BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Former Congressman Tim Penny, why did you call your book "Common Cents" -- cents spelled with a C?
TIMOTHY PENNY (Author, "Common Cents"): Well, partly it's a play on my name, but also because we're trying to highlight in the book that there's a lot of nonsense that substitutes for political debate or political discussion at the national level; and also we play off of Thomas Paine's book -- or his pamphlet, "Common Sense," in which he used everyday arguments to persuade the colonists that they ought to throw off monarchial rule. He suggested, for example, it didn't make sense for an island to govern a continent, and these were just common-sense arguments that resonated with the average colonist. They then joined hands with the leaders of the Revolution to create this new nation of ours. And we think today that if you're fed up with politics in America, there's just some common-sense tips that will help you to reconnect with the political system and send your voice through your elected representatives.
LAMB: What years did you serve here?
PENNY: I served from 1983 through 1994. I was here for six terms.
LAMB: Why'd you leave?
PENNY: Oh, a variety of reasons. Mostly, I just thought 12 years was long enough, not that I've embraced the notion of term limits as a constitutional amendment, but I really felt that you should not make a career out of elected office. And 12 years seemed to me to be a good break point. It was time to get my family home to Minnesota before they -- before the children forgot that they were Minnesotans. And everything that's happened in our family life in the last several months has reassured me that this was the right decision to make.
LAMB: Where is home, and what are you doing now?
PENNY: Well, southern Minnesota is home. I grew up on a family farm down in Freeborn County. I went to college in that part of the state and represented that area at both the state level and the national level for a number of years. We live now in Waseca, Minnesota. It's a town of about 8,500. It's a county seat. It's about an hour and 15 minutes south of Minneapolis, Minnesota. My new life, now that I'm out of public office, involves work at the University of Minnesota as a senior fellow. I also teach an evening course at St. Olaf College, and I work several days a month for a public relations firm in the Twin Cities.
LAMB: When you see that cover of your book -- there you are in front of the Capitol -- and it says, "Common Cents with Representative Timothy J. Penny." Right below it, it says, "And Major Garrett." How did you get involved in this?
MAJOR GARRETT (Author, "Common Cents"): Well, Tim and I got together after I learned in late December of 1993 that an agent had suggested to him that maybe he ought to write a book. And he went up to New York to talk to some publishers about it. And when his press secretary confided this information to me on an off the record basis, really it was a moment of crystalline clarity in my life, one of those few moments when I just knew exactly what the next step in my life would be. It was that Tim and I would get together. I'd watched Tim a lot in Congress. I had drawn some very meaningful conclusions about who Tim was, what he had tried to do in Washington and the forces that he has sort of run up against. And I thought, "This guy left Congress. He left on his own. He left at the apex of his power and probably left with vistas of power even wider to him, and yet he turned away from it."
And I really thought there was a story there to tell. There were things about Congress that he and I could get together and reveal in a way that would be appealing to people who live outside the Beltway, people who, like my mother, sit around the kitchen table and scratch their heads and say, "Now why does Congress do things that way?" And I thought putting a journalist together with a politician, we could really tell some really good stories, let the American people know how this place works systematically, get them to understand the systems, so maybe if they wanted to change the system, they would at least understand it first. We thought that was sort of an essential first step. And then, if they wanted to change the system after learning something about it, teach them ways to do that more effectively, which is really what the whole book is about.
LAMB: Where is your full time job?
GARRETT: My full time job is at The Washington Times. I'm the national correspondent for The Washington Times. I've been in Washington for five years.
LAMB: Where's home?
GARRETT: Home is here in Washington, DC. My hometown is San Diego, California, a beautiful city, the site of the Republican National Convention in 1996, a place I visit routinely, as often as I can. And many times, sitting on the sandy beaches watching the sunset, I scratch my head and say, "Why did I ever leave?"
LAMB: How did you two do this together?
PENNY: Well, Major volunteered -- for lack of a better description. You know, I hadn't sat around all my life thinking about writing a book. It's something that sort of came my way. I knew that I was going to need help in the project. Major was convinced that he was the right partner for the project and actually approached me. That led to a discussion. Ultimately, we agreed that it was a project we could do together. and a big part of that was because, from his perspective as a journalist and mine as a practicing politician, we really came to many of the same conclusions about what ails our political system, what people need to know about the way the system works. And I think we had a common sense that while we're frustrated and some degree discouraged about the way Washington works, we haven't given up on the system, and we don't want voters to give up on the system. And that brought us to some common conclusions as to what tips voters might need to follow if they want to empower themselves and make a difference.
LAMB: When did you start working on it?
GARRETT: We started working on it in mid February of 1993, and the manuscript was turned in to Little, Brown, our publisher, at the end of June. It was a four and a half month process. We worked very, very hard. Primarily I ...
LAMB: 1993 or ...
GARRETT: Yes. I'm sorry. 1994. That's right. 1994. Last year.
LAMB: So this -- although there are some references to the election being over.
GARRETT: Yes. And we updated the book after the election in November. We submitted the manuscript in the summer. You're correct, Brian, the end of June in 1994. We worked on it for four and a half months. During that time, I took a leave of absence from the paper, worked largely from my home, and I would -- Tim and I agreed on a lot of the stories that were in the book that were illustrative of the various cultures of Congress. We sort of, in trying to take this systematic approach to Congress, describe cultures within it. We talk about a culture of power, a culture of fear, a culture of hypocrisy, a culture of spending, cultures that each and every member, whether a Republican or a Democrat, run up against when they arrive in Washington and how these cultures shape behavior and how it's kind of hard to break out of them. And after having agreed on the stories to illustrate these cultures, I would write them, hand them to Tim. He would edit them. We'd go back and forth on a rather accelerated pace. Four and a half months is not a lot of time to put a book together. But we got it done, and we're very, very pleased with the final product.
LAMB: You both say that "no single culture in Congress has disillusioned me more than the culture of hypocrisy. It has left me discouraged and sad and full of shame." What are you talking about?
