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U.S. Rep Jim Cooper, punching bag of hardcore liberals, puts up his dukes in a wide-ranging Scene interview

Stuck in the Middle

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We've lost track of how many times we've heard it from Democrats over the years: Jim Cooper's a great guy and really smart and ... he's a Republican, right?

Actually, he's not. If you comb through his voting record, you find that he's a solid Democrat who tends to differ with his party mostly on fiscal issues. And while the Scene, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, named him Nashville's best conservative in our Best of Nashville issue this year, you'll find him hanging out somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum.

It's that middle ground that can drive some Democrats nuts. He voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy victims. He voted against a bill that would have restricted the NSA's activities. He's a critic of President Obama's health care plan. In a largely Democratic town, some of those votes have riled his base of support.

So we asked the congressman to talk about those votes and more. Be warned: The picture of Washington he painted when he sat down recently with Scene staffers Steve Cavendish and Steven Hale ain't pretty.

Why do you drive liberals in Nashville so nuts?

Well, the Scene had in the recent issue that I was voted, what, "most popular liberal" and "most popular conservative"? That was a surprise to me. I can't explain it. Arithmetic is nonpartisan. It's not Democratic or Republican. Actually, most local officers are nonpartisan. They don't run on a partisan basis. What's Karl Dean? I know people on both parties who like to pretend and go, "Oh, he's really one of us," but he's not. He's nonpartisan. Only in Washington do you get the extreme partisanship, and I think that hurts the country. I really don't care who authors the idea, as long as it's a good idea. Pride of authorship is one of the obstacles to progress.

You've had a couple of votes here in the last year, particularly, that we'd like to ask you about. Why did you vote against relief for Sandy victims?

First of all, my wife and I have been married 28 years, and we don't agree on everything. In fact, some days we don't agree on much, but we're still married. I don't get to vote on ideas, I get to vote on pieces of legislation. On the Sandy vote I basically supported the first $30 billion dollars worth of aid, but I thought, "Well, maybe the second $30 billion, maybe we should pay for some of that?" Because it was not as time-sensitive. The first $30 billion was plenty to start all of the recovery efforts and do everything. The second $30 billion wasn't going to be spent for years, so why don't we try to go ahead and pay, 'cause I believe in being progressive on a budget. You're really not helping people if you're writing them a check that bounces. America's been writing all kinds of checks.

But that check's not going to bounce from the U.S.

Well, we nearly bounced a month ago. We nearly bounced two years ago. This is getting pretty serious. Everybody's thought the gravy train can last forever, and we're really hurting right now. We're seeing testimony from our military that different branches of the military are in chaos, we're seeing whopping cuts to food stamps, we're seeing 900,000 government workers laid off or furloughed. Eventually the bills come due.

You say when we nearly bounced two months ago, two years ago, do you attribute that more to partisanship or something else?

The most visible [things] are the tea party crazies. The gentleman from Florida, Ted Yoho, the large-animal veterinarian, who said that [a] U.S. default would stabilize the bond market. That's the opposite of the truth, but you know, he thinks he knows it all.

But there are underlying financial issues in America that we've got to deal with. Our debt-to-GDP ratio is at post-World War II highs, and there seems to be an unwillingness to face that. The future is always underrepresented in Washington. The past is overrepresented, and I want to make sure for the future that our young people have a strong, clear voice, because that debt that's been built up is really for them to deal with, and that's a crushing burden.

Let's talk a little bit more about the budget process. The continuing resolution, which was put in for a short period of time. There was argument over a year or a few months or however we're going to do it, so we'll get to do this again here in another 60 days. It's almost an institutionalization of the sequester cuts, and that's seen by most people as a fair deal. But those cuts, in and of themselves, were pretty severe and indiscriminate. What do you support going forward, and is there a way to undo the way those cuts were done?

We need a grand bargain. We need about a $2 trillion- to $4 trillion-dollar solution. Simpson-Bowles was the way to go. I'm the only person in the House or the Senate to get that to the floor. We lost when we brought it up, but at least we got it to full consideration. Most of my colleagues don't want to be blamed for anything, so they're afraid to do anything, and that's why the sequester has lasted so long, and nobody's fingerprints are on the cuts. It just happened.

