On an August afternoon, Journal contributor Brady Averill caught up with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to talk about her first months in Congress, the I-35W bridge collapse and upcoming legislation.
Southwest Journal: Let’s start with the 35W bridge. The Senate passed legislation earlier this month (August) that will create a National Infrastructure Commission. This is something that you and Sen. (Norm) Coleman worked on. What will the commission do, and do you think it’ll prevent similar tragedies from happening again?
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: I think what we need here is, first of all, to look at all of our infrastructure in this country and assess what our needs are. At the same time, I’m on the Environment and Public Works Committee and we’re going to have hearings this fall to look at infrastructure across the country. And certainly, if there’s any silver lining in this tragedy with the bridge, it is that it’s spurred national action to look at our infrastructure. And it’s not just about our bridges. … I think that it is key to assess what’s going on around our country and figure out what we need to do.
The other piece of this is what I said from the beginning — is that a bridge just doesn’t fall down in the middle of America, and so we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong here so we can use that to help out some other communities in the future. And I actually just finished up a meeting with [Transportation] Secretary [Mary] Peters about this, and they’re working very hard on their investigation.
SWJ: You’ve spent over seven months in Congress. Anything surprise you about the transition from Hennepin County Prosecutor to U.S. Senator?
Klobuchar: When you’re running your own office — as long as the system’s working — if someone does something bad, they go to jail. You can get things done. I think that things take longer in Washington than I would like. I think there are some arcane rules in place that allow a single senator to put a secret hold on a bill. I think that’s bad. So there’s things that surprise me in how people are able to manipulate the rules and manipulate the system that I’d like to see changed.
The other thing was, of course, a lot of the senators are multimillionaires. And I think I heard that but until you really experience it, you drive up in your Saturn … to the national Capitol and you have someone in a Cadillac next door, it is sort of a funny image.
I think we’ve adjusted fine to that. The senators have been great. The last thing that’s really surprising is the bipartisan work that goes on. There is a lot of good work. I think the bridge was one great piece of that — that we were able to get that funding so quickly. … That bipartisan work goes on more than people think, especially in the Senate.
SWJ: What do you think the most important issue facing Minnesota (is) that you’re working on in Congress?
Klobuchar: I think it’s overall the change in priorities. And that covers obviously a lot of issues, but it’s changing the way Congress does business. That means the ethics reform; that means changing the way we finance things so that it’s not always the middle class that are taking the burden of things. It’s focusing on health care and education and renewable fuels instead of the giveaways to the oil companies..
I think in terms of issues that I’m working on that are most important to me … energy and climate change. In fact, we just came from a big event in Bloomington at this bike shop where we gave our first carbon-buster award to a green building in Bloomington for quality bike products and also to a website called the Energy Challenge.
I say the second thing is to change the course of war in Iraq — that we have to do things differently there. I have long said that we need to start bringing our troops home. I’m hopeful that this fall there will be some change; we’re starting to see some moderate Republicans coming over to our side.
And I see the health care issue as a major challenge to our country as we move forward, and I think there are some things we can do in the short term. I think that coming out of the presidential election, I’m hopeful there will be major reform for our health care system.
SWJ: What do you think some of your major accomplishments have been so far?
Klobuchar: Well, I think, first of all, the ethics bill — getting that through — was my number one priority, so I was very proud that we were able to get that done. I think the change in the environment on climate change and energy independence has been significant, and we were able to get the gas mileage standard increase, and I had worked on the flex-fuel vehicle requirement and hybrid vehicle requirement. That was a piece of that, and we got that through the Senate. I think that was a very good thing. The minimum wage increase — I had long talked through the campaign about putting the people first and focusing on middle-class issues. We were able to get that done. And I also think the fact that we have been pushing this debate on the war in Iraq — we haven’t yet been able to get enough Republicans to push the bill through to get a deadline, but we have clearly made an impact on the way they’re thinking. …That is our biggest challenge as we go forward.
SWJ: Do you have any big trips planned?
Klobuchar: … I think our big trip has been going around to the Minnesota counties. And we have now completed, I think, 75 of 87 counties (note: she planned to visit all 87 Minnesota counties by mid-September). So we visited them all and did events and will keep going. And that’s been really good in terms of bringing stuff back.