PENNY: The tendency to say one thing and do another. I mean, Congressional coverage under the laws that apply to the private sector is one classic example. For years, we passed legislation to require the private sector to conform with certain labor standards, safety standards, health standards, anti discrimination policies, and never applied these policies to Capitol Hill. It was the classic double standard: do as we say, not as we do. And over time that's the sort of hypocrisy that erodes public confidence in their political systems. And as a consequence, I really do view that as one of the great tragedies of the culture in Washington that too often we speak out of both sides of our mouth and then we wonder why people hold the Congress in disrepute.
LAMB: Were you ever personally hypocritical?
PENNY: All of us do, and that's the real tragedy is that you can stumble into this behavior routinely. I tell a story on myself, as an example -- the honey program -- not a very large program in the federal budget. I think it typically spent out about $20 million per year, and yet I was a deficit hawk offering budget cutting amendments right and left at a steady clip. But on several occasions, I found myself joining my colleagues on the Agriculture Committee to defend the honey program, not because I felt it was a valuable program, not because I felt we really needed to spend $20 million a year to prop up the domestic honey industry, but because I fell into this pattern of thought. Everybody else on the committee is voting to save the honey program. It's a very small program in the context of the overall budget. Agricultural programs have already taken a disproportionate amount of the spending cuts over the years, and when you follow that line of thinking, pretty soon you end up voting for something that you really shouldn't be voting for.
And it happens to legislators every day. The point we make in the book is that this is not a process in which certain legislators are always wearing the white hats and certain legislators are always wearing the black hats. The people are constantly changing hats in this process. The greatest champion of deficit reduction one day could be hypocritical by supporting a spending initiative the next. And so we don't want people to walk away from this thinking that it's just as simple as getting a list of the villains and voting them out. These are cultures and pressures that apply to everybody that comes here, and the better you understand these cultures, the better you will understand what sort of legislators, what personality traits to look for in those candidates that are asking for your vote.
LAMB: Do you see much hypocrisy as you cover Congress?
GARRETT: Yeah. I see a good share of it, and I think one of the things that Tim and I came to the conclusion about together and quite individually is Tim came to Congress when he was 30 years old. I came to Washington when I was 27. We both came with sort of a tender-footed idealism about Washington, about politics. So I don't think we were naive. We understood that it's a brutal business and it's a hard business and demands a lot and a lot of pressures are applied. But I guess the thing that we always came back to is the fact that if we talk about the budget or we talk about hypocrisy or power or fear or all the cultures we describe in the book, at any particular time, if we were to sit down with a member of Congress and talk privately, not for attribution for myself as a journalist or not for the purposes of whipping in a vote count for Tim, most of the things we talk about in the book Republicans and Democrats would agree on.
"Yeah, you know, these entitlement programs are really running out of control. We ought to do something about that, but we can't. You know, the politics are real bad." Or, "I know this powerful chairman's really leaning on me. I ought to stand up to him, but, you know, I'm afraid to. I really want to keep that committee seat." Or, "I know this is kind of a hypocritical vote, but, you know, I've just got to do it for domestic political consumption. It's just my way to squeak by." And Tim and I more or less decided, you know, why should he keep all that private? Why should I keep all that stuff that's either in my head or it's been in my notebook but never really got onto the newspaper -- why should we keep that a secret? Let's bring it out in the open. Let's talk about it. Let's show, as best we're able to and as fair as we're able to. I mean, this book talks about hypocrisy and some negative things, but it also reveals people who rise above these cultures, who rise above these tendencies, and show them how individuals, how human beings operate here.
LAMB: You tell a story in the opening of the book about Speaker O'Neill and Jim Wright and $1 billion worth of new money.
LAMB: Will you walk us through that?
PENNY: Well, yeah. I'll tell it as quickly as I can. And I want to just stress that the stories we tell in the book are all relatively short. We refer to it -- and I hope we can do this without fear of a lawsuit -- that we refer to this as a Reader's Digest format. I mean, the stories we tell are relatively short. They make a point and we move on to the next story. Because we want this to be an accessible book for the average voter, not -- political junkies, I think, will enjoy it, but we want this to be accessible to the average voter. But that story has to do with $1 billion worth of additional spending for some great programs, primarily education programs. This dates back to the third year of the Reagan administration, the first year that I was in Congress, and Democrats had come sweeping back in the 1982 off year election.
We gained back many seats that we'd lost in 1980, and our party leadership viewed that election as a referendum on Reaganomics, a rejection of Reaganomics. And so there was a very confrontational attitude, and the attempt was made to push through a variety of initiatives, most of which we knew would die in the Republican controlled Senate or be vetoed by Reagan if these matters ever reached his desk. But it was more to score some points, to make a point, than to get anything done. And this spending package was one of those. Now, obviously, these were spending initiatives that Democrats were generally supportive of -- education -- but the newer Democrats -- and there were around 60 in that freshman class -- were determined that we weren't going to run up the deficit. So if we were going to pass higher spending levels for these various programs, we wanted that to be accompanied by a budget reduction bill that was also waiting for a final vote. And we basically told the leadership that we would not vote for the spending bill until there were assurances that we'd get a vote on that spending reduction bill. Pay as you go. Let's show that we're willing to cut in order to pay for these priorities.
The leadership didn't believe us. I guess they figured that freshmen would fall into line and wouldn't have the audacity to vote against a leadership sponsored spending bill. Well, 26 of us, as I recall, voted to kill the bill, and it went down to defeat. That resulted in a meeting the following morning in which most of us Democrats were acting like the dog that had finally caught the car tire. We didn't know what to do with our victory, and the consensus was that we'd made our point and that we should vote for the measure and move on and know that in the future the leadership would take us at our word when we threatened to vote a particular way. So I was sent as an emissary to talk to Majority Leader Jim Wright, and he has a silver tongue and a sharp tongue. And depending on his mood, he would use one or the other, and there was no doubt which mood he'd be in that morning. So I went to try and smooth things over. The outgrowth of this -- and that was the sort of a tough confrontation in which he told a couple stories about how he felt about the vote that left ...
