By Spencer White
As Republicans reclaim the Senate, partisanship in America is about to have a whole new look, making an alumni’s recent talk all the more poignant. Bill Sweeney, a ‘98 alum, recently visited campus to talk about his career as chief of staff for Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and how partisan politics are affecting the nation.
Sweeney leaves a lasting impact wherever he goes. As a student at Albion College, Sweeney was a key member of student committees to design the Kellogg Center and Ferguson buildings that currently stand on campus. The look of Albion College as we know it is in some part due to Sweeney’s work on these committees. For example, the reason the numbers of students’ Kellogg Center boxes don’t start at 0 wasn’t an arbitrary decision–it was Bill Sweeney maneuvering around Postal Service regulations.* Sweeney said the problem-solving skills he exercised at Albion are the same skills he uses in his duties as chief of staff.
When Sweeney was an undergraduate, tried his hand at everything: he said if there was a student organization, he was probably a member of it. He obtained eight units each from the English, chemistry, and political science departments and worked for a summer at the Albion branch of the Volunteer Center of America while it was still in operation. When he moved into politics, Sweeney worked on a historic campaign to elect Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. Baldwin was the first openly gay candidate for public office.
The Pleiad was able to sit down with Sweeney before his talk and learn about what it’s like to be chief of staff for one of the most powerful women in American politics.
The Pleiad:So tonight [Oct. 29] your talk’s about bipartisanship and how that’s impeding American politics. But interestingly, Senator Stabenow’s biggest bill this year, the farm bill, was actually bipartisan legislation.
Bill Sweeney: Right! You know, the issue that I want to talk about tonight is that people often say things are impossible, that it’s so partisan that it’s impossible to get anything done. What I’ve learned in politics is that when people say “It’s impossible,” what they really mean is “it’s gonna be really hard.” And a lot of people choose to do the “well, it’s too hard so I’m gonna not do it.”And so what we did with the farm bill, and the farm bill used to always be a bipartisan kind of thing. Everyone said it would be partisan in an election year, it was impossible to get done in an election year, and it certainly took a long time. It took three years to get it done. That’s a long time! But we did it by building consensus and building coalitions and building that brick by brick, person by person. Really, really difficult work figuring out what everybody’s issue was, what did they need for their state, what did they need for their farmers back home, how to get the environmental folks, what did they need to see in the bill before they could vote for it. It’s making sure that you can build something that actually people could vote for. I would also say that her [Stabenow’s] other major accomplishment this year was passing what’s called the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which is a really pretty groundbreaking expansion of Medicaid for mental health. We were able to work with Republicans, she partnered with Roy Blunt, the Senator from Missouri, and worked with Republicans to get it into a bill that was passed. Most of it was about doctor’s payment formulas and stuff, but the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which is going end up getting implemented in the next couple years, is a huge bill! A huge, important thing, but nobody talked about it, because it wasn’t controversial. There was no partisan bickering, there was no back–and-forth. And the truth is that the media is really so focused on conflict that they miss [things], and they don’t cover it, so people think that things aren’t happening. The truth is the partisanship is not as bad as it’s ever been. I sort of always say that nobody’s been killed in a duel yet, no one’s been caned on the Senate floor yet. That was actually the worst! But it’s close to being the worst. The fact is, in an average Congress, about 380, close to 400 bills get signed into law. In this one, about 180 have. So numerically, you can see that this is not working, that gridlock is a real thing that is causing a problem. But when people do want to work together, you can get things done, and I think that’s the key.
As chief of staff, what’s your relationship to these processes of working through bipartisanship? What do you do to reach out?
Well, part of what all the chiefs of staff do is we sort of serve a little bit like ambassadors for our bosses. We work a lot with each other, and so if our legislative staff are reaching an impasse, we can pick up the phone to each other. Chiefs of staff aren’t in the weeds as much on the policy stuff every day, so we can actually have a conversation and say “I don’t know what the deal is.” It’s the ability to get a nice back-and-forth going. But the bigger part of it is managing the strategy with the Senator and saying “Okay, who do you need to reach out to? Who do we need to reach out to? Who does it make more sense for the staff to talk to? Does it make more sense for you to talk to them, or who else needs to talk to them?” If we’re having a difficulty with a certain member who’s close to that person, she can go to a different Republican to get that Republican to talk to the other Republican–it’s about figuring out who the right messenger is. That’s a lot of what I do.
So you’re a pretty big asset to the Senator in terms of starting conversations.
Certainly she’s got great instincts on this, and so she often drives the train herself and we’re kind of catching up! But the idea is to try to keep those lines open and always be looking for opportunities to work with folks. And the truth is that it happens more often than people know. But certainly not enough. I think what we want to see is more of that. We want to see some of the bigger things. There are lots of little things we can do in a bipartisan way. There’s some big things we need to do in our country that we need to be focused on and that need to get solved.
In your career so far with Stabenow, what are those issues that you’ve found trouble with, that you think we need to resolve to move the country forward?
