Narrow interests, partisan divide impede
broad collective action on public problems A Civic CaucusReview of Minnesota’s Civic ProcessInterview October
Present John Adams,
Steve Anderson, Dave Broden (vice chair), Janis Clay, Sallie Kemper
(associate director), Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim Penny, Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence
proliferation of interest groups focused on a narrow set of issues
makes it harder for people to come together on a broad range of
important public policy issues, according to Tim Penny, former U.S.
House member from Minnesota and now president and CEO of the
Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.
that has helped change the culture of decision-making over the last
40 years, he says, is that now people can get their information the
way they want to get it, whether on the liberal or conservative
side. The audience is segmented and the media are only interested in
talking to their share of the audience. And the fact that people
don't all read the same local newspapers anymore has eroded our
sense of community and our sense of how to resolve public policy
Penny laments the
partisan divide and the failure of most attempts over the past 20
years to overcome it. He believes the two sides often start the
debate over an issue too far apart to even find common ground. And
insisting that people admit they are wrong before agreeing to talk
to them is a nonstarter.
He offers a number of
proposals that could change the way people think about being a
citizen and could encourage people to work collectively to solve
problems: (1) instituting universal service at age 18; (2)
encouraging community service tied to academics in high school; (3)
helping students register to vote before they graduate from high
school; (4) forming a blue-ribbon commission to redesign state
government; (5) urging local communities to address their own needs,
rather than looking to Washington; (6) setting Congressional term
limits; and (7) convincing business leaders that it's essential to
cultivate working relationships on both sides of the aisle.
Biography Tim Penny
has been president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative
Foundation (SMIF) since April 2007. SMIF serves 20 counties in
southern Minnesota. He also serves as an affiliate faculty member at
the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of
complements many of SMIF's key interests, including the areas of
workforce development, early childhood development and economic
development, with a focus on bio-ag and biomedical. Penny sees these
areas as having the biggest growth potential for the region and the
greatest impact on the future economy of southern Minnesota.
Minnesota's First Congressional District in the U.S. House of
Representatives from 1983 to 1995. Previously he was a member of the
Minnesota State Senate from 1977 to 1983. He is cofounder of the
Economic Club of Minnesota.
Congressional career, Penny placed an emphasis on budget issues. He
chaired the Democratic Budget Group, as well as the Porkbusters
Coalition. His deficit-reduction efforts were recognized by such
organizations as the Business Roundtable, Citizens for a Sound
Economy, the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against
Penny has co-authored
three books: Common Cents: A Retiring Six-Term Congressman
Reveals How Congress Really Works - And What We Must Do to Fix It
15 Biggest Lies in Politics (1998), and Payment
raised in southeastern Minnesota, Penny
received his B.A. in political science from Winona State University.
interview with Tim Penny is part of a new focus for the Civic
Caucus: reviewing the quality of Minnesota's past, present and
future civic process for developing good public-policy proposals and
action to anticipate, define and resolve major problems. The Caucus
developed this new focus during three internal discussion sessions,
Sept. 18 and
Oct. 2, 2015. While it undertakes this review of the civic
process, the Caucus will also continue interviews exploring the
topic of human capital in Minnesota.
has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, so the culture
of decision-making is much different from what it was. Tim Penny,
former U.S. House member from Minnesota and now president and
CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF),
said somehow the societal structures back then provided a
pathway to get things done. "If you look at the civic
institutions today that help us address issues, there are some
that are still with us.
Some of those institutions are no longer the driving force
they were in the past.
"Why has that
changed?" he asked. "Part of it there has been a proliferation
of ways to get involved. It's harder in today's world for
people to come together on a broad range of important public
policy issues than it is for us to just focus on that narrow
set of issues that matter to us most."
Penny noted that
interest group proliferation is part of what has bogged down
Interest groups only care
about their narrow agendas. "It's not their problem if they
get in the way of other agendas," he said.
Interest groups become more
"It's hard to bring folks together when they're siloed."
Today we can get
our information the way we want to get it.Penny
said people can go online and get the news as they want it,
whether on the liberal or conservative side.
"That's a piece of what makes it more difficult to bring folks
A lot of this is
tied to generational differences.Penny
said Ben Winchester at the University of Minnesota-Morris has
looked at the brain drain in rural areas, caused by young
people graduating from high school or college in a rural area
and then migrating to the Twin Cities or elsewhere and never
coming back. But Winchester's recent research has shown a
brain gain in rural areas by people from age 30 to 49. And
two-thirds of those people have never lived in a rural area
Winchester explained that while there is a brain gain in this
age group, when they move to a small town, don't be expecting
them to join traditional organizations like the Lions Club or
the Rotary Club. "These are broad-based organizations that
take on a variety of projects within the community," Penny
"It might be possible to get these new residents to
participate in one project, but not in a broad number of
They want to get engaged in things they care about most, not
what's best for the community.