It's just an automatic cutting mechanism, but it's got two grievous problems. One is the size of the cuts, because it shouldn't all be on the discretionary spending side. They're making a third of the budget pay for everything. And two, the arbitrariness of the cuts. I'm on the Armed Services Committee, that's my primary responsibility. Each ship is called a program project activity, so each ship is supposed to be cut 8 to 12 percent. How on earth do you do that? That's insane. Are you going to chop off the bow or the stern? And for other reasons, they made each ship a separate unit, so it was like a business entity, but sequestration applied to that is damaging to our national security.

The Pentagon has been complaining for years, but the grand bargain — and I'll show you the clips on these, because I've mentioned it in a recent hearing — Democrats thought the Republicans would not go along with sequestration because of the harm it would do to the military, and we were wrong. Republicans have been willing to accept the harm done to the military, and they don't want to acknowledge that, even today. But there's actually an excellent article that was in American Spectator co-authored by Art Laffer, who's here locally, saying that's basically the deal: the Republicans giving up on supporting the military. That's a pretty radical shift in politics.

There are other shifts going on, because politics is never stable. The military can take substantial cuts, don't get me wrong — but it's the arbitrariness of the cuts. Paul Ryan and I actually have a bill. I'm one of the few Democrats that would give the Pentagon flexibility to make cuts, 'cause they can cut a lot if we give them flexibility, and our bill would help do that. I have the bill in committee during mark-up this year, and my colleagues know I'm right; it passed overwhelmingly on voice vote. Overwhelmingly. Then the chairman of the committee called for a recorded vote, and that's when people put on their party jerseys, and I ended up losing, pretty substantially, then. Just in a space of five minutes, I go from an overwhelming win, because they know it's the right thing to do, to, "Oh, we got to pretend we're Democrats and Republicans again."

That's what's so discouraging about Washington. We can do so much better.

Part of our premise here is that you're a conservative Democrat, a moderate, and that drives some people nuts. Given what you just described, though, that position would drive you insane. Isn't that exhausting? How do you stay in a situation like that?

I've always been a runner. That helps relieve frustration. I also started chopping wood. That's even better, 'cause to really whack something hard? It's great. [laughter]

I was raised and taught how to curb my hot temper. Like count to 10, turn the other cheek, you know, do all those things. Bite your tongue, and some days my tongue's almost bitten off, 'cause there's so many meetings I attend where I'm almost the only adult in the room. Other people are usually older than I am, but they're not acting like adults. If you just tell people, "Calm down. Let's get the facts. Let's make an accurate diagnosis." And then the treatment options are pretty obvious, but we generally fight over the diagnosis.

One of the classic issues, and I've harped on this for years — even got a book out on it in 2006, I just wrote the introduction: It was basically unveiling a government report that was largely hidden in plain sight — but Capitol Hill is about the only place left in America that doesn't use real accounting. We only use cash accounting. We do not use accrual or credit card accounting, so we're not keeping up with the largest programs in America. Social Security, Medicare are really not reported in the annual budgeting that we do.

So the crazy result is the national debt looks like it's $17 trillion dollars, which is a huge amount — and by the way, that's from Andrew Jackson through Obama, because Andrew Jackson actually paid off the debt. He doesn't get appropriate credit for that. I do hold the Andrew Jackson seat here. [laughter] I wish the debt were only $17 trillion. If you love Social Security and Medicare, as I do, the real debt just for those two programs is at least $30 trillion, maybe $45 trillion. So how could the obligations for programs within a government be larger than for the entire government? Because we're not keeping score.

The tragedy is that there's not one interest group in America — not the Chamber of Commerce, not the NFIB [National Federation of Independent Businesses] — who wants us to have real accounting. 'Cause it would make their lobbying job harder. The only reason people really come by — it's not my charming personality or good looks — they want to get taxpayer dollars, and they want to funnel them into their cause. If we measured everything, it would make the lobbying job much harder.

