-proof but still not quite there. This is going to be a big fight, and you were involved in some of those negotiations around the stimulus bill trying to work out the compromise. What is your perspective, are you expecting to play a large role in some of that compromise?

JT: Well, I’ll play whatever role we can. I’m not on the health committee, because you can’t be on ’em all, we’ve got a picked up committee load now (chuckles, referring to recent Appropriations Committee appointment). But we will be inserting the rural perspective, whenever we can, because it’s important. We’ve got different challenges than they do in this city. They’ve got their own challenges here in the urban areas more generally. So we’ll be inserting that when possible, and we’ll be working.

I can tell you, it’s not gonna be easy. It’s not gonna be easy. At all. It’s going to be very hard, and a lot of heavy lifting. And proof of that, when Obama was giving his speech the other night and talked about children’s health insurance, a good, good, good portion of the Republican side, particularly in the House, never stood up. That’s children’s health insurance. That’s pretty basic stuff. And if we can’t even get to that point, you know, it’s going to be a lot of work getting people to come together. Because what we’re talking about is health care for people who don’t have health care, and some of those people make your income level, so they’re not poor people.

538: Just so you know, I don’t have health care.

JT: Exactly right. And my kids, who are supposed to be out on the farm, one of the reasons they’re not there yet is health care. Absolutely is health care. And you can say it’s health care because of available insurance, or you can say it’s health care because they can’t make as much money to pay for the health care when they move onto the farm. So it’s an issue, it’s an issue that affects me directly. It’s an issue that affects far too many people, whether you don’t have insurance, or whether your deductible is so doggone high that you’re underinsured.

538: What would be your advice for the president? He’s going to have to be doing a lot of selling. We’ve seen him start to do some of this road show work where he’s going out in the country. Those kind of things. Are there specific bits of advice, knowing how tough the fight’s going to be, that you would have if you were his adviser saying we need to get this done?

JT: Well, we absolutely have to have this be bipartisan. We’ve got to have some folks on board. And we’ve got to have both parties – it’s a big issue. I mean, it’s a Big. Issue. And it should not be defined by a Democratic issue or Republican issue. Health care is important for everybody.

So, I think the fact that the president has reached out and is trying to work with the Republicans, trying to bring them on board, it’s smart, because it’s going to be critically important on this issue. I don’t think it’s going to be done if we don’t get support. And if it isn’t done, and if it isn’t done thoughtfully so that health care access is improved and health care quality is maintained – we definitely can’t go backwards – and we don’t insert a lot of prevention and wellness into this program, the people who suffer is going to be everybody. Democrats and Republicans will suffer in the end. Our business base will suffer. Everything. The economy of the country will suffer.

I believe it was the head of the OMB, Peter Orszag, said, “if you don’t get a hold of this, by 2020 you will have no discretionary money. It will be gone, all gone to health care.” Well, that tells me that this problem isn’t going to solve itself. We’ve got to be proactive, we’ve got to work for solutions. We need everyone at the table. So, I’ll do whatever I can in support.

From a presidential standpoint, he’s got to get out and talk about the vision he has with the health care professionals that are on his staff. And, to be honest with you, it’s unfortunate Ted is sick, because Senator Kennedy is going to be playing a big role in this and Senator Boxer Baucus is going to be playing a big role in this, and getting people together and hopefully coming up with something that works. That’s what’s important.

538: Have we learned any lessons since the early 90s when this was tried, have we learned any lessons since this was tried, in the way we talk about health care? Republicans in the past have been very effective in framing issues and using the kind of language – have Democrats gotten better at being able to talk about this?

JT: I don’t know. I think regardless of what we talk about, we need to talk about it from a more on the ground level. We’re talking about people here. We’re not talking about policy, ultimately, we’re talking about people. We need to take it to that level. Talk about people. It’s not just poor people, there are a lot of regular folks out there that are hurting because of this.

From a message standpoint, I think things have changed a lot from what they were, ’94 or ’95 whenever that was rolled out. I think you’ve got issues out there that are bigger, there are more people who understand the system is broken, including some of the insurance companies. Absolutely the health care professionals understand it’s broken, and the patients. So I think there’s more of a critical mass that understand we have to do something. In the 90s – of course I was 12, 14 years younger and I wasn’t involved in the local government or state government – it wasn’t a big issue on my screen then and we were paying for our own health care. But it sure is now. And for my kids. So it’s a different story.

