Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Senator Gary Peters
Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat who has served Michigan in the House since 2009, and served in the Senate since 2015, was named the most effective Senator in the 116th Congress. We had the opportunity to interview the Senator about legislative effectiveness, bipartisanship, bridging House-Senate differences, and more.
Watch the next interview in our Conversations with Lawmakers series as Professors Craig Volden (UVA) and Alan E. Wiseman (Vanderbilt University), Co-Directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, and the Senator discuss a wide array of topics surrounding Congress.
Transcript as follows:
Alan E. Wiseman (00:00):
My name is Alan Wiseman, and I’m the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. And along with Craig Volden of the Batten School at the University of Virginia, I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. And we’re very excited today to welcome Senator Gary Peters from the great state of Michigan, to sit down with us for a little bit of time and talk about his experiences, working in Congress. As many of you know, Senator Peters actually started his career in Congress when he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008. And he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2009, up until 2015, when he then moved over to the United States Senate, he was most recently reelected to another full term in the U.S. Senate this past November, 2020 and us at the Center for Effective Lawmaking have been incredibly impressed and following Senator Peter’s career, especially in this most recently completed Congress where we identified him as the most highly effective lawmaker in the U.S. Senate. Now that in and of itself is a really impressive accomplishment, but it’s even more so if you realize the fact that Senator Peters being a member of the Democratic party is actually in the minority party in this most recently completed Congress. And for all of our data dating back to 1973, we’ve never seen a case up until now when a member of the minority party was actually the most effective lawmaker in the Senate. So we were really excited to get a chance to sit down with him and talk about the way in which he approached lawmaking. So please welcome Gary Peters, we’re so excited to have you Senator. We really appreciate it.
Senator Gary Peters (01:27):
Well, good to be with you, Alan. I appreciate both of you. Thanks to Craig. It’s good to be with you both. And I look forward to our conversation.
Alan E. Wiseman (01:34):
Great. Well, we’re excited to do that. Um, so what we’re going to be doing right now is we have a few specific questions we’d like to ask you that would relate to your broader experiences, both within and outside of Congress. Um, but that being said, we’d really love to hear from you with any specific examples you can bring to bear that would illustrate some of the points you have. And we’ll just take it really from there, if you don’t mind?
Senator Gary Peters (01:55):
Alan E. Wiseman (01:55):
And I think related to that point, just tying back to what I was first saying, when you first entered Congress, as I noted a little bit earlier, you were in the U.S. House and Craig and I were both really interested to get your perspective on how your prior experiences, you know, and more specifically, perhaps your experience as a state legislator in Michigan or alternatively serving on the city council, how these prior experiences might have influenced the way in which you approached or thought about lawmaking in the U.S. House and now the U.S. Senate.
Senator Gary Peters (02:24):
Well, it certainly, it does inform my approach and you pull all those experiences together. And, uh, it’s about, for me, it’s about common sense problem solving. That’s what has always attracted me to public service as an opportunity to solve some of the tough problems that we face as a country and bringing the perspective that I had prior to that service, in business, in, as you mentioned in state and local government, as well as my military experience, pull all that together. So most of my career prior to public service, I spent 20 plus years in the investment business. I was an assistant vice president and a vice president with two major financial services firms. So had a real understanding of the investment world, which is why when I first got elected to Congress, I sought out a seat on the financial services committee.
Senator Gary Peters (03:14):
And at that time, was particularly a big time cause as you know, 2008-9 was in the middle of the great recession and what was happening on Wall Street and the Dodd-Frank legislation, that was a major rewrite of reforms. And I was on the financial services committee and actually, because of that experience that I had that experience in the investment world, Nancy Pelosi actually asked me to serve on the conference committee as a freshmen. And both of you are scholars know that usually freshmen don’t get on a conference committee, let alone a conference committee as big as Dodd-Frank was for the regulatory reform. So, that was, uh, I drew on that experience a great deal of through that service. I also served in the military was a Lieutenant Commander, the U.S. Navy reserve, CB, uh, combat warfare designation, had done some studies at the war college. And so that military background has really helped me working on national security issues, particularly now, in the Senate as the chair of the Senate homeland security committee. I also serve on the armed services committee. So when I, when I look at it from a national security perspective, I kind of oversee both the home team and the away team when it comes to keeping us safe, as a country. And that really has been invaluable background. And then you mentioned my work in a city council and in the state legislature. That allowed me, I think gave me certainly a leg up when it came to lawmaking in the Congress, having done that. In fact, you mentioned my record here, this last term – when I served in the state Senate for the eight years, I actually had more bills signed into law than any Democratic Senator during those eight years. I served in the minority during those eight years too. So I was very skilled in dealing with the minority position, which I’m in right now, so to speak. I’ve spent a lot of years in the minority now in the majority. And if you ask me, which is better, I will tell you the majority is a whole lot better than the minority, the servant so now I appreciate that. But it was that kind of background and working in the state legislature that really kind of taught me the nuts and bolts. Now, Congress is a little different, but basically the basics are pretty much there. And I think that that perspective is so important, particularly now, as we’re dealing with the pandemic and the fact that this is an issue that requires a whole of government approach to deal with it.
Senator Gary Peters (05:38):
We have to work with local government, we have to work with state government, federal. Everybody has to come together and understanding when the federal government acts, how does that actually translate into how a state is going to be able to provide services and use that federal money. And particularly when it comes to the local government and city council, that’s really where the buck stops. I’ve served on all three levels, but when you’re a local city council person or a mayor, you know, it truly stops at your doorstep. When you go to the grocery store every night or any night, you know, folks are pulling you aside in a very personal way. And knowing how, what we do in Washington impacts local government has been invaluable to me and allows me to I think, uh, you know, kind of get a better appreciation of what the policies that we’re engaged in Washington, what that’s really going to mean to our local communities.