LAMB: Do you remember them?
PENNY: Oh, sure. I can remember them almost verbatim to this day because we sat there across the breakfast table, he there with a couple of his top staffers.
LAMB: Let me just make sure that everybody understands that he had lost this vote.
PENNY: Oh, yeah. He had sponsored the amendment, and so this was a very personal defeat in his mind. And ...
LAMB: If it hadn't been for you 26 Democrats ...
PENNY: And if it hadn't been for freshmen Democrats, the majority leader's amendment would have prevailed. So he was not at all in a good mood. I came in, and he smiled. You know, there was a sort of a coldness to his smile, and yet just a little more warmth than cold steel. and so here I am, all of 31 years old, feeling a bit awkward, and I'm supposed to strike up a conversation with the majority leader who is not too happy with me or the other new Democrats. And so I lamely said, "So how are you feeling this morning, Mr. Speaker -- or Mr. Majority Leader?" And he smiled again, and he said, "Tim, let me tell you how I'm feeling. I sort of feel like the tight end who breaks out into the flat and receives a perfectly thrown pass and gathers the ball in and sprints down the sideline, comes within five yards of the end zone, no opponent in sight, and at the last moment someone from his own bench comes out onto the field and tackles him. That's how I feel this morning, Tim."
And if that wasn't bad enough, he then went into another story about a boxer ahead on points who had someone from his own corner of the ring come out and bash him over the back of the head with a stool. And I thought, "OK. I get the point, Mr. Majority Leader." The outgrowth of all of this is that they did finally bring the bill up for a second vote. We did then approve it. We did get a vote on that budget reduction package. It went down in flames. The bill that we had approved for these education programs died a quiet death over in the Senate. and it taught me -- you know, we went through all of this anguish over nothing really. Because the whole effort was largely a charade. It was made to score some political points in the Reagan administration, knowing that the bill wasn't going to go anywhere anyhow. And no one in Congress, Democrat or Republican, were serious about voting for that spending reduction bill, which we were trying to hold this bill hostage for. So it's just a classic example of inside politics, and we try to tell it in entertaining fashion so that folks on the outside can read about it and sort of get their arms around it.
LAMB: Chapter five is "The Culture of Fear," and I bring it up because Stan Greenberg was here a couple weeks ago, and we were talking about focus groups and polling, and he's the President's pollster. And you say in this book that in 1993 the Democratic National Committee paid pollster Stan Greenberg nearly $2 million to learn what the public wanted to hear.
GARRETT: Mm hmm. Yeah.
LAMB: How did you find that out?
GARRETT: Well, that was some research that I had come across in a couple of major magazines. I think US News and Time magazine had written similar stories about the degree to which President Clinton shaped, not only his policies, but his rhetoric around precise words gleaned from focus groups and polling that Mr. Greenberg does. And I would say Stan is a terrific pollster. He's written a very good book, which I've read, "Middle Class Dreams." It's an excellent account of sort of the trends in polling in the last 20 years and how it sort of brought it to the stage of where we are now where the middle class is angry and upset with certain things.
LAMB: But he said here -- and I don't want to put words in his mouth; he's not here to defend himself -- that he did not go out and find the right words and then put them in the President's mouth.
GARRETT: Well, that would be something that he probably might feel uncomfortable with that characterization, because it makes the president look a little shallow. So I'm sure Stan would be uncomfortable with that, but that was certainly the message that was delivered in the research that I've done. And to be perfectly frank about it, it's not an unusual or uncharacteristic thing for a pollster to do for a President or a member of Congress or other politician.
PENNY: Well, I can verify that Democrats on Capitol Hill would frequently receive briefings from Mr. Greenberg and some of the other advisers down at the White House, and we would receive the benefit of these polling results. And almost always in the presentation, they would not only give us the raw numbers, but they would stress how the question was posed and how, when you question voters using these terms, they responded this way. When you questioned voters using these terms, they respond that way. So, you know, you can claim that he didn't tell the President, "Use these words in your next speech," but the information presented to the president, just as it was presented to the Democrats on Capitol Hill, certainly stressed which is the phrasing that gets the most resonant response from the electorate -- and politicians aren't stupid. They'll draw the right conclusion from that.
LAMB: Both sides do this?
PENNY: Oh, yeah.
GARRETT: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely.
PENNY: Oh, where do you think the Contract With America came from? I mean, this was not a governing document because there are inconsistencies in that contract. I don't know how you can cut taxes $200 billion and still balance the budget. But it was a political document. No item went into that contract unless it received support from close to 70 percent of the respondents, and it was ...
GARRETT: In polling or in focus groups.
PENNY: ... and it was designed simply to present an appealing agenda to voters during the fall campaign. And in fairness, other than Newt Gingrich, I don't think most Republicans thought that they would have to deliver on that contract. He was one of the few that actually thought they could win control of the Congress. But it was a political document designed for campaign purposes, not a governing document. And now that they're in the implementation phase of the Contract With America, they're discovering some of the inconsistencies that exist in that Contract With America.
LAMB: In "The Culture of Isolation," you write up Bob Livingston under the penchant for pensions. Let me just ask you, though, you're 12 years in the House?
LAMB: What's your pension?
PENNY: I don't get a pension. I would qualify for one if I were in the pension program, because I think after -- I don't know how long you vest. Is it six years, 10 years? But I'm not in the pension program, so I ...
LAMB: Why not?
PENNY: Well, when I came to Congress in 1983, I, frankly, discovered how generous the pension program was. It's way out of line with anything you could draw in the private sector for a similar job at similar pay. And I just didn't feel comfortable enrolling in the system. And I know how, you know, the longer you're here, the more foolish it looks not to sign into a pension program, but I don't know why someone should draw a pension that's more generous than most CEOs in the private sector would even draw from their company.
