An edited transcript of that conversation follows:
How were you able to stay [on Capitol Hill] for so long?
A lot of people leave because they get frustrated, and I didn’t. That’s partly because [Rep. George] Miller is an incredibly skilled legislator, and we had a very collaborative relationship. . . .
What drives people away very often is frustration that the political system and the legislative process don’t respond very quickly. I learned that it takes a while to do things. Legislating is an organic process. You don’t just have a good idea, throw it on the ground and it blossoms right away.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your 38 years?
It’s a more partisan institution. What’s misunderstood is the extent to which that’s a frustration even among members. It’s not something people here are happy about.
There are aspects of contemporary life that enhance that — money is part of it. Communications, which changes the ability of very, very small groups of people to influence the process.
There are a lot of historical forces that have conspired around a relatively short period of time to entrench some groups in hard-line positions where they don’t want to cooperate.
But it’s crucial that people understand that this is not endemic to the nature of this institution. I would say that the Congress we just finished was unquestionably the most unproductive Congress.
It basically stumbled from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. Some people drew the conclusion “Well, this just doesn’t work anymore. The system has completely failed.”
You don’t agree?
If you go back to the prior two years, you have what . . . [many consider] the most successful Congress in 75 years, where we produced massively important, sweeping legislation, whether it had to do with health care or Wall Street reform.
Two years before that we functioned in divided government, where you had a Democratic Congress and a Republican president. . . . I would say that you can’t have gone from a system that was able to produce changes on a bipartisan basis — to take dramatic movement to save the country from financial crisis and to deliver on the promise of health care — and that exact same system is a system that can’t function?
No. Something else has to be going on.
You had an infusion of a large number of people who would describe themselves as viewing government as a problem. What is their agenda? What’s the end of the day for them? “I cut spending?” That’s it? . . .