Craig Volden (06:27):
Well, let me add my note of thanks and welcome, for you joining us here today. I’m interested, you were talking about kind of the building on your minority experience in the state legislature, and when you get up to Congress, and I’m also interested in, in your experience in moving from the House to the Senate. How do you see the differences between House and Senate, and then were you fortunate enough to be able to bring some of your staff with you House to Senate? How do you see staff continuity and experience in playing a role in legislating?
Senator Gary Peters (07:03):
Yeah, I’ll start with that because I think that’s just of vital importance and, and I was certainly blessed to be able to bring my House staff with me to the Senate. I kept my chief of staff, some folks make those changes. I didn’t, I wanted a team that, I knew and who knew me and we had worked together. And so we, I brought that staff over to hit the ground running. We had to expand that staff because the difference to your question, which is clear, especially in a state like Michigan, the difference between the geographic reach and the population is pretty dramatic, there are 14 members of the House. And, so I basically have 14 times the geographic area to cover and population, our staffs don’t increase by that much as you know, as well.
Senator Gary Peters (07:50):
So we, uh, they are bigger, but that’s still from a workload management perspective is a real challenge going into the, Senate because you’ve got a whole lot to cover, just like incoming emails from constituent correspondence goes up dramatically. If you don’t have systems in place to handle that, you’re not going to respond as quickly as folks back home want you to, and certainly deserve to have that kind of response. And so, that is important. And the continuity was important for me as well. In terms of some of the other differences and coming over and particularly in terms of what both of you are focused on, which is lawmaking that was certainly a different for me. And the fact that when you’re in the House, you’re on one, perhaps two committees. When I was on financial services, that’s an exclusive committee so if you’re going to be on another one, you had to get a waiver, which I did. But, but you’re really focused on one committee and you can really drill down deep into the work in that particular committee. In the Senate, we are on more committees, and there’s a hundred of us to do what 435 do. The workload’s the same, but we’re spread out across more committees. So the breadth of what we had to deal with increases quite a bit. So there’s a little bit of a drinking from a fire hose. So when you first come in, in dealing with that. The other thing that I thought was interesting from a lawmaking perspective is that in the House, there was a sense, like if you’re going to introduce legislation, that you’re probably going to just– one that you expect to move, not just messaging, some folks will introduce messaging bills, but if one you’re supposed to move, it’s usually within your committee, cause you’re going to have the most control over seeing it get through the committee. And so I came into the Senate and I have a lot of ideas, a lot of things that I wanted to do, and I’m going like, well, that’s not really in my committee. I still remember a colleague of mine coming up to me like Gary, it doesn’t matter if it’s in your committee. You’re a Senator. You can introduce anything you want, you know, this is the way it works here. And so it does allow you to deal with a broader breadth of issues than you would normally in the House for that purposes. So those are a couple certainly major differences.
Alan E. Wiseman (10:01):
Well, that’s really helpful. And I’m curious to know from your perspective, especially given that you came from the House, taking a step back when you came from the state legislature, then the House, and now in the Senate, you know, I want to return to the point that I raised during the introductions and that being that, you know, thinking about the scope of your lawmaking effectiveness and the most recently completed standing, the scope of your success for minority party members really unprecedented in our data and from Craig and my perspective, we’d really love to hear from you, bluntly speaking Senator, how you did this. I mean, how did you really approach lawmaking as an enterprise in this most recently completed Congress, that contributed to such a high degree of success and moving your agenda?
Senator Gary Peters (10:43):
Well, I think, well you need a lot of help to do that. I think is probably the first off is, and actually to Craig’s point about staff, you know, staff is really critically important that you have a real good team that you, put together to do that. So you’ve got to have that, and we can talk more about that, but it’s also all about building coalitions. That’s the way you’re able to move things, especially in the minority. I mean, I’m always going to need to have a Republican co-sponsor. I worked very hard to make sure that I had support with the majority party trying to find common ground. And I think that’s something we’ve got to do, obviously, in a much broader way throughout Congress, if we’re going to get things done for the American people, which we must, I’m a big believer that we’ve got to do this in a bipartisan way.
Senator Gary Peters (11:24):
I’m ranked as one of the most bipartisan senators from the folks at the Lugar Center, for example, and others, because it’s part of how you get things done. And then you, and you build those relationships. I say from a member perspective, building the relationships with folks in the other party is absolutely critical. And that means not just asking folks to get on your bills, but that means getting on their bills as well, and showing that you can work together, and find the kind of common ground necessary. And, so I have a lot of member conversations, I believe that’s incredibly important for the process to work. And then when it comes to the staff, the staff does a lot of the heavy lifting, clearly on the day to day work.
Senator Gary Peters (12:08):
It’s absolutely critical to have really good quality staff, people who share passion for public service, something that I have. And I tell the members or folks who come onto my staff, kind of my view of how blessed we are to be able to serve the people of this great country in the Capitol. And I tell them the story when I walk out at night, and I see the Capitol dome all lit up it still puts a little tingle in my spine. I’m thinking this is really amazing. And when that stops happening, that’s when I know I need to leave, because, you know, this is really a opportunity for us to make a difference. And I expect everybody on my staff to have that feeling as well and that passion and understand that we can make a difference and seek out folks that have intellectual curiosity to say, these are problems. And when you discover problems, I ask my staff, don’t just come to me with a problem. Give me an idea, how do we solve it? Wat are pathways that we can use to get through that? And then in terms of relationships, it’s critically important that my staff develop relationships with staff and other offices as well, just as I’m doing it by member to member. They need to have those kinds of personal connections with folks that there’s some mutual trust in order to get things done, because ultimately if you don’t have that, you’re not going to be successful.
Craig Volden (13:26):
Yeah. That idea of building up connections and across party lines, and that you are doing so kind of across the board, I think is just so crucial. You mentioned bipartisanship and the Lugar ratings, and certainly those are correlated with our effectiveness scores as well. And so we’re seeing a lot of that. Now, when you think about the specific pieces of legislation you need, not only co-sponsors from across the aisle, but you know, enough votes to get it done and probably, you know, signing off from the, in your case last Congress signing off from the committee chairs, or of the other party signing off from the Republican party leadership, how do you approach them? You know, here’s an idea I’m putting it forward, but really what do you do next?
