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The Exit Interviews: Sen. Chris Dodd

A partial transcript of the Connecticut Democrat's conversation with NBC News.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has served in the Senate since 1980.SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Q:  What things do you think are most misunderstood by the public about being a senator or how the Congress works?

A:  Well, there are probably numerous things.  But probably the big thing would be the failure to understand that it’s a collegial environment.  Most people run for these offices promising that if they get elected they’ll be their own person, that they’ll be independent, the only one they’re going to watch out for is you.  And so we create that impression ...  The last thing we market is exactly what you have to do to succeed in this place — it’s the antithesis of it.

And the antithesis of being a good United States senator is your ability to be able to reach compromises without compromising your principles and the process.  You're dealing with a relatively small number of people, 99 other people just like yourself.  But everything we tell our constituents is exactly the opposite.  Nobody ever stood up and said, "By the way, if you elect me I'm going to be a great compromiser,” you know. “I'm going to sit down and work with my fellow senators and try and get to some result that will make sense for the country."  I don’t recall ever seeing anyone — either on a bumper sticker or a TV ad — ever promise their constituencies that.

And yet that's exactly what you need to be able to do, and do successfully, in order to be successful for that constituency back home, as well as make the institution work.

So we market ourselves one way and we serve another.  And therefore we create a huge misunderstanding of how the institution works and why it’s capable of doing some things at certain times, and at others not.

Q: What do you find to be the hardest part about working in the Senate?

A:  The hardest part is when the Senate fails to live up to its constitutional responsibilities. That's the frustrating part.  And that's happened throughout the history of our country — there have been great moments and the Senate has acted in ways that sort of live up to exactly the ideas the Founders had in mind; and then other times, you wonder if there’s any hope at all. 

[But there's] good news.  I was charged that night of September 18th by the leadership to craft the emergency economic stabilization bill – Barney Frank in the House, me in the Senate.  [After] two-week period that produced that bill, that vote that passed 75-24.  There were people who voted that night that I knew that by voting for this were probably sealing their political fate. In fact, in a couple of cases that's exactly what happened, which is part of the reason why they lost.

And, to me, that was the moment when the Senate – when people came together. Judd Gregg was a part of it, Bob Corker was, people on my committee that were very helpful, Bob Bennett was in the room. We crafted basically the conditionality around that proposal.

Here was a moment of significant crisis, where we only had a few days to act, by the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the most important central bank in the world. Very cold language in that room that night.

And in a matter of days we put together a proposal over a hundred pages long that wrote a check for $700 billion.

[It was] terribly unpopular. The country is screaming at us. [But it] saved the country from falling into an economic abyss which [would have taken] years to ever recover from.  That, to me, 40 days before a national election, a presidential race, one of the most dynamic presidential races in the history of the country. All of this happening in that crucible of that limited amount of time. 

Whoever thought this place could act — the Senate, particularly — in a limited amount of time to produce the right result for the country in the face of overwhelming public negative reaction?  A great moment in the Senate.

The[re are] moments when it doesn’t. Nominations, the ability to step up the energy bill, things like that – we all know it needs to be done and politics just gets so much in the way.  The mess over health care last year, it was seven months that we just couldn’t get out of our own way, between July and January.

If you want two cases in point, and having been deeply involved in both of them, the textbook in a civics class of how the institution should not act was the health care bill.  It was arrogant.  Both parties were arrogant and selfish, in my view.  And as a result we ended up with a process that was so contradictory to what you'd like to think your kids in middle school [and] high school might learn. 

Now, again, I think the result is the right result to get, but, boy, it was an ugly process.

And then, there's the financial regulatory bill. I had been very involved in that, having written a good part of it and chaired the committee.  There we went through a very open process all the way through – it was almost textbook; had only one tabled motion, one supermajority vote on 60 amendments; CSPAN covered a conference.  And again, we got a good result. 

But even if we hadn’t got the good result, the process is what you’d like to think how the Senate could act on a major bill.

Q:  What piece of legislation did you work on that made you the most proud?

Well, there was all those years when [I served on different committees but was not chairman.] The Republicans do a better job with this than the Democrats.  I like the fact that Republicans rotate [committee chairmanships.] I think it’s good for the institution, I think it’s good for the members, they don’t get so ossified, waiting for someone to die or get defeated, or make a different choice, to move up.  They kind of force the institution and individuals to move along.  I like that.  [Democrats] don’t do that.

So I sat next to Sarbanes, Kennedy and Biden for quarter of a century.