LAMB: Bob Livingston, who is the congressman from Louisiana, now chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is featured in this book.
LAMB: Had you written about him before?
GARRETT: Slightly. Somewhat. I mean, he was a player on the Appropriations Committee only in the regard that he was a Republican. And that is among the most bipartisan committees in Congress. Republicans and Democrats usually work together to help each other out on spending projects, so I had covered a little bit of Bob's career, but not much.
LAMB: Well, this is the line. "Livingston pulled pulled John Kasich aside on the House floor and swore at him at the top of his lungs. His obscenity laden diatribe was so loud, I could hear it from the other side of the chamber." Was that -- did you hear it?
PENNY: Yeah. This was after a vote. This was after a vote, and so the chamber was sort of clearing and other business was about to proceed. and I noticed this commotion over on the other side of the chamber, saw what was happening, and so I went over. After all, Kasich and I were the sponsors of that budget cutting plan. And it wasn't a big surprise to me that John was being chewed out about the pension reforms or the cuts in the pension program that were part of our package, because I had heard similar complaints from several other legislators.
LAMB: Will it ever change, or should it?
PENNY: Well, it should change. I mean, frankly, I think it would be good to get rid of the pension program entirely so that you don't tie a pension to elected office. But if we're going to keep the program, it clearly needs to be brought back in line with comparable pensions for other public servants who serve a similar length of time. And, you know, the point, again, is that it's way out of line with any contributions made to the system, and it's another example of sort of the isolation of Capitol Hill from the real world in that we can walk away from this job with a very lucrative pension after very short terms of service.
LAMB: How did you divide up the responsibilities on the book?
GARRETT: I wrote, and Tim edited. That's basically how it worked. I'm a writer by profession. Writing a book had been a lifelong dream of mine. I hope to write more in the future. That had not been a lifelong dream of Tim's, so with that basic human orientation, it would have made no sense for Tim to do the writing and me to do the editing. Besides, we tell the book largely in a first person. It is a story about Tim that Tim tells through the book, but the best way we thought to accomplish that was for us to agree on the stories. I would do research; Tim would do research. I would pull all the stuff together, write a first draft.
PENNY: He would do some interviews; I would do some interviews. We would do some joint interviews depending upon who we needed to talk to to flush out the stories.
LAMB: Where did you work?
GARRETT: I worked from my home, from my study, which now doubles as a nursery because my wife and I just had our first child in January, so I have a little less space to work in there now than I did when we put the book together. And I was pretty disciplined. We had to work pretty quickly on this. Eight hours a day minimum, six days a week. Typically, 10 to 12.
PENNY: And then many evenings we would work until the middle of the night doing edits, just sitting there page by page, line by line, and we'd go back and forth and get it into final form.
LAMB: Did you disagree about anything?
PENNY: Very little.
GARRETT: A few things.
PENNY: He was going to say a few, and my saying -- it's just two different ways of saying the same thing.
LAMB: What did you disagree on?
GARRETT: Largely, language and nuance. And I'll be real candid. There were parts of Tim Penny's life that I really thought we should get into the book that describe to people the kind of lawmaker Tim is. The fact that Tim is not a recipient of a Congressional pension is not in the book. That's against my wishes. I think people should know that this is a public servant who looked at public service and said, "I will receive my salary and no more." I also wanted to have in there that he didn't take a pay raise until after he was re elected, because I thought that illustrated something about the kind of public servant he was. Tim is a modest person. He doesn't like to brag on himself. And there were a lot of things about his career that I was constantly trying to push into the book because I thought it told people something about Tim as well as something about Congress, because one of the things I hope we achieve with this book is to tell voters how the system works, but also to inspire other people thinking about public service about how to -- a way to approach it, about a way to go about this job in an honorable, principled and ethical way. Tim is very modest, and he had the final say, so he held back on things.
PENNY: I should have cut him off long ago. I mean, he's going to get carried away on that point, but most of the stories are stories that either we agreed on jointly because they were stories that came forward during the past few years. He's been here covering Capitol Hill for five years, and so a lot of the stories come from the last few years, and they were sort of automatic. Both he and I identified them as stories that would make a good point. A lot of the other stories predate his arrival in DC. I suggested those stories with one exception. He talked me into the 1985 budget deal, and he found ...
LAMB: What do you mean?
PENNY: The 1985 budget deal where Senate Republicans actually tried to put a mammoth deficit reduction plan on the table, which included a freeze on Social Security COLAs. And I hadn't initially thought of that as a story for the book, but Major suggested that one. and it did occur to me that it's a classic example of how those who attempt to do the right thing, the tough thing on the deficit, often pay a price. And those who do the wrong thing on the budget often get rewarded. And so ...
LAMB: Explain more, though. What are you talking about? Specifics.
PENNY: Well, what happened there is the Senate Republicans, based on Reagan's landslide re election, thought that the first year of his second term was the opportune moment ...
LAMB: They're in control ...
PENNY: ... to push through ...
LAMB: ... in the Senate.
PENNY: ... a serious deficit reduction plan and get this deficit behind the Congress once and for all. They were counting on Reagan to use some of his political capital -- his popularity -- to get behind the effort and to make things happen. The Democratic majority in the House wasn't an overwhelming majority. They thought that if they moved a bill through the House, it would sort of invite some cooperation from the House. If they moved a bill through the Senate, it would invite cooperation on the House side of the Hill. So they put together a controversial package that slowed dramatically Reagan's Pentagon spending increases, put a freeze on COLAs for one year, which was the most controversial part of the package, and all in all would have cut $300 billion over the course of five years, at the time the biggest deficit reduction plan ever attempted. And it would have come very close to balancing the budget within that five year time frame.