Senator Gary Peters (14:12):
Yeah. And it is related to having relationships with those chairs too, which is critically important. And I found common ground with folks. And if you look at, think of some of the folks that I’ve done a lot of legislation with, some of it has passed, some of it we’re working on that I work with, I mean, folks like Senator Cornyn, I’ve done a lot of work with him from Texas. And of course he was the majority whip ,so in a key leadership position. But I’ve helped him on legislation. And when I’ve asked him to help me, then he’s certainly open to having that conversation. Right now I’m still working very closely, for example, with Senator Thune on legislation for autonomous vehicles, we haven’t passed yet. This is critically important for the auto industry and the auto industry of course, is very important for me as a Senator from Michigan.
Senator Gary Peters (14:59):
It represents the future of mobility. We have to have a regulatory framework to deal with this advanced technology, but I’ve built a very close relationship with Senator Thune working on that legislation, something that we share. And he’s now the, the minority whip, in a senior leadership position, I’m on Homeland security committee, I’m chair now, before that ranking member. I developed a good working relationship with Senator Johnson, for example. So, it is critically important to have leadership and to have those relationships. And it’s important because a lot of these bills we can pass with unanimous consent. It’s difficult to get floor time in the Senate. That’s why you’ll see fewer standalone bills pass through the Senate than you see in the House. It’s just been more of the bills and a lot of the legislation that I’ve written is actually in major pieces of legislation like the National Defense Authorization or FAA reauthorization, or NASA, whatever it may be, and things that are very proud of the work that my office did, but they’re in those bills. But it’s, um, but so, because you need to have that kind of broad support, it does take a lot of reaching out to folks. So people will put holds on our bills. So it’s not unusual. I have a bill to try to move and I’ll have a Senator, we’ll put a hold on it. But that’s where I either pick up the phone, but more importantly, instead of picking up the phone, I grab them on the floor and buttonhole them on the floor, and have a face-to-face conversation and try to find out what is it that their concerns were, how do we kind of deal with that? Sometimes we have to make some alterations to the bill, whatever it may be, the give and take in the negotiation to get it done, but to really to move it, it is a pretty hands-on process. If you’re not, hands-on, you’re not going to be successful.
Craig Volden (16:39):
How did you find to be most successful in navigating holds in particular?
Senator Gary Peters (16:44):
You go directly to the member, so you go directly to the member. Sometimes… So first I should say I should back off. First off, I try to have the staff working out. So, when we have a hold, the staff will contact staff. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t work, then I will go. Although if I want to accelerate it, I’ll go right to the member. And I will usually do that quite a bit. I think sometimes the other staff of the member, I don’t like the fact that I’m going directly to the member, but that’s the way to get things moving quicker in order to make that happen. So, that’s usually the way to work through that. And sometimes the relationships too, if I can’t, for whatever reason, I may have a member who it’s tough to move. It’s the relationships that I’ll have with other Republican senators. And I’ll ask them to go to their colleague as well. And so, I try to double – that’s why having a good co-sponsors is important. So I can double team or triple team or whatever it takes to move somebody along.
Craig Volden (17:42):
Alan E. Wiseman (17:43):
I mean, these points you’re raising about the importance of relationships and the need to work, to facilitate trust among each other is really insightful and interesting to Craig and I. I want to think a little bit more about the substantive policy agenda that you’ve advanced in previous Congresses, because one of the other points that really emerged in analyzing your legislative agenda was that not only were you so successful at advancing a large collection of your bills, but if we really broke them down issue by issue, we actually found you are the highest performing or most successful Democratic Senator in several different issue areas, not many of which were entirely closely related to each other, such as agriculture, government operations, science and technology. And in thinking about the scope of your legislative agenda, not just the number of bills introduced, but really all the different areas you’re focusing on, one question that emerged in our analysis, which I wanted to present to you is, you know, to what degree do you see benefits, or maybe trade-offs that you have to make in considering moving forward a really expansive issue agenda that covers a lot of different areas versus being a little bit more tightly focused, especially as it relates to your constituency in Michigan, for example.
Senator Gary Peters (18:50):
Yeah. And I think that an answer that is that when you look at the range of issues we’re involved in it represents the range of issues that I have to deal with every day with the folks in Michigan. And so a lot of the ideas that we get, things that we need to do, you know, I mentioned, clearly staff engagement, and how we’re involved, but it’s, so when I say staff, it’s not just my legislative staff, as important as they are as they’re working, but you know, some of the best ideas come from my constituent service folks or from my regional folks that are going around the state and talking to people. And as you do that, you’re getting a whole range of issue areas and problem sets that people are coming forward with.
Senator Gary Peters (19:31):
You know, one is an example, you know, an example of, legislation that we passed this last term dealt with expansion of apprenticeship programs for veterans to use their GI bill benefits for skills training programs. You know, a lot of folks are familiar with the GI bill to help folks in college or the four-year degree or two year degree, but you could use your GI benefits if you’re in an apprenticeship program to help pay for rent and for food. If you’re coming out of the military, particularly if you’re a little more senior, and you go into apprenticeship program, that can be tough economically. And especially if you have a family to do that. So it helps them go into skilled trades. But what I learned actually from feedback and folks in the district is that even though Michigan has roughly a thousand Department of Labor registered apprenticeship programs, less than a hundred, actually qualified for GI benefits. That makes no sense. A veteran should have the full range of opportunities provided to them.
Senator Gary Peters (20:28):
That came, you know, that came from constituents through the staff. Then we figured out how do we fix it and pull the coalition together, a broad coalition of all the veterans groups, not just in a bipartisan way, but getting, outside groups to come together to make that happen. So, but that was a bill that didn’t go to my committees, that to the health, education and labor committee. So it went to a different committee. So, and as I mentioned in the House, that’s always a little more difficult if it’s in a different committee than you’re in, but in the Senate, I found it to be a whole lot different than in the House. So it’s a different committee, but I could go, I could talk to the chair, I could talk to the ranking member, build support to do that.