I teased them. Three guys I loved dearly, built great friendships with them – but for 25 years they never moved.  So I sat there until basically about 38 months ago. Other than the rules committee, never chaired a committee.    

So this is a long way of getting around to your question.  The issues I've most enjoyed – there’s a cluster of issues – have been on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  I enjoyed the Foreign Relations Committee, Latin America, concentrated on it, because of my Peace Corps service, [and I] speak the language. Central American issues back in the ‘80s were tremendously interesting and deeply involved.

The banking committee issues ... I kind of enjoyed it a little bit. But nothing like the cluster of issues when I formed the Children’s Caucus, Family and Medical Leave, child care legislation, premature birth, infant screening, after-school, Head Start, children’s pharmaceutical drugs – there’s a long list of bills – the tobacco bill – all came out of the work done that came out of those HELP committees.

Family and Medical Leave took seven years; the first bill ever signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993; 50 million people in the country no longer have to make that choice between job and family during a crisis – although it’s unpaid. Someone called it the real first Civil Rights Act in the sense it provides for families in a way.

So those bills gave a personal sense of satisfaction. 

Obviously being part of the health care debate – tragically, because of Teddy’s loss – to me is to be involved in something that defied resolution since the 1940s. [It] was an historic moment.

The banking committee stuff, I made that choice because I felt I had to do a job.  I didn't want to walk away from the responsibility. I’d become chairman in January '07 for the first time, and, whack-o, this stuff comes over the transit.  So I spent all of that year and into the next year, 2008, dealing with the issues. 

And then Teddy [fell ill]; then, of course, Biden gets elected Vice President.

Now I can choose, I can now go to that committee and chair Teddy’s committee – tragically – or go to Foreign Relations, kind of the lowest committee. But it was a higher, painful call to turn away. Probably of the three committees, the one I had the least amount of interest in, and that [became] the committee then that I chair and write the reg reform bill, which bears my name now – not one of my objectives, by the way.

Q: Who are the senators from the other side of the aisle with whom you enjoy working the most? Who do you consider a "worthy opponent" in debate?

It’s a mixed group. Orrin Hatch and I did the child care legislation back 26 years ago; I enjoyed working with him.

Ted Stevens I liked a lot.  He was obviously more senior to me and so forth, I didn't know him that well.  Thad Cochran, we had dinner together and I liked him. Thad’s a decent guy to work with. I like Johnny Isaakson, we’re doing stuff together. He’s newer, haven’t known him as long, but I like Johnny a great deal.  Jim Risch ... is an interesting guy. 

Judd Gregg I like.  He falls under the “worthy opponent” category. He’s a smart guy and is a great ally and he’s a formidable opponent.

[During the economic crisis,] Judd stepped up and was critically helpful in that time.  And that was a dangerous time for our country.  Bob Bennett did a great job.

I’d be hard-pressed to think of bad relationships.  Jesse Helms – went through a nasty period to get to it.  He once, we were in a committee hearing and he started – he said, “I want to quote Senator Dodd on an issue." ... And I realized about 30 seconds into it he wasn’t quoting me, he was quoting my father to make his point. 

I wrote him a note.  And I said, “I was taught to draw my own conclusions and things about you.  And I had heard that you were an S.O.B., but I decided I’d wait and find out myself if that was the case.  And today that stunt you pulled in the committee quoting my father ... was a low blow and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.  And maybe those critics who warned me about you were right.”  I sent the letter.

I don’t think 12 minutes go by, and bang, through that door, is Jesse Helms, standing right here.  He said, “I want to personally apologize; it will never happen again.  I deeply regret [it.]"

And from that point on we had the best relationship, and I was at his funeral.  Joe Biden and I were the only two Democrats there.  Had our differences, but had a great relationship.

Q: During your time as a senator, who do you consider to be the most effective or politically savvy legislator?

When I came [to Congress], I decided to model myself after senators who picked out a few issues, a cluster of issues – either based on their personal interests, their background experience or their state demanded it – and then you kind of focus on those things.  Even when they’re not hot subject matters and so forth, you're kind of into it.

Teddy Kennedy was the one who taught me how to legislate in the sense that he listened to people. 

The two bills, ironically — this health care bill and the banking bill — are the only two bills that I didn't have a Republican cosponsor with me on. Every other major piece of legislation: Orrin Hatch and I did child care; Danny Coats and Kit Bond and I did family medical leave.