I would say that issues around health care, right now with the partisanship around the Affordable Care Act. People have gone to their corners on that–well, I wouldn’t say people have, I would say Republicans have gone to their corner on the Affordable Care Act. It’s made it impossible for us to actually get some things achieved that we need to do. There’s some things that need to be fixed. Every time you pass a big bill, there’s going to be things that you want to fix, that you want to improve or strengthen. We haven’t been able to do any of that with the Affordable Care Act, and that’s really unfortunate. I think the American people are suffering as a result. I actually think that’s one that hopefully, after the election, we can maybe reset the way we deal with health care and have some real adult conversations about how we can move forward on that issue. Certainly there are challenges around climate change and around sustainability that we need to have a serious adult conversation about, and folks who deny science and say “I don’t believe in the science” are not helpful;, and we really need to move beyond that. We need to have people in America–I was just down at the student farm, we were talking about how in agriculture, climate change is very serious. Agriculture is a huge part of our economy, and climate change is a mortal threat to agriculture in this country. We saw this in 2012, with the worst droughts we’ve ever seen. We’ve seen it with flooding, we’ve seen it with weird weather we’ve had in Michigan. You know, weather is different than climate, and when you see the same weird weather patterns year after year after year, and farmers see this because they have records that go back a hundred years on their farm, When they see that the crops they used to plant in March now they have to plant in February, or they have to harvest earlier or later than they used to. They can see that there are trends that are happening. And certainly we can look at droughts and rainfall patterns and it’s a real concern. We see right now in California, where almost all our fruits and vegetables come from, and there’s no water. Huge rivers are nothing. So what do we do with that? How do we deal with those challenges? We have to do them.
So these agricultural issues are in Senator Stabenow’s jurisdiction [as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry]. What approach has she taken to solving this?
Well, the farm bill is surprisingly–well, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it a farm bill, because there’s actually about twelve different bills in the farm bill. The farm bill is actually our country’s largest investment in conservation on private lands. Seventy percent of the land is the country is owned by somebody, and that includes not only farmland but forest land. People don’t know that it’s the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry committee. We have huge transnational forests, we have a lot of privately owned forests, in Michigan certainly, and all that is part of the Agriculture committee. The farm bill has a lot of environmental stuff that people don’t have any idea of. Certainly around water. There’s a huge new program we’re rolling out called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. It’s a really big deal for Michigan because it’s all around water quality and water quantity issues, and so for the Great Lakes, bringing together people in the community and corporations, we did an announcement up in Bay City with Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s sources the winter wheat that goes into Frosted Mini Wheats. It all comes from the thumb area of Michigan! On the Saginaw Bay. So they partner now with folks in the Saginaw Bay area, with farmers, with local organizations, environmental folks, conservation folks, even hunting groups and fishing groups are involved in some of these things. [It’s] to develop a regional plan to protect the water and make sure we’re doing everything possible to be sustainable. It’s part of Kellogg’s commitment to sustainability, but it’s also Kellogg’s commitment to having a source Frosted Mini Wheats. If they don’t have wheat, they don’t have Frosted Mini Wheats. So corporations are seeing the advantages around this as well. The Regional Conservation Partnership program has a number of different regions around the country that are sort of target areas, and certainly I think we would expect to see applications from the Central Valley of California to look at drought issues and water quantity issues and see how we can figure that out.
There’s an interesting balance between the constituency, effecting this policy in Michigan, and then making sure it’s taken care of at the national level.
We’re always focused on Michigan first. As she says, “I wrote the farm bill, Michigan’s on every page,” but there’s a lot of other states on every page, too. Certainly we’re all in this together. I think folks in Michigan are aware, maybe a little bit more aware of environmental water things, if we look at the Great Lakes and people who have grown up going camping on the Great Lakes. I certainly think our farmers in Michigan have a different sensitivity around water. Our farmers sort of “get this,” Michigan’s kind of ahead of the curve on a lot of these environmental issues already because for us, it’s life or death. When you look at what happened to Lake Erie over the summer, the farmers in the area are very concerned about that. They’re very involved in ways to avoid keeping that from happening again. What happened was there was a toxic algae bloom that erupted on Lake Erie. There was no drinking water in Toledo. I mean, this is a city of 600,000 people. No drinking water for a week? People were driving to Monroe, and there was no water in Monroe because people had bought all the water from the shelves. So how do we solve these kinds of problems? There’s lots of different issues that go into water, and that’s why I think it’s important to bring everyone together. You need to bring together the regional partnership.
What’s a normal day like for you?
I don’t have a normal day! [laughs] I don’t have a normal day, and every day is different, and I think that’s what makes my job fun. If every day were the same, if it were predictable, I don’t think I’d have as much fun. So every day I go into the office and I have no idea sort of what’s going to happen. I might have plans, I have grand plans for every day and none of it works out, but I think that’s one of the coolest things about my job. Kind of just dealing with a little bit of everything. I know that’s probably not what people are interested in hearing about, but I say it’s a lot of fighting fires. It’s spending a lot of time managing things that are happening and making sure we’re keeping up on stuff. Making sure the Senator has strategic goals for the things we want to accomplish and make sure all those trains are running on time and keeping all that together.
So when something comes at you guys, what does that look like?
You know, it’s like something that pops up in the news media–how are we going to respond to it? Getting our communications folks to put out a statement, maybe even have the legislative folks start taking a look at drafting a bill on something. That kind of thing. It’s really kind of thinking about all the different pieces together and how do our local and regional folks, our staff who are here in Michigan, how do they fit into this as well? It’s about bringing the pieces together and making sure we have a cohesive way to address challenges.
*According to Sweeney, the U.S. Postal Service only allows addresses to be called a “box” if the address is an actual P.O. box at U.S. Post offices.. Therefore, Albion College wouldn’t be allowed to call its student mailboxes “ KC boxes” for mailing purposes. The Postaal Service preferred the term “unit number.” Sweeney didn’t want students or staff being referred to as unit numbers, and so he figured out a workaround. As a student employee working in the College’s human resources department, Sweeney pored over the Postal Service regulations. He found a loophole thaat worked like this: the College would establish that the Kellogg Center was on its own street, called Kellogg “Center,” and the College would say that there are 1600 addresses on that street. The USPS complied. The reason box numbers start with 4s and 5s is due to USPS regulations about what houses can have which number. The part of Albion that the KC is in is the 4000 and 5000 block.
It’s easier to understand Bill in is own words. Listen below: