Rep. Oberstar Reflects On 36 Years Of Service NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who lost his bid for a 19th term in November. Oberstar reflects on his 36 years in Congress.
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Rep. Oberstar Reflects On 36 Years Of Service

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Rep. Oberstar Reflects On 36 Years Of Service

Rep. Oberstar Reflects On 36 Years Of Service

Rep. Oberstar Reflects On 36 Years Of Service

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who lost his bid for a 19th term in November. Oberstar reflects on his 36 years in Congress.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Minnesota Representative James Oberstar was swept into office on a tidal wave of anger and outrage against the government back in 1974. He was part of the Democratic Watergate landslide. Over his 36-year career, Congressman Oberstar rose in the ranks of his party and became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Last month, he lost his bid for a 19th term to represent the Duluth area. He was beaten by a political neophyte, Republican Chip Cravaack.

And so in these final weeks of the 111th Congress, Jim Oberstar is packing up and saying his goodbyes to his colleagues, and he's joining us to talk about what it's been like all these years.

Welcome to the program.

Representative JIM OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota): Thank you very much for inviting me.

SIEGEL: First, is the Congress, the House of Representatives of 2010, remarkably different from the House of, say, 1975?

Rep. OBERSTAR: Remarkably different, yes.

SIEGEL: How so?

Rep. OBERSTAR: Less congeniality, less interaction of members with one another, much more anxiety to conclude the last vote of the week as early as possible to get back home. The collegiality has diminished in the House, and along with it so has respect, bipartisanship and a sense of the greater public good.

SIEGEL: Over the years, you delivered projects and money back to the district in northern Minnesota, back to the state of Minnesota. And that was seen as a good thing. And I just wondered, do you think that people now see money from Washington as part of the problem instead of part of the solution?

Rep. OBERSTAR: In gross, yes. But when asked about their own specific local circumstances, people are very grateful that their member of Congress or their United States senator has been able to deal with a local problem. For example, there's Chisago County, which is in the jurisdiction of the 10th Minnesota Engineering District of the Department of Transportation. That district engineer in 15 years never once set foot in Chisago County.

In that period of time, 57 people died on a stretch of Highway 8. The citizens came to me with an appeal for action on this continuing catastrophe. Over the next few years, I delivered $23 million to make improvements in the roadway. In 10 years, we didn't have a single fatality - not a person complained about an earmark.

SIEGEL: Now, your opponent this time ran successfully. He said: I'm a normal everyday American. He said: Washington has lost touch with people. Look at the bailouts, the debt, the health care bill.

Was there a loss of understanding of what ordinary, everyday Americans were experiencing over the past couple of years?

Rep. OBERSTAR: Well, I think you're now talking about a national phenomenon. The Republican Party was successful in nationalizing anger and misunderstandings of the health insurance reform legislation. And the long-term debt held by public and the annual budget deficit of the federal government, the Republicans were very successful in pinning the tail on Obama and not accepting responsibility themselves for it.

SIEGEL: But the Democrats had the White House, the House and the Senate for a couple of years, with pretty big majorities. Doesn't it make sense the public would say, the way things are right now, you guys are responsible for it?

Rep. OBERSTAR: Correct, Robert. But the story behind the story that this is our fault, we didn't succeed in explaining that adequately to the public. The House passed 412 bills that the Senate never acted on because of 104 - my last count - filibusters or threatened filibusters in the Senate.

SIEGEL: But it wasn't exactly an inactive Congress for all despite all the filibusters. Here, the Democrats passed a stimulus bill, passed a health care bill that was huge, passed a financial regulatory bill. President and the Senate got two Supreme Court nominations confirmed. One could say it wasn't for lack of things getting done - maybe nothing brought down the unemployment rate - but voters reacted to what was done, not what wasn't done.

Rep. OBERSTAR: And that is true as well. But there are many more items that we passed that the Senate should have acted on. For example, we passed the reauthorization of the State Revolving Loan Fund to build wastewater treatment plants, $15 billion to put people to work all across America...

SIEGEL: But I can imagine Republicans - some Republican conservative listeners hearing you right now and saying: These Democrats, they still don't get it. We don't want them to do more. We don't want another $15 billion bill. We want them to reduce government, get out of our lives. Do less.

Rep. OBERSTAR: Yes, well, what about having clean drinking water? This is not a conservative versus liberal issue. This is not a fiscal responsibility issue. This is a public health quality of life issue.

SIEGEL: Congressman Oberstar, James Oberstar of Minnesota, thank you very much for talking with us.

Rep. OBERSTAR: My pleasure to join you on this program.

(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

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