And Teddy was the one who, in a sense, [taught me] how you do that, how you develop those relationships, find out what people’s interests are and pull it together.

Because here, it’s acquired skills.  You have to have some natural abilities, but it’s really acquired. 

It’s why I get very nervous with some of the new people [who] want to change all the rules of the place.  They haven’t been around to see it.  I've served here in every imaginable configuration you can with the other body, the House, and the White House. 

There’s a rhythm, there’s a feeling to this place. It almost operates as one; it’s small enough to do it.  The House is much harder to feel that. 

When it’s ready to move, when it’s not ready to move, when it’s hungry, when it’s tired.  And it takes time.  

The fact that rules are being abused in a sense with too many cloture motions and so forth is a moment here, it’s a rough spot.  But you don’t go changing the nature of the United States Senate because you're in a rough spot.  That's what I worry about more than anything else — the impatience of the members of the Senate to want to get things done.

[They] need to always to remind themselves the people who created this place were interested in how we did things as well as what we did.  And they never wanted how we did things to be trumped by just what we did.

That we’re losing that sense of how we do things is very important.

Q:  You have one day of your Senate life to live over again and change a professional choice that you made, maybe a vote.  Which one is it and why?

There are a couple of votes I cast on people that I wrote to them apologizing.

I voted against Jim Buckley — who I’d run against in 1980 — as district court federal judge. And it was just being – I was just angry.  And I wrote him a letter afterwards and apologized.  He turned out to be a very good judge, did a good job and I let personal pique get in the way of making an objective determination about whether he ought to be a judge. And I regret it.

I voted against C. Everett Koop, the Surgeon General. Not a terribly important vote, but nonetheless he did a wonderful job as Surgeon General of the country, and I voted against him over issues that I didn't really think through very carefully.  And I regretted that.

And it was an interesting conversation that provoked it, actually. 

I was having lunch — which we don’t do anymore, which is a big pity in my view, that Senate dining room with the two tables in there, which was the best tutorial my first 10 or 15 years here than anything I ever went to.

[I] was sitting at that luncheon table where conversation with a Pat Moynihan, Dale Bumpers, others would come in to that room, Lloyd Bentsen. And you learned more in an hour and 15 minutes sitting there listening to those guys chatter and talk, when I first got here.

No one goes there anymore. It’s the stripping of the socialization of the institution which is causing much of the problem as anything else.

Q:  What is the state of your political party?

There are different levels.  Structurally and organizationally it’s probably pretty good.

But we’re in a terrible moment here, just political parties generally. No one to blame but ourselves, in my view.  We’re destroying the franchise of it.

Someone made the case that if two automobile companies advertised the way we do that we’d all be out of business; if McDonald’s and Burger King accused each other of having dreadful, rotten substances in their hamburgers, fast food would quickly end. Not one would survive over the other.  And I don’t know why we have a hard time understanding this, but we’re doing it to ourselves in a way.

So I don’t know if that's going to be corrected at all or not, it may go through a long period here of readjustment to some degree.  So I think there’s work that needs to be done to communicate better with people as to what we stand for and why.

It’s becoming basically becoming two fundraising operations. It’s more like trade associations than parties to some degree.  We’re shrinking the numbers of people who are associated with us – we’re raising more money in the process, but we’re not broadening the base.

Q: Pundits, experts, and even some members of Congress say this period is the most partisan they’ve ever seen.  Do you agree?

I have to take great exception to this description.  There’s nothing wrong with partisan politics.  Partisan politics is what made the place.  The people who gathered in Philadelphia or elsewhere, there was a real clash of ideas. It was a debate.  They didn't all come together with some commonly held views about everything and sort of knitted this thing together at this less than raucous event.  It was raucous, rollicking, tough. Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians. It was as partisan as anything, in fact, more so in some ways.

So I'm mystified by this argument we all should be more bipartisan.  It’s the wrong words.  We need better civility in the process. That, I clearly aknowledge.

And the point of this odd homing of attacks – if I can destroy your reputation and who you are, then I'm a winner; if I can convince people that your group is vicious and mean and so forth, then I'm the net winner in that.  So it’s that that I regret deeply.

It’s not whether you like the person or want to spend every evening with him.  But I didn't get sent here to sit here and just give speeches and pontificate. I’ve got to try to convince you and you convince me that we can find some way to solve that particular problem. And that requires civility.