They passed that vote by calling Pete Wilson back from an appendectomy operation at Bethesda. He then created a tie vote, which was broken by the vote of Vice President Bush. All of that fell in a shambles, because Reagan and Speaker O'Neill got together and agreed basically that Democrats would not assault the Pentagon budget if Reagan would leave Social Security alone. And the rug was pulled out from under Senate Democrats -- Senate Republicans. They had the liability of having cast a very tough and controversial budget vote, but nothing came of it. So they had to face the music, and the following election the Democrats came storming back to take control of the Senate.
GARRETT: Democrats used the Social Security issue in the '86 campaign and regained control of the Senate. The Senate Republicans had the worst of both worlds: a tough controversial vote but no policy to show for it. So they had gone through all this tremendous effort to try to put their arms around the budget deficit, came up with something they thought could work, had gone through all the hard labor to pass it by one vote in the Senate. House Republicans -- and that's the other part of the story -- House Republicans -- Trent Lott, who was then among the House Republican leaders, and Jack Kemp immediately backed away from it. They weren't going to touch Social Security for anything.
PENNY: Well, they felt that it had cost them control of the House in 1982. And there was some reason to believe that that was true. It was a major factor in a lot of those races. But the point is this was another example where one party tried to do the tough stuff on the deficit and was roundly criticized by the other party who used that issue in the following election to good advantage. And that's why in 1993 when Clinton came to town and Democrats put together a relatively tough budget with our votes alone, admittedly one that relied more on taxes than on spending cuts, Republicans played the same game. They backed away. They voted no. And then they used that issue to good effect in the 1994 election.
And the point we're trying to make is you can't really solve this deficit problem with party line solutions because neither party is willing to put all the elements on the table, and unless both parties are part of the compromise, the party that stays away from the table will always use the issue to political advantage in the following election and then matters only get worse.
LAMB: What role does money play?
GARRETT: Money plays a significant -- but in some instances, I would say an overemphasized role in politics. Certainly special interests bring money to the table to fund congressional campaigns. We have stories about an encounter where Tim met with the AFL CIO when he was seeking re election to his second term. That's a relevatory experience about what is -- how a special interest sort of conveys to you that you're not as really as deeply on the team as they want you to be, and maybe if you were more on the team, you might get more money. And if you aren't on the team as much, maybe you won't get as much. It's all very subtle, but it reveals that ...
LAMB: Don't go away from that because I want Mr. Penny to describe that specific AFL CIO meeting.
PENNY: Yeah. Well, it's ...
LAMB: How'd it work?
PENNY: It's described in the book, but I use it as an example because usually the pressure is a lot more subtle. But this was an instance in which I was heading into a very tough re election battle. Having been the first Democrat in 90 years to represent that district, it was obvious that the Republicans were going to come after me hard in my re election campaign in '84. And where else does a Democrat get money if they don't get it from labor? Yet my voting record was only 70 percent. Now some people may say that sounds like a pretty generous labor voting record -- not generous enough, because labor was not happy with me.
And so the meeting was designed to sort of smooth things over. It didn't. The meeting was a very tense meeting. I have to admit that my stubborn Norwegian nature came through, and I really left that meeting believing that I wouldn't get a dime from labor and that it would be, you know, a very touch and go re election season for me. But the reason I tell the story is to reveal that while most confrontations with interest groups are not as direct as that confrontation, the subtle message is always there on every single vote you cast. If you don't make them happy, the money is gone. And if you're too reliant on special interest money, at some point, even if you're not aware of it, you lose your independence. You get compromised. Simply because satisfying those special interests clouds your judgment as you're trying to address the larger issues.
LAMB: You name individuals; you name John Perkins.
PENNY: Yeah. He was in the room.
LAMB: What's it like, though, sitting there with ...
PENNY: It's intimidating. It's scary.
LAMB: You're a member of Congress.
PENNY: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: They're sitting there across the table, or are you sitting around like this?
PENNY: Well, look, I was 31 at the time, so when I say it was intimidating, it was scary, bear in mind that in Washington terms, I was pretty young. I was still very green, and so to me, this was an intimidating environment. Nonetheless, as I understood it, you know, their displeasure was only going to be remedied by one thing, and that was me giving them more votes than I was inclined to give them. And I wasn't at all interested in giving them those sorts of assurances. In fact, as it turned out, in my second year, rather than 70 percent, I voted with them 40 percent of the time. And that's just the way the votes broke up. I actually disagreed with them more in my second year than my first year.
So I clearly didn't do anything to help my case with organized labor. and we also acknowledged in the book that, nonetheless, I did get some financial support from them in my re election campaign, but it had very little to do with how often I helped them. It had everything to do with the fact that my opponent was criticizing me for voting with them too much. But after that election, they basically cut off support. And in some ways, it cleared the air, because from then on, if I agreed with them, it was appreciated, and if I disagreed with them, they respected it. No money was changing hands, and our relationship in some ways was a much better relationship absent the political action committee money that so often greases relationships.
LAMB: Does business do the same thing?
GARRETT: Sure. Sure. They're ...
LAMB: They call people to their office and say, "You're not going to get this money unless you vote our way'?
GARRETT: Well, sure. And oftentimes it's ...
PENNY: Well, it's usually not that blatant.
GARRETT: It's not that blatant.
PENNY: I mean, that's the point we try to make in the book is that it seldom, if ever, is that blatant.
LAMB: But everybody knows what's going on.
PENNY: It's always very subtle, and it's a known factor that ...
GARRETT: And oftentimes the message will not be conveyed directly by a lobbyist but through an intermediary, typically someone through the leadership. I know this is how House Republicans function. I mean, a member of the House leadership will be working on some votes and say, "Hey, you know, we were out in your district last year when you needed money for your -- either to be elected for the first time or re elected." And so they're sort of acting as a conduit for a larger number of anonymous Republican donors and saying, "Hey, that money comes from somewhere. This is an important vote for all of us," dispersing this sort of special interest blame around all of the Republican coalition.
PENNY: Yeah. Yeah.
GARRETT: I mean, typically, it's that sort of a ...
PENNY: The point is it's unspoken, but it's still understood ...