The business mantra is, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." My corollary is, "If you won't measure it, you don't deserve to manage it." And that's the sad situation that American government is in 2013.

A few years ago, we required the states to use real accounting, and they hated it like poison. They did not want to disclose their unfunded pension liabilities and things like that. So two states, Connecticut and Texas, actually tried to repeal the laws of accounting within their borders — and that's as silly as trying to repeal the law of gravity. They still tried to do it, because they wanted to hide the dirty laundry. The federal government is hiding the dirty laundry. We've got to help people understand it, because we can fix it if we act in time.

Kind of switching gears here, back to another vote from the past year. The bill that would have restricted some of the NSA activity we're all learning about and you put out a statement at the time, I'm paraphrasing, but it was essentially, "I sit on this committee, I see some of the stuff that this is protecting us from, and I think these activities are necessary." Can you explain that?

First of all, I'm open to sensible reforms to NSA. There's no agency that's perfect, so I just want to see that it's going to be an improvement and not just a change.

Second, after 9/11, the 9/11 Commission, the main report conclusion was that it was a failure of imagination. We were not anticipating what the enemy could do to us. Today the Pentagon is attacked 75,000 times a day. Primarily by foreign hackers. Tons of our businesses are being challenged this way, so we have got to get our game on.

There's a report today, just released in The New York Times, that starts to shed some more on this. The first job of government is to keep America safe, so I would like to err on the side of caution. But although privacy is not written into our Constitution, it's probably been the most important single addition. We've got to make sure our privacy rights are protected, while we are safe. The metadata thing is widely misunderstood. If you have caller ID on your phone, you probably have a greater information source than the NSA has. They can only use something like caller ID if they get a judge's warrant. The whole regular legal process.

I tell kids this all the time: The No. 1 enemy you have with your own privacy is yourself. What you voluntarily put out there. Second is what you unwittingly put out there by not knowing about cookies and deleted emails — [that's] like putting it out on the street in the trash. A person can go through your trash if you just leave it out there. The third greatest threat is probably commercial enterprises. They are marketing you like crazy. I didn't know until recently that a Google search is not a Google search, it's a predetermined marketing opportunity to get into your brain — and that's why the stock is so darn expensive.

So down the line, government is usually not the most competent agency. But the NSA is in there somewhere, and we've got to make sure they don't overstep their bounds.

The president has said it, a lot of folks in Congress said it once these revelations started coming out: "This is a discussion we should have. We invite this discussion." But it felt like a discussion we would never have had if it hadn't been forced. How do you feel about that part of it? Obviously there are things that can't or won't be discussed, but how do you balance that with the need for transparency?

The government has trouble with secrecy, and probably the best book written on this was Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book [Secrecy: The American Experience], in which he said, basically, there should be no government secrets. That's a wonderful and pure position, but think of Stuxnet [a computer worm that struck Iran's nuclear program]. We still have difficulty talking about that and understanding that. I still don't know completely who is responsible, but it was probably a great thing for peace in the world when those centrifuges went out of whack.

Until about a year or two ago, we were not really even allowed to use the word "drone," even though the journalists used it routinely. That's been another sort of technological miracle that has incredible implications, because we're finding drone operators in Nevada getting PTSD from having launched a strike 14,000 miles away that lands in seven seconds, because it's still deadly force. As technology evolves, we human beings have to figure out ways to catch up sensibly, and that's a large part of this legislative process.

The leaks revealed the NSA has been spying on what would be perceived as NSA allies. Is there a problem with that?

Well, certainly with genuine allies, but I've known for years down here if you use your cellphone, anybody with a police scanner can [listen in]. If we know this back home in Tennessee, they probably knew that.

I don't think it's been resolved yet who really did the spying. There's a lot of cooperation that goes on. It could be that was done locally and shared with us, 'cause we certainly share a lot of things with them. The conclusion among folks is that we probably averted about 54 terrorist incidents by using these means.