Senator Gary Peters (21:08):
And then others would come across. As you mentioned, agriculture, we expanded agricultural inspectors, for example, critically important to protect the industry and had all the agricultural folks. And in order to get that support, it meant, I had to reach out to the chair, Republican chair of the ag committee and a Senator who was now retired, Senator Roberts. But he really liked it and helped me move it. And then I built a relationship with him to work on other bills to get him on unrelated bills as well. So it is kind of a, you know, it’s a coalition snowball that continues to build. And so to your question about benefits: as part of the benefits of working across different areas, it also allows me to develop relationships and have a track record of getting things done with a larger group of members than I would normally if I just specialized in a very narrow.
Craig Volden (21:55):
So Alan was asking you kind of about the breadth and I want to talk about kind of the depth of how many bills, right? So you don’t become the most effective lawmaker in the Senate by having just one or two, you had the 14 of those that you sponsored yourself, in addition to the ones where your ideas were incorporated, but 14 of those passing the Senate and 10 of those becoming law, that means at some points in time, you must have had pretty exhausted staff or how do we think about that level of number of balls in the air and is that , unusually difficult at that level? How do you manage that kind of sizable of an agenda?
Senator Gary Peters (22:42):
Well, I can tell you, I do have tired staff. They do …. I will give them full credit. They are an amazing group of people who are very, very dedicated and they do, they work really hard because it is a lot of calls. It’s a lot of working. And you figure as we’re trying to move bills and we’re calling other staffs they’re trying to move their own bills. They’ve got other issues they are prepping for committee hearings. And, you know, you asked about difference in the House and the Senate. You know, we also have all the confirmation hearings, we’ve got other things that we’re doing as well, that you don’t have in the House. So we’ve got a lot of moving pieces, but it definitely takes a lot of staff work to make that happen, to move.
Senator Gary Peters (23:22):
But I probably want to add something else about what’s important and you’ve mentioned the relationships and I’ve been talking to primarily about the Senate. But what I have found to be extremely helpful to be able to move that to is the relationships that I developed when I was in the House. So I served there for six years, had an opportunity to get to know folks there and that’s invaluable. It’s one, you’re only halfway there, you get it out of the Senate and then you have to get to the House. Now, the last two years we had a Democratic house. So that was an advantage, obviously being in the majority, but the House has got a lot on their plate. They were passing lots of bills. And so too, you needed to have those kinds of relationships. And I took a very hands-on approach with that too. I would walk over to the House and sit down with members and talk about bills that I had and how we could work together to be able to do that. So it is time intensive, but it’s a worthwhile to get things done.
Craig Volden (24:15):
Were those conversations mostly with Michigan members with people you had known before and with leadership? How did those past relationships go?
Senator Gary Peters (24:23):
Well, it’s broader than that. Certainly it’s really important to have your Michigan delegation. So I know my, obviously my Republican colleagues from Michigan and they’ve been very helpful to me, but it’s broader than that. It’s other folks that I just knew as a member of the House and people that I became friendly with while I was there. The other thing that I’ll say too, in terms of relationships, which has been helpful to me is that when I was elected to the House or into the Senate in 2014, I was the only new Democrat elected that year. If you recall, 2014 was a wave year. I was in a class of, um, there were 13 new us Senators elected 12 Republicans and me.
Senator Gary Peters (25:08):
So I was a class of one. So I like to say I was class president immediately. But I also, the one thing that also was helpful is that when you come in, it’s kind of like going to college, you know, your freshmen class comes in and you have a little bit of camaraderie. I was able to build that camaraderie with a number of my fellow freshmen senators as well. And they were spread out across all those committees as well, which allows me to have breadth of the types of things that I could work on and build from, from that kind of contact.
Alan E. Wiseman (25:40):
I mean, this is fascinating and related to both our own findings and some of the points you said a little bit earlier, from the outside, if we hadn’t even had this conversation, but just looked at the bills you introduced and the way it would say advanced, one of the points it really stands out to us is the fact that it seemed as if you were consciously seeking Republican co-sponsors for essentially all of your legislation, and you know, listening to your thoughts right now, I’m inferring this is actually a conscious decision and strategy on your part. So related to that point, one question that we might have is to what degree would you recommend and other Senators or really other House members, but just focusing on the Senate, other Sanders would engage in a similar strategy, or why do you think some senators might not do that so actively?
Senator Gary Peters (26:24):
Yeah, there are a lot of folks, unfortunately, that are very partisan, in both of the Senate and the House. So some folks who feel that way, I think have a harder way to do it. That’s not in my DNA that I figured we have to come together to solve problems. And those are kind of the districts that I’ve represented. It kind of depends on where you come from too. And you know, who, what is your district composed of? So just to give you a little bit of kind of my history, getting there – when I got elected, you mentioned, Alan, I was elected in 2008, and I was elected in a district where I was the first Democrat, I think since it was 1893 was the last Democrat that was elected from this district.
Senator Gary Peters (27:08):
So, it was the first there for a long time or since a long time. And then in 2010, they came at, the Republicans, came at me with everything they had. And if you recall, 2010 was not a really good year for Democrats. It was a Republican wave. And in fact, in my district the Republican governor won the district by 26 points. But I still got reelected in that district. And the way you get elected in a district like that one is you’re very visible. You’re doing constituent services, you’re making a difference, but it also shows you’re looking to find common ground to get things done. So having a record of getting things done in a meaningful way is critically important. And that means reaching across the aisle. You know, if I were to take this conversation a little broader than just the lawmaking, kind of where we are as a country, the thing that I’m most concerned about is just this hyper polarization that we have, hyper-partisanship that we have, and it’s not just reflected in Congress, as both of, you know, it’s reflected throughout our society which is problematic.