GARRETT: And everybody understands it.
PENNY: ... that these rankings and these votes translate into money.
GARRETT: But the other thing that we bring across the book is that there is a redemption available to those who sort of swear off of PAC money. We talk about Ron Mazzoli in the book, a Democrat from Kentucky, who in his last two election campaigns took no money; said, "I'm in for two tough re election races. I've got an entrenched Republican opponent who's really going to come after me, and I know it. So I'm going to tell my constituents no more PAC money. I'm swearing off it." And what that did was it energized not only him and his wife and his campaign workers, but it energized his district. Suddenly, they sat back and said, "Wow. Here's a guy that we know. He's been in Washington a long time. He can get PAC money anywhere. But he's giving it all up, and he's going back to sort of first principles, the basics of campaigning. He's coming to do pancake fund raisers and chili fund raisers, coming back to the community." What happens to Ron? He wins both times. He's outspent by his opponent in both elections, yet he wins with hefty majorities. And he feels sort of cleansed by the whole experience.
LAMB: Why'd he quit?
GARRETT: He quit, I think, because -- -- what he told us is it was time to go, time to go back home. He'd had enough of Washington, had enough of a lot of things -- these cultures and sort of the frustrations. But he goes back knowing that the last two times he ran for re election, he ran for re election in what he considers a clean, up front fashion. And he told me. He said, "You know, I tell members about this." I say, "'You'll' -- I tell them -- 'You'll never believe how good it makes you feel. You'll never believe what a great thing this is to give up the money,'" and they look at him and say, "Oh, Ron, that sure does sound interesting, but I don't want to take the chance. I might lose, you know." And so the book has got a story about money, but it also has stories about how people can break free from that and find alternatives.
LAMB: In the back you have 10 common-sense tips to elect a better Congress, and the first one on that list is don't vote for lawyers. And aren't you a lawyer?
PENNY: Sounds like a cheap shot, doesn't it? No, I'm not a lawyer.
LAMB: You're not?
PENNY: No. Although I will say just to -- I didn't put this in the book, but I'll put this in just to lump myself in there, typically don't vote for folks like me that come to Congress without having had another career before they get here. Because it's too easy, I think, if you come here as sort of a full time elected official, that you won't easily walk away from this job. So I'll just lump myself in as another tip for voters. By and large, be leery of candidates that don't have sort of a private sector life and another career to fall back to. But don't vote for lawyers in there, because 40 percent of the Congress have law degrees. It's too heavy a concentration of one profession within the institution. The Congress ought to be reflective of society as a whole. We need more diversity in the institution.
That's the largest reason we make that argument. We also say more women; only 10 percent of the membership are women in 1995. That's an embarrassment. We need the diversity of voices in the process, and I also make the point in the book that, in my view, women tend to be better legislators. They're less interested in political games. The men sort of come into this with a competitive attitude, a sports mind set -- you know, scoring points in the opposition, moving the goalposts in a political debate. I mean, all of that is sort of part of our jargon and our mind set. Women are oftentimes -- I think, largely, because they come into this by a different route. Most of them come in having been community activists, leaders at the local level, builders at the local level, and so they're more interested in building coalitions and solving problems.
LAMB: Keep a grain of salt handy for politicians who obtain perfect scores from special interest groups.
GARRETT: Right. That's a common re election tool. Someone who is a self described liberal or self described conservative will say in their re election commercials or their re election mailings or on their stump speech, "I'm with my special interest group' -- fill in the blank -- AFL CIO, Americans For Democratic Action, American Conservative Union, the Chamber of Commerce -- `I'm with them' -- the National Rifle Association -- `100 percent of the time.'" And what Tim and I say is, "Well, ask yourself, dear voter of America, does this person have a mind of his or her own, or are they constantly at the beck and call of a special interest group that has an agenda that while you might support some of it, do you support all of it? Is this member reflexively and sort of slavishly devoted to a narrow agenda that prohibits them from sort of seeing the more distant horizons of the country, the longer term agenda, the greater good?" And if you do vote that way, you're not going to get 100 percent, you'll maybe get 60 percent or 50 percent.
GARRETT: Some people think -- or candidates like to describe that as a negative. It could be a positive.
PENNY: Our fundamental point is that even if you belong to a special interest group, you ought to worry about a legislator that's always 100 percent with your group. You ought to wonder whether that legislator has a mind of their own.
LAMB: Have you, in this process, ever turned to one another in your conversation and said, "Really, the problem in this world is the media, and really the problem in this world is the Congress'?
PENNY: One of the only criticisms we had of the book is that we didn't devote a chapter to the media, and it wasn't because Major was involved in the project. I wanted to do two things in this book. I wanted to put part of the burden back on the voters to say that, "Look it, if you do your part, you can change this system, but we want to inform you through these stories, and we want to empower you through these common-sense tips to do a better job as a voter, because if you want better government, you've got to be a better citizen."
And we also wanted to put the burden on political leaders. After all, you know, we run for office. We want these jobs. We spend huge sums of money to get elected to do these jobs, and I think, you know, if you read the job description, there is something about leadership in that job description, and yet too often we're sort of -- finger in the wind following polls rather than telling people what they need to know. And so really the book is more of a critique of politicians and where we fall short and sort of an admonition to voters that they've got to take some responsibility as well. And the media certainly plays a role in this dialogue, but we didn't really view that as the major message of the book.
LAMB: What does the media do wrong?
GARRETT: Well, the media, I think, leaves behind a lot of the important nuance of life in Congress, life in Washington, and tends to take sort of a racing form approach -- which horse is ahead, which horse is gaining, and which horse crosses the finish line? We have a tremendous concentration on winners and losers, and not nearly as much on the nuance of how policy is shaped, what kind of things lead to these final outcomes that we devote so much attention to.
LAMB: On the subject of the media, you have a little section here on Luis Guiterrez from Chicago and "60 Minutes." He made an appearance on "60 Minutes," said some things ...