I think Angela Merkel is great, I'm a huge fan of hers. I don't want to do anything to offend her, 'cause she's largely a wonderful leader. She's probably too much into austerity, economically, but the whole German mindset is focused that way. I'm delighted she [was] re-elected.

I think you're seeing that some of these leaders are complaining for show, to appease local audiences, and we still have very close relations with Germany. I don't think there's any serious threat of breach here.

You mentioned the number of terrorist attacks or plots believed to be stopped by this intelligence gathering. But how are citizens supposed to weigh the need for it when they're not allowed to have all the information about what the NSA is doing — unless, of course, it comes out in leaks — and they're not really given all the information about these terrorist attacks? What do you say to the average citizen who's trying to figure out where this balance is, but doesn't get enough information about either piece to really make that judgment?

It's an awkward process, but we still live in the best country in the world. I think Edward Snowden's trying to come back, and I don't blame him.

You think it's any better in China or Russia? Oh my gosh. You think it's any better in Germany or England? Not really. England, our closest ally, has MI-5, MI-6, which is like a CIA/FBI that can focus domestically. England has no written constitution. It's all tradition. How do you enforce that? And these are our closest friends.

Lots of time people don't count their blessings and how much they should be thankful for. Now, we can and must improve things, but I think we can have a reformed discussion on this. I personally think that [National Security Agency Director] Gen. Keith Alexander is probably gone, because he hasn't been forthcoming enough with the intelligence committees, and he's been on duty a little bit too long. Fresh blood is always a good thing, 'cause everybody who comes in new wants to audit what's been going on.

Also, remember too that people want safety. There's no excuse, even if there's an attack that's successful. A number have come perilously close, so we've really got to be careful about that, because the inventiveness of the terrorist mind is extraordinary, and we need to be able to do something about that. Were there Americans involved in the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya? We still don't quite know the answer to that yet, but it's being worked out.

We've had a little fun with your vote for speaker.

Oh, yeah. [laughter]

But we're serious in wondering if there is a way today for a speaker to not be completely beholden to a party caucus. Is that possible? Is it even a good idea?

Well, first let me say that I do think I'm qualified to be speaker, because I do know how to use a speakerphone. [laughter] I may be the only person in congressional history who voted for somebody of the opposite party to be speaker, 'cause Colin Powell is a well-known Republican —

Sort of.

Well, he supported Barack Obama, but he's a credentialed, card-carrying Republican. He's also shown great leadership, he's popular with people in both parties and I thought it would be a healing influence in this contentious House. I knew beforehand that it was going to be ugly this year, so that's one reason I voted for him.

The partisan issue is tough, because with modern fundraising, that's how they raise the money. Pretty much anybody, to be eligible to be speaker, has to raise about $75 million dollars of cycle to hand out to their colleagues, and I think that's one of the worst parts of Congress. It used to be an insult to be given a check by a colleague, because that implied you were weak or hurting or something, but now it's expected. If you don't have a pocket full of $5,000 checks to hand out to your colleagues at the end of each quarter, they think you don't like them.

But aren't we seeing that break down a little bit? Particularly at the extremes of either party, you're seeing money come that's not from leadership, and that's causing those ties to erode.

You're exactly right. In the last two weeks of an election, anyone is roadkill if an angry billionaire, or an independent, decides that they don't like you, and you have no protection against that whatsoever. You won't even know who did it.

But the effect of that fear, in the last two weeks of an election, is to make the parties even more intense in fundraising and have everybody have bigger war chests and raise more money. One of the tragedies of modern Washington is the fact that most of my colleagues spend most of their time raising money. We meet in Washington very few days, but those days we're in Washington, lots of times, they're not in committee, they're not meeting with constituents from back home. They're doing what's called "call time" from these call centers right off the hill. Just inches off of federal soil, so they can solicit contributions, and that has a very negative effect.

So many people are wondering how the money goes on a vote, instead of what the right thing to do is. With the Supreme Court ruling saying that money is speech and that corporations are people — that's a double whammy. That's really opened the door for the corporate takeover of American politics.

I'm sure you're aware your friends in the state party have been having, let's say, a rough time, recently. How much does that bother you, if at all?