"It's a huge
cultural shift. This affects how decisions are made in public
Who shows up at caucuses to nominate candidates? It's not a
cross-section any longer of the community or the neighborhood.
It's an overrepresentation of narrower groups that want that
they want. Over time it's a chicken-and-egg situation. Are
they driving others out because it makes the process
unappealing to other people who don't have a passion about
those narrower issues? There's good evidence that's probably
"Once people are
in office," Penny continued, "they've probably already aligned
themselves with many of those same interests, which makes it
difficult for them to compromise on particular issues. It's
very difficult for people on the other side of the aisle to
see the pathway to common ground on an issue."
He talked about
our inability to come to a solution to the state's
transportation funding problem, saying, "We start the debate
too far apart to even find common ground."
In the last 20
years, most of the attempts to overcome this partisan divide
haven't gotten a lot of traction.
"In its own way, Penny said, "the Independence Party was
trying to find a path up the middle to draw both conservative
and liberal people together. But after 20 years, there's no
He spoke of the
demise of the Common Sense Coalition and barriers faced by the
Bipartisan Policy Coalition, national groups trying to pull
together people from both parties. "A lot of it is because all
of the sensible centrist groups lack one thing: motivational
rage," Penny said.
incompatible in many ways to have a sensible, thoughtful
approach to a problem and still have some rage," he continued.
"Today, on the left is Bernie Sanders, who taps into some rage.
On the right is Donald Trump, who is also tapping into some
It's easy to do that and people are yearning for that, but the
emotion doesn't lead you to an outcome.
You could say that by tapping into rage, there's something to
that. But is that agenda realistic or is that further evidence
of the divide?" Penny thinks it's further evidence of the
for civic groups that are well-intentioned is to somehow tap
into this rage that the system is broken in order to capture
public attention," he said.
Penny admitted that at this point in his
life, he's pulled back from a lot of efforts to try to change
things and has focused on things he can
change. "It's not because I don't care about these bigger
issues, it's that I'm worn out," he said. "I'm despondent."
He listed change
efforts he's involved in today:
He's part of FairVote, an
effort to move to Instant Runoff Voting. "This could change
the dynamics of voting and help eliminate the dominance of
the two parties, which increasingly have become too
polarized and are not helping us get things done," he said.
He serves on the Parent
Aware for School Readiness board, which, he states, is
getting something done in early education.
He runs the Southern
Minnesota Initiative Foundation, which focuses on
partnership and collaboration on entrepreneurship, helping
the economy grow and early childhood.
He is a cofounder of the
Economic Club of Minnesota, a nonpartisan group that brings
in premier speakers on topics relating to the economy.
He serves on the Committee
for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is also a
We need some
expectation on the part of our citizenry that we all do
something collectively. "I
was fan of universal service when I was in Congress," Penny
remarked. For a year or two out of high school, everyone would
be expected to do something, like the military, the Peace
Corps, AmeriCorps, Civilian Conservation Corps or other
things. "We can combine vocational and technical stuff with
what people are doing," he said, "but everybody at age 18 does
something bigger than themselves."
"I think it will
change the national culture and the national dialogue in a
variety of ways," he continued. "It'll help us learn more
about one another. It could be a way of getting us into a
different mindset about what it means to be a citizen."
Penny noted that
the Greatest Generation came home from the war and made a huge
difference in how we worked together in communities, advanced
goals and invested in a whole range of community assets and
Every war vote
should include two things: (1) a reinstitution of the draft to
put the country on notice that more people may be called into
service and (2) a surtax to pay at least some of the expenses
of the war now.
"We should all know that this is what war means," he said.
people can't get what they want, they'd rather have nothing
happen. An interviewer
commented that in years back, the speed at which we gathered
information about what was going on was slower.
Things had time to soak in people's minds, so there was time
for thought before a decision was made. Now information is out
before the incident even happens.
"Because of that, we've become too much of a democracy," the
"We're forgetting that we're a republic. We're supposed to
operate giving people the opportunity to make decisions as a
group in a representative way. Now every group wants to rule
and that's driven by the flow of information."
what they want," Penny responded.
"That's part of what's baked into our political process today."
He said he's
often told people running for office that if they want to be
good legislators, they should buck their party's interest
groups once in awhile. "Being constantly in line with them
means you're not serving your constituency, which is bigger
than that," he said.
"Otherwise, you're not challenging the party and the interest
groups to realize they can't have it all.
That's how the system works."
We no longer
have a Federalist system.
Penny acknowledged that some things do have to go all the way
to Washington and primarily be resolved there. But too many
things go all the way there. He said about 15 percent of
special education money in our local schools comes from
Washington, but all the regulations come from Washington. "The
other 85 percent of that funding comes from state or local
sources," he said, "yet everything has to be done the way
Washington wants it done."
On too many
issues, you have to agree you're wrong before we can even
talk. "Telling me I
have to agree with you before we can even start to talk is a
nonstarter," Penny said.