Senator Gary Peters (28:08):
But, I’m just struck. I was asked by my colleagues, I think it was three years ago, to read George Washington’s farewell address before the Senate, every year a Senator is asked to do that and I’m sure both of you have read this, you know this inside and out, but I hadn’t read it in a while. And as I was reading it I was just struck by, you know, George Washington’s words of the factions or the parties, and the fact that you would just be in these deeply entrenched factions and that folks wouldn’t talk to each other. And when that happens, you’re going to see the rise of a demagogue that’ll appeal to people’s fears and to their passions and the young Republic will disappear when that happens.
Senator Gary Peters (28:51):
And I am just real fearful that we are in very dangerous turf when it comes to this, and it’s incumbent on us as members to be working together, finding that common ground. There’s some clear differences, I’m a proud Democrat and have very strong democratic values, but there’s a lot that we have in common as well. And if I can build some of those relationships, I’m hoping we can build those relationships to deal with the really big issues. Still got a ways to go in that regard, but that’s the way I approach this job. And I think that’s why I’ve been able to win these tough races. And in fact, I even got redistricted after I won that race in 10 Michigan went through redistricting and we lost a congressional seat and the Republicans controlled the governor, the Senate and the House. And so they drew me out of the district. Basically, I have three congressional districts within a few hundred yards of my house. It depends on what window I look out of. And so my wife and I joke we’re going to get a plaque for the house saying the redistricting plan for this decade started at this address, you know, to do it. So I ran in a district that I represented a part, but it was, it went into the city of Detroit. It was a majority African-American district, and I had to run against an African-American colleague of mine, but I won that seat and was able to stay in Congress. And the way I did it, is the fact that people bottom line just want to see someone who is getting things done, rolling up their sleeves and focusing on the job.
Craig Volden (30:21):
When you were particularly successful building those relationships with the Republicans, as we were noting, you were in the minority party now in the majority party, same approach to lawmaking, nevertheless, why would it change, we’ve seen a change for some people?
Senator Gary Peters (30:38):
Yeah, it’s not changing at all for me. I’m working, we’ve introduced legislation so far we’re doing the same way to work together. I’ve got a close working relationship as chair, I’m now chair of Homeland security committee. And the ranking member is Rob Portman from Ohio. We work very closely together. He’s another example of someone who I did a lot of work with bills that we’ve introduced, a couple that were signed into law and others that we will continue to work on, but we’re going to do that in a bipartisan way and try to do it at least in a nonpartisan way as much as possible. And when you think about the issues that I have in Homeland security, it’s Homeland security, government affairs. So I oversee the department of Homeland security, and we’re the top oversight committee through the government affairs for the Senate, plus a number of agencies like the postal service, which of course is the center of a lot of attention.
Senator Gary Peters (31:31):
But as I think about what I have to deal with as chair of Homeland security and I had this, I just had this experience a couple of weeks ago. I’m sitting on the couch with my wife on Sunday. I’m looking at the New York Times. And I said, well, here are the four top stories of the New York Times. First one was the Southern border, what was happening there. And El Paso and I would just was down there with Rob Portman actually. The second one was the rise of violent extremists groups, and how we’re going to deal with that threat. The third was the solar wind cyber attack and cybersecurity, and how that has to be addressed in a significant way. And the fourth one was FEMA and the distribution of vaccines. I go to the top four stories are all in my committee right now, as chair, and the only way we’re going to get through these things, cause they’re all tough, tough problems is we got to do this in a bipartisan way. And somny… To your question, my view has not changed. We’ve got to come together… Because that’s how you have lasting solutions. I don’t want to have just this constant seesaw back and forth, whoever’s in power. We got to have a little more continuity than that, in my mind, that’s how you govern. And so trying to get that upfront makes more lasting solutions to tough problems.
Craig Volden (32:39):
And then in terms of that chair position, a lot on your plate and I can imagine that for some chairs, they would feel pressure to act on those issues that might take them away from their home state issues. Do you feel there’s any of that pressure in your case? Or how do you navigate that?
Senator Gary Peters (32:58):
Yeah, no, I don’t. I mean, it’s an important committee for the state. I mean, when you think about border issues, Michigan is a border state. I remind my colleagues every opportunity I get, we have a Northern border in this country, not just the Southern border that we have to make sure is secure. And when it comes to a trade with a border, issues that I deal with, of the five busiest border crossings in terms of the volume of trade, the land border crossings, the five busiest in North America, two of them are in Michigan. So we got Detroit, Windsor, Port Huron and Sarnia. So the work I do on Homeland Security is vitally important in that area. But certainly when it comes to just Homeland Security issues, the distribution of vaccines, the work of FEMA right now, I oversee FEMA, that impacts my state in a very significant way. And right now, unfortunately, we’re seeing a real spike in cases here in Michigan now. So we’re trying to make sure we have resources there. Or whether it’s cybersecurity or the other. So, while I tackle these big issues for the country, we’re certainly impacted the same as everybody else. And so I don’t see any disconnect there whatsoever.
Alan E. Wiseman (34:04):
I wanted to build on a couple of comments that you raised regarding the scope of bipartisanship, that both you engage in regularly, as well as the need for it’s in all lawmaking and many different perspectives. And I obviously don’t really want to spend much time talking about the filibuster debate that’s obviously going on either implicitly or explicitly, but I would be curious given how successful you were being in the minority party, as you said, even going back to the state House days and advancing your legislative agenda, and you have such a consistent pattern of engaging in bi-partisan lawmaking… do you think in the contemporary Congress, super majoritarian institutions like the filibuster, did they contribute to my partisanship or do they inhibit?
Senator Gary Peters (34:45):
Well, I think that to answer that question, I would say that a filibuster could possibly work or, and you’ve seen instances in the past of it working if, and this is a big if, if the minority party acts in good faith. You assume that they’re working in good faith and they’re going to come to the table to negotiate. So when I the bills that we’re talking about here, I’m dealing with my colleagues who are working in good faith. They’re trying to figure out, Okay, Gary, I understand your problem, I get it, I have that problem too. Or I like to be part of that solution. Let’s, let’s work together on it. And they’re coming to me in good faith. But if they just want to obstruct then there isn’t going to be any tool that’s really going to help bring people together if that’s their intent.