The Tennessee Democratic Party is in a rebuilding phase, that's no secret. Democratic parties throughout the South are in a rebuilding phase. Some have been more successful than others. It's encouraging to me to see our neighboring state of Kentucky have a popular Democratic governor. You know, that's just very close to us. Also, Virginia, not just the recent election. There are other states — North Carolina is two years back and forth, at least a purple state. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of problems to solve, but I'm encouraged that we're getting our act together.

How much of a role do you play or how important is it for you to try to get other Democrats up there with you?

Well, I think the real political story here is the civil war in the Republican Party, 'cause if you think we're having problems as Democrats? They may have folks with an "R" after their name get elected, but they are not unified. They are terrified of the stuff that's bubbling up — and I'm not an expert on their politics, but I hear them complain like crazy. They feel today that Howard Baker could not even be nominated as a Republican. They fear that Lamar Alexander will not even be allowed this time to run as a Republican, because if they get that bill through the legislature, to allow them to pick the Republican nominee.

You know, that's what happened to Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah: They used a party convention thing, but that's just a group of their buddies, and he wasn't even allowed to be on the ballot. He would've had to have been an independent or Democrat to run, and he wasn't going to do that. Other folks have been wiped out. Outstanding Congressman Mike Castle had already been governor of Delaware, very successful congressman, was defeated by the lady who had denied that she was a witch on TV — Christine O'Donnell.

Dick Lugar, one of the most senior, most respected Republicans in America, wiped out by somebody named Mourdock? The real trouble is on their side. Public opinion has trouble catching up to that, but those are fundamental problems that are going to be hard to solve. They go to Republican gatherings, and they don't even know each other.

How important is it for Democrats to be in a position to take advantage of that in some cases?

Totally important — and Mark Clayton was a huge embarrassment, and one of the things we're working on now is trying to recruit more candidates. The way that works is, nobody wants to do it until it looks like a slam-dunk — and then everybody wants to do it. So it's too early, too early, too early, too early, too late. You have to encourage the risk-takers. There's a gentleman from Knoxville [U.S. Senate 2014 candidate Terry Adams] that I haven't met yet — I think you've met him — who has thrown his hat into the ring. There are other good folks.

I think you'll see that average Tennesseans are pretty calm, fair, moderate people. They're really not that political. They just want good things to happen, and they want America to be as well-run as Tennessee has generally been run, because we're a pretty sensible, fair state.

How much recruiting have you done? Any?

Tons. We've had people to Washington, we've had people here to meet with campaign experts, pollsters, give them all types of advice. A lot of them get to the stage where they're ready to do it, but their spouse ... you know, once you learn about this. ... [laughter] If it was easy, anybody could do it.

Of people that you've recruited — and you mentioned the fundraising that's part of it — they have to be able to self-fund a bit?

You want enough of a self-funder to get the momentum started, but they can't entirely self-fund, because then they haven't built public support. Look at Harold Ford's race. That was an excellent campaign. He nearly won that thing against a very wealthy person. I think he ended up with about 48 percent of the vote. It's very doable, and you wouldn't have thought that an African-American from Memphis would appeal to East Tennessee, but he actually did pretty well. Tennesseans are generous, openhearted people. They just want a good choice, and they'll make a sensible decision. We just have to give them a good choice.

Is Harold Ford ever going to run a race in Tennessee again?

I haven't talked to him for a long time. I think he's pretty busy in New York, and he's on all these TV shows.

You've gotta get on Morning Joe to talk to him.

[laughter] He's kind of taken it to a new level.

You ran for U.S. Senate at one point. Does that still hold any appeal?

None whatsoever. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. In fact, I have about 5,000 T-shirts left — and some mugs too, if you want any. I love serving the 5th District here. I'm really good at this job, and people are really nice. Running statewide is completely different. It's almost like running nationally, 'cause almost everybody in the country wants to know who each one of the 100 senators [is], so you have to go all over creation to raise money. This is much more representing local folks.

Are you a different congressman in this district than when you were in the 4th District?