If I attack you personally there’s no way in the world you're going to sit down with me and find that common ground.  That just defies human nature.  You’ll have no problem with me if you're an intelligent individual and understand why you're here and having that good, hard debate about what we ought to do to fix that problem.  And you’ll be more than willing to find some common ground with me along the way.  But if I basically attack you on a personal level in the process there’s no way in the world you're going to do that.

[Now] relationship[s are] so one-dimensional. It’s a Tuesday through Thursday group and basically you're in committee hearings, you're meeting constituents, you're doing fundraising.

And if you strip away the ability of people to socialize and to get to know each other beyond their resumes and so forth, it doesn’t work.  And that's absolutely true here.

I remember as a kid growing up, I remember a night when someone and my father would come home and have a drink at the house on the way home or in the summer months have dinner with my parents, if their family was back in Kansas or Nebraska or someplace. 

There was a lot of that relationship that went on and discovering that they had common interests, decided to work together on things, kids got to know each other, families did.  It overlays the thing in a way that makes it far more possible. 

As long as you're at arm’s length you can scream at each other, doesn’t make any difference.  But if your kids are friends, your wives spending time [together], you're seeing each other — it’s a little harder to do that.  And not that they didn't have their acrimonious relationships at times.  But we just have lost that altogether, and I don’t have any magic solutions of how you get it back – I've got some ideas of what needs to be done to some degree.

I think we have too many caucuses. People need to spend more time with each other than we do.  Everything is too structured and too organized.

That's why you hear all members say that when they travel together they really enjoy it, not because of where they went, but because they got time to spend with someone, to get to know them in a way that they never otherwise would on the normal day-to-day operations of this institution.

This is what Teddy did all the time. The Republican leadership would get furious because he was always so productive and they couldn’t figure out why he was, because they’d keep on sending people over there that would slow him down.

There’s nothing magical about it. He’d get to know you, was genuinely interested in you, and wanted to know what you cared about and found out what it was and then said, “Well, why don’t we work on that together?”  And how do you turn down a guy who wants to work on something you care about?

Q:  As an observer of the Senate and as a child of the Senate, what things have changed for the better as an institution and what things have gotten bad? 

I'm sorry that the newer members – I'm not spending enough time at that table that I got to spend at, and those luncheons ... picking up on the history, having the older guys talk about what it was like. When I got here there were people that served in the ‘40s and ‘30s.

It’s like children who don’t know the benefit of grandparents.  So that to me has changed.  And ... you can’t manufacture it. There has to be sort of a natural way for that to occur, and given the world we live in today it’s getting harder and harder to imagine that being the case. 

[And] what you do for a living has changed dramatically and has changed our world dramatically.  I used to have 11 reporters that covered me on a daily basis, from Connecticut.  I don’t have a single one today that does. 

So for years I had people who would write each day about what I was doing.  I had a hearing this morning on the status of the American child, there would have been a story in the Hartford Courant tomorrow. [Now], there’s no story – there will be no story tomorrow in any Connecticut paper.  We’ll put out a release or something, they might print something, might not.

So the ability to communicate, while that has improved in terms of technology, my ability to communicate with my constituency has been severely affected by the changing economics of journalism. That's been a huge disadvantage because my constituents don’t know me anywhere near as well as they did 20 years ago.  And that's a real disadvantage for them, it’s a disadvantage for those of us who are here in many ways. 

And it’s contributed, I think, to the rising cost of campaigns because now you have to buy the media time, rather than having someone actually reporting.

[S]o, the demands of fundraising have changed.  There’s a candidate in Connecticut now running for the Senate that already before the primary has spent more money in this race than I spent in five Senate elections, total.  Having made the decision not to seek re-election, the idea – and that doesn’t mean they’re going to win — but to compete on a level where someone in a state of 3.5-4 million people spends $25 million before a primary is daunting. 

And I worry about whether or not we’re getting back to what I would call the de facto exclusion, shrinking the pie of people who can think about coming here.  And while you no longer have to be a white male [and] own property in order to qualify, in effect we’re establishing almost the same kind of criteria because of what’s required to have or to have access to, to get here.  And I worry about that.  That's a downside.

I like the fact that there’s a greater diversity, though, to some degree, of men and women who are coming here.  When I got here there were no women – Margaret K. Smith had left. I was here a couple of years and Barbara Mikulski came, and that was the first woman.  So I've seen this change.  Like Ken Salazar came, Bobby Menendez has come, Latinos from Florida.  So you saw the beginning of opportunities. To be around to see a Barack Obama come to the Senate,  that's positive.  It’s those changes I see as positive.