Senator Gary Peters (35:31):
So I’m certainly hopeful that with the broader debate, I would hope that my Republican colleagues would act in good faith and we’ll try to find common ground and try to get, as I mentioned earlier, if you can get bipartisan solutions are going to be more lasting. I think those are better solutions. But I would hope that folks would realize that this should not be just about blocking important pieces of legislation to have some political one upmanship and perhaps, you know, give a black eye to the president or whoever it may be. But if you come in good faith …but if you don’t come in good faith… you know, I think ultimately what the people of this country deserve is action on the problems that we face. So they expect things to get done. And ultimately, if we don’t get anything done, then people start losing faith in their democratic institutions as well. And we’re, I mentioned earlier, we’re in, I think we’re in a precarious situation with hyper-partisanship and the polarization that we’re having, and that can lead to a weakening of the democratic institutions that are so critical to maintaining this Republic. And part of maintaining confidence in your government is seeing action that’s impacting their lives in a meaningful way. And we can’t lose sight of that.
Craig Volden (36:43):
One thing worth commenting on there is sort of what are the processes and procedures? You had mentioned serving on the conference committee for Dodd-Frank. How did you find that experience, you know, resolving Senate differences? We don’t see conference committees as much as we used to.
Senator Gary Peters (37:00):
Yeah, they don’t. Especially that would, in fact, I think, when I got on that committee, people said, Gary, one, you’re a freshman, you know, that’s unusual that you’re on this conference committee, but you’ll probably, I don’t know how long you’ll stay in Congress, but you’ll probably never be on a conference committee like this again,
Senator Gary Peters (37:17):
Pretty unusual to have that happen. That was also a very workload heavy. I had a lots of homework every single night, the massive amount of issues that we went through, but I found the debates very interesting. I mean, we actually got into some of the real lawmaking in a more open forum, with those until late at night, going into the wee hours of the morning on a number of mornings. I worked specifically on some legislation to make sure I worked on it to make sure that some of the protections put in place to stop the widespread, really a disastrous speculation we saw in the derivative market, which really fueled the downward spiral, that sometimes when you, when you’re dealing with that, we knew the pendulum went too far this way for Wall Street, but we didn’t want to be in a situation where it ‘d go too far the other way.
Senator Gary Peters (38:09):
You want to try to find some of that median. And I was engaged in that issue, with what, when you came to hedge and using derivatives to actually hedge, not speculators that would take a bet on a bet and then a bet on the bet kind of thing, which led to a house of cards. But in my case Ford motor company, if you’re hedging raw materials or hedging interest rates or your finding in this case, you have their finance company, which that’s how people buy cars, they’ll finance it through Ford motor credit or GM credit, and they need to have lower rates to be able to hedge that, they were being swept into some of these regulations that would have actually increased the cost dramatically. And wouldn’t have it dealt with the speculation and the risk, but it would have had a significant impact to the consumers. But it took a lot of, a lot of persuasion.
Senator Gary Peters (38:55):
And we actually got engaged in a pretty active debate, like at two o’clock in the morning, with the whole the whole committee. And I was able to successfully get that put in to make sure that we were finding common sense regulations that still protected consumers, but still allowed business to be able to hedge legitimate risks that they needed to hedge. That’s a long example, but that’s what happened in a conference committee in a more open forum than often than I’ve seen occur in a normal committees where a lot of that is done, it was done behind the scenes and negotiations. And when you come to the committee, a lot of it has already been pretty much decided. And the debate that occurs, everybody kinda knows everybody’s voting already. In that case, there were a number of instances where we didn’t know, we would see the votes take place, and everybody was counting votes as they were occurring, which was a pretty fascinating process to be a part of.
Alan E. Wiseman (39:50):
I believe it. Craig can tell you, we were fortunate enough to have a former Congressman Barney, Frank, as well as Bob Kaiser come to Vanderbilt a couple of years ago to talk about their experience and the Congressman Frank’s experience in terms of moving Dodd-Frank forward and Mr. Kaiser’s experienced documenting it and the way he described the certain situation, similar to your experience demonstrates is very unique in a variety of contexts, which is really fascinating to hear. I want to turn back to something you said a little bit earlier regarding essentially what your constituents are, American voters in general, expecting hopefully expecting from their lawmakers. And I’m curious, I mean, to what degree, or how much do you believe or think your constituents either care about your own level of lawmaking effectiveness or to what degree they’re really aware of it? And you intimated this, but I’m curious to know to what degree do you think your level of lawmaking effectiveness, both in this most recent Congress and across your career, might’ve been influenced or related to this most recent election?
Senator Gary Peters (40:50):
Well, I think it does matter. Now, obviously partisanship factors a lot in elections. And I think the academic literature is fairly clear about how that’s becoming more and more important, especially in Senate races. And we’ve seen that in recent Senate elections, whether you closely tied to the presidential race, but I still believe it makes a difference with especially with independent voters who will want someone who looks as if, and has demonstrated not just looks, but actually has demonstrated, that they’re willing to try to find a common ground. I think that’s how I won some of the races. I mentioned when, in that House race, when the Republican governor is winning by 26 points, I’m getting reelected as the Democrat, that’s showing a quarter of the electorate were voting for a Republican governor and then a Democratic member of Congress.
Senator Gary Peters (41:37):
That was a big part of that folks saw me and the work that I did related to the financial rescue and the work that I did in that case, which I was extremely active to making sure the auto industry received the help that they needed to get through the financial crisis. As you can imagine, would have been catastrophic for Michigan, had general motors and Chrysler have gone down and had they gone down Ford would’ve gone as well and … So the fact that I was so intimately involved in that and helped make that happen and had folks at that company say that, and then in my most recent election here talking about the legislation. And it’s not just the number of bills you’re passing or the work it’s, what does it mean to their lives to explain, how that made a difference and what drives you and informs some of your values – really your values.