I really don't think so, because I've always represented a swing district, and I've always been a moderate. Today, we call it "blue dog"; it had different names before that. I don't really think in partisan terms. I want to get an accurate diagnosis and then have the right treatment. Diagnosis has to do with facts, and I mentioned earlier, arithmetic isn't Democrat or Republican. I mentioned proper accounting; that's not Democrat or Republican. I mentioned local office holders; they're not really Democrat or Republican. There are some traditions, but they do not run with those labels.

I think that's what Tennesseans are used to, and more importantly, that's what works — if you want to solve problems. Now, if you want to have a big fight? You can have lots of fights, but that doesn't help anybody.

The budget showdown was an example of Democratic unity, but that hasn't always been the case. Clearly, the desire not to have a more extreme version of a budget probably unified Democrats more than their own particular budget priorities. How much unity do you think there's going to be when it comes to some sort of grand bargain? A "grand bargain" probably puts entitlement programs on the table.

That's an excellent question. Obviously, no one has a crystal ball. My guess is with the president's leadership on entitlement programs, you'll see substantial unity. The president has made it clear that certain entitlement issues should be on the table and a comprehensive solution. I think that's exactly right from a public policy standpoint, and I think there would be plenty of people standing behind him.

The difficulty in Congress has been minority rule. We know in the Senate they have the filibuster and one senator can gum up the works, but just a handful of congressmen can gum up the works. This has been a bipartisanship failing. Now you can call it the "Boehner Rule," but he wants to have a majority of the majority run Congress. Since Republicans have about 240 people and a majority, that's about 121. One hundred and twenty-one Republicans pretty much run the House of Representatives, and nothing gets on the floor without their approval.

But in a body of 435 people, why should 121 have that much influence? Especially when they're tea party nominated and actually terrorize the other Republicans. That's why the civil war in the Republican Party is so important, and could have such devastating consequences.

In the budget negotiations, you stood with a group of centrist Democrats, and there's arguably a similar but somewhat smaller group over on the Republican side. But all of you were left out of the dealmaking. How much hope is there for a grand bargain if the people who want it are not in the process?

I'm proud of having joined every bipartisan effort that there was: "No Labels," and "Can kicks back." It was a pretty awesome ad in the paper, the other day. Signed by 3,000 economists and, like, 20 Nobel Prize winners, or something like that, saying, "Hello? Going to do the right thing?" See, this is my emphasis on facts and diagnosis; that's what sensible people do.

But moderates in Congress today are a necessary, almost priceless group, because without us there would be no way to reduce the friction between the two sides. No avenue of communication, because the party leaderships are really not talking to each other, they're just killing each other with press conferences, talking points and sound bites. We actually talk, and the impact of the talks is not always obvious, but lots of times the leadership comes to us and says, "Find out about something for us. How far would they be willing to go?"

Because to change the equation today in the House of Representatives, all you have to do is peel off 17 Republicans — and then, suddenly, they don't have a majority anymore. That's an amazingly powerful fact. We are in regular touch with those 17. Their group changes, some days one is braver than another, but this is the most valuable intelligence you can have in a legislative body — and we are the only ones able to do it, because they trust us. They like us.

I wish you could spend some time up in D.C., because so few people talk to each other anymore that big lobbyists, they'll have Republican lobbyists and Democratic lobbyists. They would never send a Democratic lobbyist to talk to a Republican, it's all — and Tom DeLay helped do this years ago — the think tanks, the conferences, they only invite Republicans. They only invite Democrats. I'm about the only person alive today who could still go to both conferences, and I learn interesting things, because I'm not there to fight or bicker, I'm there to solve problems.

If they come up with a good idea, that's awesome. Lots of times, they'll steal one of our old ideas or we'll steal one of their old ideas, because memories are so short. That's why the government shut down this last time, because too many of my colleagues couldn't remember what happened 17 years ago when Newt Gingrich did it. They thought, "Oh, this will be fun!" Wrong. They will be able to remember three months, coming up Jan. 15.

Would it be better for those 17 that are on the other side, would it be better to have 34 of them? Or would it be better for Democrats to take those 17 seats?