PENNY: And he was ostracized.
LAMB: ... said some things about the Congress in his first year and ...
LAMB: What did he say?
PENNY: Well, he introduced a bill that would have frozen Congressional pay. We were scheduled for a cost of living pay increase a couple of years ago. He, along with other new members of Congress, said, "Hey, this doesn't set a good example. We're already paid very well. Let's not approve the pay increase." They dropped -- they introduced a bill to freeze Congressional pay, and he was approached by more senior members. I recall Luis saying one of them said something to the effect of, "Get your hand out of my pocket" or something like that. And, anyway, he related that story to "60 Minutes" when they came to Capitol Hill trying to find out who the power brokers were and why some of the reform minded new members weren't having much luck getting their reform agenda adopted. And his appearance on "60 Minutes" resulted in a temporary period of ostracizing in which a lot of members sort of steered clear of Luis for a while, simply because he went public with a criticism about the way we operate internally, and it didn't sit well with a lot of his colleagues.
LAMB: On the reform side, there are a number of suggestions made, including allowing lawmakers to earn outside income.
GARRETT: Right. That's probably the most controversial of the things that we recommend. And it sort of turns upside down something that was delivered unto Congress in very much a reform spirit in the 1970s. The idea was let's take all the other outside income away from lawmakers, give them a taxpayer salary so there are no conflicts anywhere to be found. They are a purely taxpayer employed entity. And while certainly the intentions of that were certainly well meaning, we think that they have gone awry and created a perpetual political class, a class of individuals -- men and women -- who are politicians and nothing else, because they're forbidden from being anything else. If you happen to be a wealthy member of Congress and you have lots of investments, you can earn -- you can keep that income. It's unearned income. But you can't have any earned income. You can't be a farmer; you can't be a small business man. You can't be a dentist, a doctor, or anything else in your other life that predated Congress.
LAMB: We hear so much, though, about the job being so difficult. How could you possibly have time to do another job?
PENNY: Oh, you can. I mean, what it requires is for us to get out of here earlier each year, and one of our other recommendations is that Congress really ought to wrap up its work and go home on July 1. Federal fiscal year used to start on July 1. You know, there are all sorts of arguments that the world is more complicated, and the issues are weightier than they used to be, you know, that we need more time to deal with all this. It's a crock. If we organize our time, set an agenda and set deadlines, we could be ought out of here in six -- -- I'm no longer here. Congress could be adjourned by July 1 every year.
LAMB: But can't you just hear folks saying, "Yeah, go home, take another six months off. You already make $133,000."
PENNY: Well, my guess is there won't be a pay raise for Congress anytime soon, if we allow people to go home on July 1 and allow them to work in other professions.
LAMB: What are the chances that that'll ever happen?
GARRETT: Well, it would require a fundamental reorientation of what Congress does and how Congress looks at itself. But a sort of -- instead of looking at it from sort of the populist anger idea that, "Oh, they've got $133,000, and they're going to make some more money," think of it is this way. If you're only working six months, Congress might, under those circumstances, think about reducing its pay, or certainly not increasing it. But think about what that six months means back home. It means constant communication, regular communication with your constituents. And what basis is it on? It's not a political pleader coming to see you and shake your hand and listen to you and try to solicit your political support. It may be in the terms of a small business person or a doctor interacting with you human being to human being in a relationship of commerce that is much more normal and much more reflective of how most Americans live their lives, and we think would inform judgments differently once members got back to Congress. They would see the world in a different way.
PENNY: The point is going home and working another career part of the year gets you back into the real world part of the year, because Washington is very much isolated from the outside. We may have petitioners coming here to testify before committee, special interest groups with the hired lobbyists and all the rest, but it is not the real world here. And in going home on those terms is far better than simply rushing home on the weekend for a long list of appearances and then rushing right back to Washington, DC. It would also focus your time and your energy in a concerted period of time. You'd get your work done, then you'd go home and explain yourself during the last several months of the year. And it wouldn't be so much this immediate, "I'm going home this weekend. I can't cast this vote or I'll have to take heat at the town hall meeting." You know, it gives you some distance so that you can use some judgment instead of simply worrying about the flak you're going to catch.
GARRETT: Before we leave, we should say that we say in the book, "There should be rigorous disclosure of all income"-- so voters can decide. Voters can look at what -- if this were, in fact, to happen what lawmakers are earning and is there a conflict? Let the voters decide whether or not this is in any way compromising. We believe in most cases it wouldn't be because you'd have vigorous assessment and recording of this other income.
PENNY: I think it's also important to stress that we're not talking about a restoration of speaking fees. That's not another job. And, frankly, if you're speaking out on public issues, that's part of your job, but we are talking about legitimate employment, publicly reported; and in that fashion, you'll be held accountable by your constituency if there's anything that compromises your public vote due to your private employment.
LAMB: Will you ever run for office again?
PENNY: I doubt it. I really don't have any ...
PENNY: Well, I don't have any ambitions for higher office. I'm content with my decision. Really, nothing in the last six months has caused me to regret my decision. It's been a good move for the family, and I like what I'm doing back in Minnesota.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
PENNY: My kids are now 16, 14, 13, and nine. And if that ...
LAMB: Does your wife work?
PENNY: No. No. She doesn't, although she did work the last few years as a preschool teacher, but for this first year back home in Minnesota, she decided once again to take the year off and to help the entire family make the adjustment to a new school for the kids and a new community for us.
LAMB: How many children do you have?
GARRETT: One child, a daughter, who's three and a half months old.
LAMB: What's your wife do?
GARRETT: She's a television reporter here in town for Hearst Broadcasting.
LAMB: And have you given any thought to running for office after seeing this process up close?
GARRETT: No. No. I like politics very, very much. It's the great passion of my life. I love Congress. I love this country. I love what our democracy is. One of the things we say in the book is this is a great system. When people talk about politics as usual, we say, "Look, politics as usual is democracy. It's what we have. We should cherish it and make it better." That's what I want to devote my career to, and this book is a small part of that. But I want to stay on the outside and keep evaluating the system. I don't think I've got the stomach or the spine to get on the inside.