Senator Gary Peters (42:25):
And one, for example, this was not a standalone bill, it was in a larger package NDA. But one that I talked about a lot in the campaign, I know, made a difference, dealt with work that I did for veterans who were suffering from PTSD. And this came again from a constituent, there was a gentleman in Grand Rapids who was served with honor and distinction as a Marine in Afghanistan, but when he came home things weren’t so great. He started, substance abuse, nightmares, panic attacks, all the symptoms of PTSD, but it wasn’t diagnosed. And he was basically kicked out of the Marines with a bad paper discharge. He ended up homeless on the streets of Grand Rapids. He went to the VA, they diagnosed him.
Senator Gary Peters (43:12):
They said, you’re suffering from PTSD as a result of your service, but we can’t help you because you have a bad paper discharge. We can’t do anything to help you. Well, that’s outrageous, absolutely outrageous. So I went to work, we got all the veterans groups together, built a bipartisan coalition, and now he and others in that position can go back to a board if they have credible medical evidence, can have that discharge changed and they can get the help that they need. So it’s those kinds of actions that really matter for folks and are important in campaigns that people see what you’re doing. And the other big issue for me, this campaign too, was the work that I’ve done, to protect the Great Lakes in Michigan. The Great Lakes are in our DNA, and that cuts across party lines. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican or Independent, we all love the Great Lakes. And if you see a member of the U.S. Senate fighting and delivering to protect the Great Lakes that very helpful that election time. I still want to believe, and I still do believe, that good policy is good politics. And I live by that
Craig Volden (44:16):
To get into the procedural weeds a little bit there, you have a good idea, and it’s gonna matter for people, you were saying there might be multiple pathways. One is you could write that up yourself. The other is you could write it up yourself, then hope, to incorporate it in a piece of legislation that’s moving. Alternatively, you might just go to the leadership with an idea. How do you step through what you write up on your own, what you write up, but then try to reinsert in some other legislation. Just kind of, can you step us through that thinking a little bit?
Senator Gary Peters (44:52):
Yeah. Usually what we do is write it up regardless. So we’ve got an idea. Of course, you start with the problem and then a solution, we don’t like solutions in search of a problem. We want, we have a problem and then the solution for it. And so we, we’ll write that up and then figure out which is the best way to move it. So we’ll introduce them, often we’ll introduce it as a bill. I just want to get things passed too. And so you’ll want to somewhat take the path of least resistance. If you can get it into a bigger package that can be the path of least resistance, because it’s a whole package that’s moving forward, but sometimes they just don’t fit and then you do the standalone legislation to move it forward.
Senator Gary Peters (45:35):
But it’s important… I mean, for example, one recently it happened to be in the CARES act for the pandemic relief. I worked on legislation related to my work with FEMA, that allows folks to get unemployment insurance, if the natural disaster hits, that you would get, unemployment insurance, even if you’re not traditionally in the unemployment system. So if you’re a small business owner, if you’re part of the gig economy or freelancer, but if your business has gone away, you’re in trouble. You need to have income to keep food on the table. We do have some programs to help if a hurricane hits, for example, to help people. So I wrote the pandemic unemployment-pandemic unemployment assistance act, that would allow that to occur for those folks, which is a big number. And that bill was actually incorporated into the CARES act. And that’s where it should have gone. There was no reason to do that independently. We’ve got a big package that’s coming out to help folks let’s put in the authorizing language there. That was then appropriated through the CARES act to be able to take care of it.
Craig Volden (46:35):
That was talking to the committee chair and the party leaders, or how did that conversation go?
Senator Gary Peters (46:43):
Yean, in that one certainly , that one was the key person without was Ron Wyden, who was the ranking member. He’s a ranking member of finance, not the chair. But he was working on ideas similar to that. And he was certainly the main person when it came to negotiating it in the package. And so that was when I worked with Ron, but clearly, I’ll be perfectly honest. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Ron really leaning in. You gotta have an ally who believes in it and pushes it hard. And he was an amazing champion.
Alan E. Wiseman (47:14):
Thanks. You given us a lot of really constructive perspectives, both based on your own career and just observations that you’ve made across your time in Congress. And, you know, trying to sum up some of these thoughts, I’d be curious to know, there’s lots of people, including many people who are going to be doing this interview that might either be involved in politics or have political aspirations. And I’d be curious, as based on your own experience, what advice would you offer to a newly elected member of the House or the Senate, especially those who similar to yourself, actively wanting to engage in lawmaking and wanting to be successful lawmaker?
Senator Gary Peters (47:48):
Well, I’ll go back to to staff. I’d say, first, if you’re coming in new, hire the best staff you can possibly hire, it’s going to be really important to have folks that have that kind of background. You know, I’m thinking of the chief of staff who I hired as a new member of the House. And he lived in the district. He had been active and had been kind of following my career, but he also, prior he worked for a stint with Nancy Pelosi and her office. And then he worked with Rahm Emanuel for a while. And then I got him. But that was pretty good pedigree, as someone who knew his way around Washington. And that was so incredibly important. And I could go through all my staff members who had great experience, if not in politics, they had good substantive understanding and were very, very smart people.
Senator Gary Peters (48:37):
And the thing I always look for are folks with, that are really intellectually curious that really want to kind of explore a number of avenues back to the point about a variety of issue areas. I want folks who are constantly thinking that way, but that’s really critically important And then go about developing relationships right away, too, with folks. So relationships with the people in your class, as I mentioned with my class in the Senate, but it’s the same in the House. Get to know your folks that you’ve come in with right away. Those are going to be pretty important relationships for however long you stay in Congress and don’t, whatever you do, don’t just get to know folks in your own party. You know, really step outside of your comfort zone. And that’s in two ways, we all come with some policy expertise for whatever our background was prior to coming to Congress.