538: Do you think that – again, one of the things we’re hearing a lot of criticism from the Democratic side, in the blogosphere and you’re familiar with that because that’s probably the first way that I encountered you was some interaction with the blogosphere. So you must undoubtedly be aware that there’s a criticism that because of the need to get this extra one or two Republican votes, that the price to be paid is so high in terms of watering things down. That’s the perception, that the stimulus bill was watered down, or that this health care idea might be watered down because this need for bipartisanship makes a worse bill. You hear those criticisms, what’s your reaction to that?

JT: My reaction is take a look at the final product. You take a look at that jobs bill that we passed. Recovery bill, stimulus, we call it “jobs” because that’s what it was about. There was a lot of good stuff in that bill. A lot of good stuff in that bill. So the glass still half-empty, half-full, take a look at what’s in that bill. There’s great stuff for energy, there was great stuff for infrastructure, for water, and there was tax relief for middle class folks.

I mean, the truth is you can pick holes in it, and I did – I mean personally, when it was first brought it up, I said, “Well, this could be better, that could be better, this doesn’t need to be in there and this could be bigger” and all that stuff. But the truth is, if you look at the final product, it’s a pretty good piece of legislation. And I think it could help to put some people to work, which is the overall goal of this thing.

So when it comes to health care, I think it’s going to take more than three Republicans to get health care policy passed, myself. I think it’s going to take people sitting at the table to get it done, and I think Obama’s put it out. And I will tell you if there’s an attitude of obstructionism when it comes to health care, we’re not going to end up with anything. We aren’t. And who’s going to suffer? Democrats, Republicans aside, I’m gonna tell you who’s going to suffer. It’s people. It’s businesses. It’s working families. It’s people who work in this country and have built this country for the last 300 years. They’re the ones that are going to suffer. So this is bigger than Democrats or Republicans, and I hope we can put the politics aside. I really do.

538: There’s a lot of talk about if the Republicans are seen as obstructionists that in the next midterms – we’ve seen two unprecedented waves in a row – that then you might have that filibuster-proof majority, it almost seems like now the filibuster is a standard part of any vote. It’s no longer 50, it’s got to be 60. Obviously on something like this it’s going to be a big deal. Are you, is there some – I know you don’t like to be a political pundit – is there any sense from your caucus that if the Republicans are seen as totally obstructionist on this, that in two years from now we’re going to be looking at a better possibility because there might be a better chance?

JT: I’ve never taken part in those discussions so I don’t know. I can tell you that in two years from now, it’ll be two years without health care. I mean, it’ll be that many more people who are going to be hurt. And it’ll be that many more businesses that are gonna be put into an economic disadvantage.

538: I want to ask you about education. You’re an education guy. I know that’s some of your background, and the other night there was one moment where you were standing next to Bill Nelson the other night it looked like, is that right?

JT: I was — right next to Bill Nelson and Sherrod Brown.

538: And right after Obama said the line about challenging every American to have at least one year of higher education and that dropping out of college – dropping out of high school was not just quitting on yourself but quitting on –

538: – on your country. What did you think of that part of the speech?

JT: I thought it was absolutely spot on. My grandmother emigrated here from Sweden. And she pounded education into my mother and her kids, and my mother pounded education into us. It’s very, very important. And I think we’ve lost that edge that we had 100 years ago in understanding how important education, particularly public education is to this country. If we’re going to make this country continue to be the leader in the world, education is the key. And participation and access is absolutely part of that. So I think he is right on. Those guys, the folks who came from the old country, they literally – they worked. They understood the value of education, they understood how it could help you in your quality of life. And I think we’ve lost – and it could easily be regained – but I think we’ve lost that sense of how important education is to this country and how important it is to our economy.

538: Have you noticed anything substantially different between the last Congress and this Congress? Is there a tonal sense of change or is there, or how would you characterize it?

JT: A lot more intense. Russ Feingold told me after the 110th, the first six months or four months, I can’t remember exactly, but he walked up and he said, “This has been the hardest working stretch that I’ve seen. You’ll never have a stretch any harder than this.” And these first two months have been very intense. I mean, we have been incredibly busy. So busy that last year I got back every weekend but one, and that was during the lame duck session. Because of the inauguration, and then because we were held over, I’ve missed two weekends already and we’re not to the first of March. So it’s much more intense. Much more.

538: Was there a point where during the first two years where you knew you’d just gotten comfortable? I know that during the time of the campaign a big theme was, send me to Washington because I don’t look like Washington, I’m not like Washington, and I know that a big part of who you are is not wanting to fall into the – have you come to any personal place on this?