I'm a strong, proud Democrat, so obviously, it's better to have Democrats — but there are ways to make this work with bipartisanship. We don't just talk to 17, we talk to 30 or 40, and we hope to have 17 on a good day. One of the tragedies of the current Congress is almost everybody in Congress, except for me, votes 99 percent with their party. I vote 80 percent, and I'm considered a "dangerous radical."

Have you ever been considered a "dangerous radical" outside of Congress? Maybe not outside of Congress, 'cause you know how boring I am. You know, in law school, I was called the "Reasonable Man" by my classmates because I was so fair. That didn't get me a lot of dates, either, but you have to see both sides. You have to turn the other cheek. You have to do what's right. It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, because that's the way you get stuff done — and that's not exciting. Only your photographer out there called me "hot." I think she said I was, "Too hot," and she wasn't meaning it in a "hot, hot" way — but why not get something done?

Fighting is fun, but you fight on the football field. Not fight in Congress. The fact that Congress has became a risk factor for the nation is not only humiliating, it's near treasonous. No responsible board of directors would put its own company out of business or threaten not to pay its bills. This is a breach, at least of fiduciary duty, if not worse than that — yet so many of my colleagues are just thinking, "Let's get me on Fox. Will it help with fundraising?" Those are the calculations my colleagues are making every day. Those are deeply unpatriotic things to be thinking.

But in the period before, when Nancy Pelosi was speaker, you had largely that principle governing the Democrats' view of bringing legislation to the floor.

It would have been called the "Gephardt Rule."

Right.

See, what creates the political pendulum is overreach. Both parties get too cocky, they go too far, and then the pendulum swings back. That's why I've always encouraged my party, the Democratic Party, not to overreach. And that's why with health care reform, I've always favored bipartisanship approaches.

Funny you should say that.

I knew it was coming.

You've been interested in health care reform, obviously, for a long time. As someone who's wanted to get health care right, do you worry that if this goes badly now, it harms the chances for reform of any description in the future? That people will get fatigued with big government projects involving health care?

Forgive me, 'cause I teach this at Vanderbilt, and I don't want to give you a semester on this. The biggest issue is that the old system was unsustainable, and everybody agrees on that. The question was, "What's the alternative going to be?" I've had the alternatives for the last 20 years. First in the Clinton era, now in the Obama era. Mine didn't pass, but we had to do something, and that's the big picture.

Next level is for the last three years, we've had the most moderate price increase in health care in the last half-century. That is awesome good news, but good news doesn't sell. Medicare prices have gone up less, that's the best way we have to measure things, than in the last 50 years. That's extraordinary. We're not sure if that's partly recession or partly structural. That's probably elements of both, but that is such good news. It's already enabled us to curve future deficit predictions.

Third level: implementation. The Web page totally screwed up. I don't know who to blame yet. There are lots of different theories, but it's got to be fixed. But on the other hand, our neighboring state of Kentucky did a pretty darn good job. Are we not as smart as Kentuckians? Like, hello? If they can do it, surely we can do it.

Part of the problem is that you have to work in good faith and not be looking at ways to undermine everything. Our current system is so complicated and expensive that it's literally bankrupting America, so what are we going to do about it? I've had the bipartisan approach to it; mine didn't pass. Let's see what we can do to make this work.

Already Obamacare has been changed in a number of ways. There are more changes in store. I liken it to a software upgrade, and this is before the website deal, but it's like Windows 3.0, Windows NT. It's always a pain, but nobody ever goes back. The increased functionality is there, and you get rid of the bugs, the glitches. If Kentucky can do it, anybody can do it. [laughter] I'll offend every Wildcat. [laughter]

If you think the government needs to be a part of fixing health care, you have to inherently believe that government can solve a problem. Do you worry that people may stop believing that if this is faulty?

Let me question your premise here. By far, the most popular health care program in America, by far, is Medicare. One hundred percent government. The VA has dramatically improved in recent years. It bears no resemblance to what it was 10 years ago. Again, even more completely government than Medicare.