Senator Gary Peters (49:24):
And you’ll probably build on that. And then the House she’ll probably hopefully get on the committee that’s related to that, people will try to do that. But I say step out of your comfort zone on that, as well as you step out of your comfort zone, you build relationships, you learn more about the broad reach of the federal government. And when you learn about that, and as you’re out in your district or in your home state talking to folks, and they’re coming to you with issues and problems, it just gives you a better perspective to kind of put the pieces all together and be the most effective, uh, representative of your state or your district that you can be.
Craig Volden (49:57):
Now, we’ve been naturally talking about lawmaking since we’re the Center for Effective Lawmaking, but the committee you’re chairing takes on a big oversight role as well. Do you see lawmaking oversight, are they going hand in hand or are they sometimes very different beasts? How do you think about those activities?
Senator Gary Peters (50:15):
I say they’re intertwined. There’s, they definitely are because as you do oversight you’ll find issues or areas that you need to address. And sometimes that’s legislatively. Sometimes you do that through administration, but you’ll discover oversight, we’ll discover problems, that need to be addressed. So, you know, for example in my committee, one thing that we’re going to be, we’re going to be doing a lot of oversight, but we’re going to be really doing a deep dive into the pandemic, and look at what happened and FEMA’s role and the other agencies that were engaged as an oversight committee. And try, we’ll do this, and this goes back, we’re going to do this as non-partisan, this is not about a political “gotcha. Let’s let’s point fingers at folks.” I want to file and celebrate what worked, and we’ll question and try to figure out how to fix things that didn’t work.
Senator Gary Peters (51:05):
And that will inevitably will mean, will probably mean some legislation or some sorts of actions that go with it. Same with cyber. We’re going to do a very deep dive into cyber, and there’s a lot of things I’ve worked on legislation for cyber. We’ve got some that we just got out of committee just recently, in fact, bipartisan working with the ranking member, it’ll lead to legislation as to how do we strengthen our cyber defenses. So I see those as really complimentary for the most part, depending on the issue, but generally important because the whole idea is not just to do the oversight, but also make sure that whatever went wrong, never happens again.
Alan E. Wiseman (51:40):
I just want to follow up really quickly or briefly, at least on a point you just raised about the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially with regards to policy and trust and expertise. And I found that really insightful, and it made me wonder to what degree, or essentially, what do you see as the role of external interests groups in the lawmaking process in terms of providing members of the House and Senate with their own policy expertise for precisely these purposes? And, you know, do you think their influence has changed over time, or do you think their influence changes depending on which chamber you’ve been in, in House versus the Senate? Any thoughts you have would be really instructive.
Senator Gary Peters (52:18):
Yeah. Outside groups coming in, judge generally with our advocacy. No, I think they play an incredibly important role because they will be experts in the area that they are involved in. They will give you good perspective. I always, but I just have a cautionary now, depending on who they are and if it’s an industry, for example, to understand that perhaps the other side doesn’t have an organized interest representing them. And so I always want to get both sides of the story. And so I think they can provide very valuable information, but I don’t take it at face value. We always want to verify and check out exactly, is that, does that seem reasonable? What they’re saying? So there’s thinking you gotta be cautious, but I don’t discount them. I think they play an important role in providing information, but with that caveat, that depending on who they are, you may want to, say, verify the information before you act on it from a legislative perspective.
Senator Gary Peters (53:17):
So that’s part of the, actually the process that Craig asked about writing the bills too. Before we write it. I mean, before we actually drop legislation, I’m going to try to run as many traps as I can too Cause I’d rather run the traps before I drop a piece of legislation, then find out I stepped into not just a trap, maybe a minefield, that’s really not a good thing to do. So we will make, the staff will make a lot of inquiries as to this is what we’re thinking. What do you think, how would this impact you? And we’ll actually then actively seek other individuals who will have information to you if they haven’t come to us. And then if I feel comfortable with my staff, we together, we talk, we feel comfortable that this is on pretty sound policy footing, then we will put it forward. But inevitably, even when you do that, people still come continue to come out of the woodwork as they see legislation. Cause then once the legislation hits, it gets publicized more and people will come forward. But we try to minimize folks coming forward that we are not anticipating to come forward.
Craig Volden (54:21):
Sure. We, as you know, dive into a lot of numbers at our Center and we’re impressed by your effectiveness as a lawmaker. One pattern that we saw more broadly in the 116th Senate and I’m wondering if you have some insights on, we just saw a lot more bills sponsored by Democratic senators and the 116th than we did in the 115th. And we didn’t know if that was, let’s put forward a broad agenda in the hopes that we’re in the majority in the future, or if there was anything systematic there, you’re aware of anything along those lines?
Senator Gary Peters (54:58):
No, I’m not. That’s an interesting statistic. I’m not aware. We didn’t talk, we haven’t talked about that in the caucus, like get as many bills as you can out. That didn’t happen. It’s hard to explain without getting into it cause there wasn’t a concerted effort, but you know, part of it too, the more bills you have is it is a cumulative process. You’ll try this year. And those that you think are good, you’ll introduce again, but then you’ll come up with even more ideas. The next Congress that’ll add up. And so the list does start to accumulate a little bit. And if you’re in the minority, perhaps you’re not passing as many, so your backlog starts growing and growing.
Craig Volden (55:37):
You know, our time is coming close as we’re wanting to be respectful of your time, but we did want to give you one final opportunity. Is there anything further or insights that you’re wanting to share with us on your lawmaking career to date?
Senator Gary Peters (55:52):
Well, I just want to thank you. Thanks for both of you. Thank you for doing this work. Thank you for, thinking very broadly about how we make our legislative branch more effective in getting things done. And I just think the work you’re doing is very valuable and I appreciate the efforts you’re putting forward. And I look forward to continuing to see your future studies as you as you dig deeper into these issues. So thank you for what you’re doing.
Craig Volden (56:15):
Fantastic. Thanks for your time today.
Alan E. Wiseman (56:18):
Thank you very much. We’ll hope to have you with one or both of our campuses at some point in the future.
Senator Gary Peters (56:23):
I look forward to it.