In response to a question about global warming, he said there
are global warming activists and global warming deniers.
"But we need to get to a resolution," he said.
He praised Sen. John McCain's response to the situation.
McCain doesn't embrace global warming, Penny said, but he
embraces conservation and alternative energy ideas. "You don't
have to believe the activists to get to the point where we can
agree that conservation and alternative energy make sense,"
communities must address their own needs, because Washington
is broke and broken.
An interviewer pointed out the growth in the number of
lobbyists in Washington, as people increasingly look to the
Federal government for money and solutions. Penny noted that a
Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation report from about 25
years ago observed that the Foundation needed to play a role
in helping local communities to address their own needs,
because Washington was broke. Now, 25 years later, he pointed
out, Washington is still broke, but everyone still thinks we
can get Federal money to solve our problems.
are our problems," he said.
is not only broke, but it's also broken. They can't even pass
a long-term highway bill.
So, bring it home."
Congressional term limits would require a Constitutional
change. In response to a
question, Penny said he was inclined toward Congressional term
limits, but because imposing such limits would involve a
Constitutional change, it would require a lot of rage to get
"So, I don't think we're going to get there," he said.
He noted that
the House has term-limited committee chairs, so there's been
some rotation of leadership there, moving talent around.
"I think there's a lot of health in that," he said.
"But it would
take a lot of rage to get to term limits," he continued. "A
hundred years ago, there was a lot of rage at the political
system. Teddy Roosevelt and others in the progressive movement
brought some fundamental reforms. Former Minnesota Governor
Jesse Ventura captured some rage, rage in the middle. He did
it with more of a centrist approach than politicians today. I
don't know how we do that today."
institutions of public policy fall into three categories.
An interviewer said Ted Kolderie has described the categories
Issue shaping organizations.
organizations, which include the many levels of government.
noted that there used to be many fewer organizations. Now, he
said, Minnesota has close to 4,000 nonprofit organizations.
proliferation among nonprofits is caused by groups narrowing
their issue focus.Penny
called the proliferation "amazing."
He said there's a lot of overlap among nonprofits, a blurring
of service delivery and advocacy.
When asked where
foundations fit in the picture, Penny said he doesn't view
foundations as institutions of public policy.
He believes the bigger foundations in the state are "all
trying to find their way."
Some foundations want to fund advocacy, some innovative change
and some a broad range of organizations and issues.
We need a
blue-ribbon commission to redesign state government. In response
to an interviewer's question about holding the bureaucracy
accountable, Penny said the state needs a blue-ribbon
commission to recommend ways to redesign state government.
Such an effort must empower public employees, whatever their
area of work, he said. "The way you empower them is good
leadership at the top.
That's part of what holds us back.
More often than not we have agencies led by appointees who
aren't capable of actually leading the agency. They don't have
the broad view. They're not empowered by the governors."
Looking at the
Ventura years, Penny held that none of the people appointed
then were political appointees. "Ventura had some pretty
talented people leading the agencies.
He created a wholly different sense of purpose and mission.
There was freedom in those agencies to actually tackle what
they were assigned to tackle. We just don't get enough of that
now. Bureaucracies tend to calcify if there's not enough good
leadership at the top. When there's a lack of leadership
there, everybody keeps doing the same old, same old."
The media have
changed. Penny said we're
not getting a lot of in-depth or investigative reporting from
any of the major news organizations any longer.
A White House correspondent told Penny the media have been
hollowed out and there are limited hours in the day to dig as
much as journalists would like to dig. News coverage is more
superficial, Penny said. The vast majority of stories are from
the wires, as opposed to being developed by local reporters.
asked if the fact that people don't all read the same local
newspapers has eroded our sense of community and our sense of
how to resolve public policy problems. Penny believes it has.
"Now we choose to hear the news fed to us the way we want to
hear it," he said. "In the glory days, we had only CBS, NBC
They had to present the news in way that would resonate with
Now we've segmented our listeners.
The media are only interested in talking to their share of the
encourage a youth service model in high schools and help
students register to vote before they finish high school.
Penny noted that many schools are already doing this.
There's a way to incorporate service into the academic
requirements. And helping students register to vote could be
an opportunity to learn about citizenship.
In the past,
homegrown companies tended to have a sense of civic purpose
and obligation to the community. "We lost it,"
"Many companies are no longer homegrown. But we're getting
some of that back. The Itasca Project group of business people
is trying to do that.
There are several key business leaders in the group trying to
get business leaders together on big issues in a nonpartisan
beginning to come back."
Penny noted that
some business CEOs are sending some of their younger people to
meetings of the Economic Club of Minnesota to get them engaged
in topics focused on business and economic concerns.
organizations have become too partisan in the last couple of
said some business organizations have taken themselves out of
the "we're-all-in-this-together role" and placed themselves in
a partisan role. He emphasized that business leadership needs
to cultivate working relationships on both sides of the aisle.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,