JT: We have a routine, this session’s easier from that perspective than last. You know the expectations, you just kind of know what the schedule’s gonna be, although the schedule is still very very fluid (chuckles).

I can tell you that I’ll never, I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable here, do you know what I mean? I don’t think it’ll ever be something that I walk in and go, “You know what (snaps fingers), this is gonna happen, that’s gonna happen. We’ll do this, this, this, and this is taking care of that.” I just don’t think it’s ever gonna happen. And I think that’s probably a good thing. I mean, it is. It’s very challenging in that regard.

But this session is easier from a standpoint of anticipation of the schedule. Knowing, finally figuring out you can’t go to every committee meeting because they’re stacked on top of one another. I mean, I came out of state government where they made a point that you could go to every committee meeting because they were never scheduled together. It’s different story here. So you’ve got to pick and choose. It’s the way it is. But just from a comfort standpoint, I’m always going to feel less comfortable here than where I’ve come from.

538: What don’t people know, people who sit back aren’t in Washington, they see the way the Senate works, the sausage making process. If you could sit down with somebody that you’ve learned that would help them better appreciate you guys have to do in order to get a bill passed, how would you explain that?

JT: Well, I don’t think people understand how hard people work back here. I’m talking Senators and the staff. I mean, people log hours back here. And they work very, very hard. And the reason they do that is because that’s part of the making of the sausage. Unless you know your stuff and go forward with it, you just can’t be successful. You have to be on top of the edge, you have to be ahead of the curve, and so consequently you’re working all the time.

And I’ll give you a prime example. Reading that 800 page bill. “Oh, what a task!” (laughs) It was nothing! You sit down and you read the bill and you understand the bill. This isn’t like reading War and Peace for God’s sakes, there’s about a paragraph on each page and you just read the bill! But you have to read the bill. And to make the assumption that nobody reads the bill, and for people to stand up and say, “I couldn’t read the bill because it was too long,” it’s a cop-out. It’s a cop-out. You can always find time to do that kind of stuff. Because it’s part of your job.

538: I want to ask you about transparency too. It’s been coming up in the briefing questions, and the Obama administration was coming in with the idea that, “we’re going to be the most transparent government that you’ve ever seen.” When you ran for Senate, you were the only one who said, I’m going to put all my meetings online every day, so presumably this will be – (laughing)

JT: Yeah it will be! Tonight you’ll be on! (laughs, looks at business card) Let’s see, what’s the title gonna be, Sean Quinn…? (laughs)

538: Yeah, yeah. (laughter). So in terms of the conference committees, and those sensitive negotiations, those haven’t been transparent, and there’s some pushback questions directed at the Obama administration, presumably directed at Congress, why aren’t we seeing a more transparent look at these negotiations? I know it’s a complicated issue and I wanted to hear –

JT: It is a complicated issue, and to be honest with you, one of the foundations is things need to be as transparent as possible. I have not sat down in a conference committee yet. If I ever get a chance to sit in on a conference committee, I could answer that question better because I’d know what’s goes on and I’d know if there’s anything going on that couldn’t stand the light of the press, to be honest with you. So I fundamentally think things should be open unless there’s a reason to have them closed, I haven’t been in on a conference committee to know if there’s a reason to have them closed. So I can’t tell you.

538: Who would you say have been your mentors in the Senate?

JT: Max (Baucus) and I are close, we work on everything. Byron Dorgan is a good guy, and a chairman of the Indian Affairs committee and neighboring state, good guy. I work with Byron a lot and like Byron a lot. Jay Rockefeller is a good guy, that’s more on a personal level instead of a professional level because we don’t serve on any committees together, but I just like him. I think he’s a good guy. And so consequently, even though it’s casual chat, every once in awhile you insert a question that’s important and I value his judgment. Patty Murray is a great person. We utilize her more especially now that I’m on Approps. She’s great. Just process stuff, she’ll help me be able to get through the weeds in a big way, I know that. There’s a lot of good people here. Mark Pryor, he’s a great guy. Super fella. The people in my class of ’06, and the people of ’08, all great guys, women, super people, and I get along with them fine. But I would say if there was one that I probably visit with more than any of ‘em it’s probably Dorgan. I mean, outside of Max, it’s Dorgan.

538: Thank you for your time, sir.

JT: It’s good to see the old Las Vegas boy made good.

538: I consider this the “Tester Bump.”

[Note: a couple minor edits noted with strikethroughs, my fault on the transcription]

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