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Exit Interview: Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar on Electoral ‘Waves’

December 30, 2010 at 5:59 PM EDT
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In the final installment in a series of interviews with Democrats voted out of office, Judy Woodruff talks to veteran Minnesota lawmaker James Oberstar about lessons from serving in Congress for nearly four decades.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: the last in our series of interviews with Democrats who were voted out of office this year.

Veteran lawmaker James Oberstar of Minnesota has served in Congress for nearly four decades. Just before the 111th Congress came to a close, the powerful chairman of the Transportation Committee sat down with our Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman James Oberstar, thank you for sitting down to talk to us.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR (D-Minn.): It’s a privilege to join you. Thank you for inviting me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, leaving the Congress after 18 terms. What happened to you?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: There was a wave, no question about it. I have seen other waves. There was one in 1974.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That swept you in.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: That was the year that I lost the party endorsement, but I ran in the primary, and my theme was: The people will decide. They did in 1974.

They decided again this year. And the outcomes were very different. But, as Thomas Jefferson said, taking a group through the Capitol after he had left the presidency, stopped at the door to the House chamber and said: “Here, sir, the people rule. The people rule.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of voters said in this election they’re — we are frustrated. We’re even angry at Washington. We don’t think Washington is listening to us.

Is that anger, that frustration justified?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: Nationwide, yes. And in this era of the BlackBerry, when you have instant communication, people expect instant results.

I think that’s a very large part of it. With the Obama presidency and the commitment to the stimulus, people expected to see jobs turn around. I think the Democrats overall overstated what they could deliver, that we would have unemployment down, we’d have jobs created.

The tax cut that was part of the stimulus, I have yet to find someone who realizes that he or she got a tax cut, and at least one person who said, oh, but we have to give it back.

So we didn’t message it right. We didn’t deliver aggressively to the people the message of the jobs created. But there’s no denying the 1.3 million construction jobs, 35,000 lane miles of highway built, and 12,500 transit buses purchased, and 1,200 bridges repaired. But there wasn’t enough of that all over the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Having said that, people were saying: We think you wasted — government is wasting our money. Government is spending more than we want it to spend.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That money should be kept with the taxpayers.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: That message was delivered. It was a very effective message on the part of the Republicans.

But they’re talking about the TARP, $750 billion in…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The bailout money.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: … the troubled asset recovery program.

Nearly all of that money is being paid back — all but say $35 billion, and I think much of that will come back yet — with interest for the taxpayer. But, somehow, we were not effective at getting the message across to the public that the TARP is being repaid. General Motors has repaid. They have come back into private ownership.

The jobs — 55,000 jobs created in the automotive sector, but we somehow didn’t message it right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Looking forward, you have voters saying, and members of Congress saying: My mandate is to stop things from happening.

How do you reconcile that with the kinds of things you’re talking about, where government was active? Is that the role of Congress, basically, to — to listen to individual members’ constituents? Or is it to think about the greater — the needs of the country overall.

How do you see it?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: Those are two themes.

The Constitution protects the right — quote — “of the citizens to petition their government for redress of grievances.” Any time a person or a group writes to me or any of my colleagues, they are petitioning their government for a redress of a grievance they have or a need they feel.

But it was Burke, Edmund Burke, British political scientist, who wrote, there are two roles, agent and representative. And which of those do you follow? Are you to represent, or are you an agent strictly limited to only that message you hear from the people?

The representative is the larger view you talked about of looking at — beyond your needs, the needs of your district or the voice of your district.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you reconcile that?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: That’s your challenge as a member of Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How optimistic are you that the government, as it now works in this city of Washington, can serve the needs of this country and its people going forward?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: I think there has to be a meeting of the minds.

I think there has to be a recall of the era of the ’60s, ’70s, and even before that, when members of Congress sat with each other, understood each other, and got to know each other as people to trust one another, to look squarely in the eye and say, I understand what your views are, and we can find a common path.

That view, that participatory democracy, that sense of give-and-take, with trust in one another, has dissipated in the last decade. It needs to come back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do you — how do they get it back?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: Members have to spend more time here in Washington getting to know one another. When I started…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But many of them are living — are saying they’re not moving to Washington.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: When I started on the Hill in 1956, members of Congress had one paid trip back to their district per year. They had to find other ways. They had to go home, but they had to find other ways of getting there.

Now it’s a three-day session per week. And members want to come here on Tuesday night and vote, and want to leave Thursday night. That is not conducive — committee hearings can’t be held properly. You can’t hear the voice of the people on the public issues to be debated. You need more time to work with one another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And can that happen?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: It can, but it’s going to take a lot of moving and coming to understand one another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You served in Congress for 36 years, 18 terms. What do you feel you — you’re leaving behind, you’ve left behind here?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: Oh, so much, so many, both in the legislative arena and in the community service arena, to the casework of Jim Roses (ph), a World War II veteran who should have had, but never did receive, his Silver Star, appealed to me. And the day I presented that Silver Star to him for his heroism, and his tears rolling down his cheeks, I — you can never take that away.

But, in the legislative arena, the Safe Routes to School initiative that I launched to attack childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, we have Safe Routes to School in 10,000 schools across America, going to be able to change the habits of an entire generation of Americans. The bicycling provisions, the safety in aviation, the aging aircraft review that I initiated in 1990, all of those are accomplishments of which I am immensely proud and can never be taken away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative James Oberstar, thank you very much for talking with us.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Congress convenes next month, we will talk with members of the new Republican majority.