Government has a huge role already, and we just need to get the role sensible. Even private health insurance — private health insurance — benefits from the third largest government health program. It's $250 billion dollars a year, but it's been so hidden that most people didn't even know they were getting subsidized.

Do you think the problem is that people don't know how much the government is involved in their health care to begin with?

Well, people didn't understand the old system, so how are they going to understand the changes? It's like the blind men of Hindustan and the elephant. One felt a tree trunk, one felt a wall, one felt a snake, and they were all touching an elephant. You have only your own personal experience with yourself or loved one in the health system, and you get a very narrow view of what the overall system is like.

Nashville is actually very well positioned as a city to guide health reform. In fact, the lady who was on the hot seat this last week, Marilyn Tavenner? Her longtime employer? HCA. Arguably, they're one of the better of the private sector experts, but these things are hard. It's also interesting because it goes both ways. Who did HCA hire to run all of their hospitals? This is a man-bites-dog story. They hired the government guy, the guy who ran the VA hospitals, Dr. Jonathan Perlin. He's been here for several years now.

Health care is intertwined with government throughout, and you're seeing it even in outstanding private sector companies like HCA. And we just have to make sure it works for patients, because that's what matters. The system is only as good as the health care individual patients get. We have a long way to go in that. We are not living longer and healthier in Tennessee than in other states. We're wildly overmedicated here in Tennessee. That's a double harm, because not only is it expensive, but it makes you sick. When you're taking bunches of medications, they interact in such complex, curious ways.

This will be a long process of reform, but it's like other issues: I'd rather be here than in any other country in the world. You know, we can fix it.

What about Obamacare was a good idea, and what wasn't?

The best parts are the transparency and the price moderation, because that would give us a system, going forward, that's affordable. It's almost entirely built on the private sector. There are no government health plans in here. Government tries to arrange the shopping, but it's all for private sector options. There's no public option.

It's a much more conservative plan than people realize. The individual mandate was actually a Republican idea, taken from The Heritage Foundation. Hello? People just like to complain, and if Obama's for it, so many people are automatically against it — and they have their own reasons for being against it.

A large part of it boils down to not understanding the existing system. We need to fix a lot in Obamacare, but you remember how many million Americans had their policies canceled by the private sector in past years — and that never made the news because that was the private sector. If the government is involved, then suddenly the government becomes a piñata. Almost all of these are fixable problems.

Is there any support for a delay in Congress?

Remember the time period for the exchanges really doesn't end till next March, so there's a long time. The folks who shopped that first day, that's akin to shopping on Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving. I don't know about you, but I never shop on Black Friday, because I know there's a crowd there. I think there's time to get it fixed. It must be fixed. It will be fixed. Certain parts of Obamacare have already been delayed, though, so that's an option. But I think that would be a decision made on the White House level and not on my level.

One last thing: Workforce protection [prohibiting discrimination on the job based on sexual orientation or gender identity], which came out of the Senate — if that ever made it to the floor of the House, how would you vote on it?

You mean ENDA?

Yes.

Oh yeah, I'm for it. I voted for it in 2007, been for it for a long, long time.

Think it'll make it to the floor?

This is that 121 Rule, the Boehner Rule, used to be the Gephardt Rule. Can we persuade enough of those 121? They better turn it loose, 'cause we can do a lot of good things, even in today's Congress, if they allow the House to work its will. That opens it up so that the 121 don't rule. It would pass overwhelmingly. I've rarely seen an issue that has turned as fast as this issue. This isn't marriage. This is just don't discriminate, so this doesn't violate state constitutions, referenda and stuff like that. This is just treat everybody as a human being. Isn't that in the Bible somewhere?

I think you're paraphrasing. It's something like that, yes.

Last I remember, Jesus had dinner with prostitutes, beggars, lepers and tax collectors —

Republicans and Democrats? [laughter] I'm not sure they had parties back then. One of the ironies is that our founders never anticipated a partisan system. They called them "factions" and thought they would be really bad and shouldn't control. They just thought people would do the right thing — and I would love if that could happen.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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