LAMB: One of the reforms you suggest is -- well, no, this isn't one of the reforms. This is one of those things you say, "Leave alone." Parking at the airport.
PENNY: Oh, yeah. Well, as far as I'm concerned, you know, parking at the airport could be abolished. But the point we make in the book is that you shouldn't get so impassioned, so upset about something like parking at the airport when there are larger reforms that would really do more to get to the heart of what ails our system. You know, in fact, I think it's described very well in the book. You know, if you forced legislators to pay twice the amount that everyone else pays at the airport in order to park there, would somehow that make them better legislators? Probably not. So let's focus on the really important issues. Let's focus on where the money comes from in campaigns, how much is being spent in campaigns. Let's focus on how many months out of the year the legislature stays in session. Let's focus on, you know, the fact that there are 235 committees on Capitol Hill. That means 235 power centers on Capitol Hill. Let's focus on the big stuff, because reforms in that area is what's going to fundamentally change the system, not whether or not we have parking spaces at the airport.
LAMB: Six hundred thousand dollars a year for former speakers.
LAMB: Bad idea?
GARRETT: I think so. I think so. And I think it contributes to the sense ...
LAMB: I mean, that's a total figure that's devoted to the office and everything.
GARRETT: Right. I think that creates a sense of entitlement for former speakers. They're certainly significant players in American history. They're significant players in the Congress, but that seems a bit out of line to me to maintain a staff and a presence that I think could be maintained quite well on a much smaller amount of money, a much smaller stipend. And I think it's outmoded and reform is long overdue there.
LAMB: Now Penny Kasich -- a bill that was introduced ...
PENNY: In the fall of 1993 to accomplish about $90 billion worth of spending cuts over a five year period.
LAMB: The reason I bring it up, you're a Democrat and Mr. Kasich is a Republican, and he's now chairman of the Budget Committee. What did you learn about John Kasich?
PENNY: Well, he's one of the few Republicans that is sincerely interested in working with Democrats to solve some of the larger problems. I talk in the book -- we talk in the book about the example of John Kasich working with Ron Dellums, a very liberal Democrat from California, to get rid of the B 2 bomber. I mean, that's an example of the way John Kasich operates. The other thing about John, as it pertains to his role now as Budget Committee chairman, is that he really wants to eliminate the red ink. He really wants to put together this mammoth deficit reduction package that will get the job done. Whether he can get a majority of his Republican colleagues to follow him in that effort remains to be seen, but he's willing -- I think he's willing to put everything on the table, and that distinguishes him from a lot of the ideologues in his party.
LAMB: When have you noticed members, if you have, start to change from their freshman year to their sophomore year and on?
GARRETT: Oh, it's very, very gradual. It's kind of -- it's almost -- I can say this because I have an infant daughter now, but seeing the changes in my daughter are very, very gradual. It's almost hard to know when they've changed from perhaps an idealist to someone who's more accommodating to the system. But I think one of the first things that happens and the first place that it does happen is when the first real rung of power is lowered to them -- that is to say, a really prized committee seat -- Ways and Means, Appropriations, Commerce Committee. Or they become part of a leadership organization, maybe a small one. Maybe they're an at large whip, a small vote counter that's part of a larger leadership dynamic. Entree to that sort of selected leadership position begins to move them slightly away, very gradually away from the original agenda they came with and more toward the leadership agenda because they're at the sufferance of the people who chose them to be in this little group.
LAMB: When did you feel a change?
PENNY: Well, I was just going to remark that one thing that's already evident about the new members that arrived as a consequence of the '94 election is how easy it is for them now to hold fund raisers on Capitol Hill in which PAC groups will just flood through the door in order to give them contributions. And it's tough, once you're an incumbent, to resist the advantage that falls your way due to your incumbency, because it's easy to raise money from these interest groups. But then the point is at what point do you become too reliant on those special interest contributions, and at what point does that complicate or compromise your larger agenda? But I think that's a part of it.
It strikes me that even in the freshman class, there are enormous pressures to conform and to go along with business as usual. This happened big time to the freshman class in 1992. Around 60 freshman Democrats arrived, and before they even came to Washington, DC, the leadership traveled to hold regional meetings around the country in which freshmen were told, basically, "This is no time to rock the boat. Don't come rushing through the door with this reform agenda, which only will serve to embarrass us as a party, because a lot of the senior members aren't going to vote for your kind of campaign reform. They're not going to vote to eliminate committees. Let's get that out of your heads. Now we've got larger issues to worry about. We've now won back the White House. We've got to get together on, you know, a whole range of issues, and in order for you to have a role in that, you need good committee assignments, and we can give you good committee assignments."
So all of a sudden, these legislators, well intended, are sort of putting this on a scale and saying, "Well, I've got this reform agenda, and it's a big part of the reason I came here, but I don't want to be a non player. And these committee assignments are pretty important." And so the compromises begin before you even get in the door.
LAMB: Last question. How come the book is dedicated "To our mothers"?
GARRETT: You go first.
PENNY: Same reason, I think. In terms of politics, my mother is my inspiration. She was a John Kennedy Democrat back in 1960. I was all of nine years old at the time. I helped with dishes after supper every night, and I got my political indoctrination right there at the kitchen sink.
GARRETT: My mother helped me through college at kind of a difficult time in my family's life. Everything that I've accomplished in my career I owe to my mother and her constant support and encouragement. And the other thing is this book is a book about Congress your mother can understand, and I know that for a fact, because my mother, in the writing process, was sent faxed chapters all along the way. And if she didn't understand it, if it didn't make sense to her, we went back and started over.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like, and the cover has Tim Penny on it. And he, along with Major Garrett, are the authors of "Common Cents." Thank you very much for joining us.
GARRETT: Thanks so much for having us.
PENNY: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.