One Man’s Crusade to Make Congress Work Better

Ban incumbents from campaigning against each other, says Sen. Joe Manchin, and require a five-day workweek.

Earlier this spring, speculation was mounting that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin would be leaving the Senate to run for his former job as governor of West Virginia.

Polls showed Manchin to be a heavy favorite, were he to become a candidate in 2016. An April 2015 survey, for example, showed Manchin with a 66 percent approval rating in the state and a 30-point lead over state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the leading GOP candidate.

But at the end of April, Manchin made a surprise announcement on Face the Nation: “I’m going to stay and I will run for reelection,” he said. “I know that the Senate is not working the way it was intended to and the way it’s supposed to. But I’m not going to stop fighting to make it work.”

Since coming to the Senate in 2010, Manchin has worked hard to cultivate a reputation for bipartisanship, including a high-profile effort with Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to expand background checks on gun sales. National Journal‘s 2014 vote ratings put him squarely in the center ideologically, ranking him the 54th most liberal senator and the 46th most conservative.

“A party line vote doesn’t mean anything to me,” Manchin says. “If I can’t go home and explain it, I won’t vote for it. And a lot of this stuff doesn’t make sense.” According to OpenCongress, Manchin falls in line with Democrats just 73 percent of the time. By comparison, fellow West Virginian Sen. Shelley Moore Capito votes with Republicans 95 percent of the time.

This independence has helped keep Manchin popular in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for President since Bill Clinton – in 2012, just 36 percent of West Virginians voted for Barack Obama. Manchin, however, won re-election the same year with 61 percent of the vote.

Manchin is unafraid to badger his colleagues into bipartisanship, including by pushing for ideas that he admits aren’t popular with his fellow senators. Now that he’s decided to stay in the Senate, Manchin says a more civil Congress will be among his top priorities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What would you change to make Congress work better?
Manchin: The first thing I would do is have an ethics rule that says any sitting senator cannot campaign against another sitting senator.

These are people whom you’re supposed to work with. You build relationships and you build trust. You might not agree with them; you might not like the person; you might not even want to go to dinner with them. But you respect that they have a job, and you have a job, and your best resolve is to do what’s best for the country.

But if you know every day that they’re trying to defeat you, you don’t want to have any contact with them, let alone a working relationship. That’s what I see going on here every day.

I’ve taken a personal pledge that I will not campaign or raise money against a sitting colleague. I haven’t done it, and I’m not going to do it.

How has that gone over with your colleagues?
Manchin: Not real well.

You’re expected to go out and recruit and try to help people run against colleagues that are up for election. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, both sides are expected to do the same. That’s the operation.

But when I was first asked to do that, I said, “If you operate like this back in West Virginia where I come from, they kick your butt.” We don’t accept this type of nonsense. If you’re supposed to work with someone, you work with them.

And I think it’s helped me. I can talk to anybody. They’re not worried about saying something and having me use it against them in a campaign ad. They know I won’t do it. So I have very open relationships with Republicans – and with Democrats too.

But even with all the friends I think I’ve made, I guarantee you that as soon as I’m up for re-election, they’ll be asked to go out and campaign against me and help recruit someone to run against me.

What else would you like to see happen to encourage more progress in Congress?

Manchin: I think you move toward a five-day workweek. My constituents back home would be very satisfied if they knew that for three full weeks I had to be in Washington Monday through Friday and they wouldn’t see me on the weekends.

And then one week out of the month I would be able to come home and take care of my constituents, listen to them and come back refreshed, hearing from them what needs to be done.

But we’re out of here Thursday evening and we come back Monday evening, and we’re flying all over the world every weekend. There’s not much time to do what we’ve been elected to do.

How do you fix this? You fix it by telling members that [the government] will only pay for one round-trip a month to go home to work in your district. The rest of it is on you. Let’s see how quickly that will change things. All we have to do now is have one official meeting and that takes care of legitimizing your expenses.

On the Charlie Rose show a year ago, you said you thought you got more done as governor than as senator. Why are you staying in the Senate?

Manchin: The weekend before I made my decision, I was definitely going to run for governor again. It was a much more fulfilling job for me. But then it kept just weighing on me: Would it be public service or self-service? The self service was that I wanted to go back home. I enjoyed it better, and I got more satisfaction out of it.

But then I thought about public service, and public service isn’t always doing the easy thing or taking care of what makes me happier. And I [also] thought about the challenges we have and how I can fight these bigger [issues] on a bigger platform.

Even though this might not be the most comfortable place for me or be rewarding every day, it has the chance to change the lives of many West Virginians and many Americans and maybe even people in the rest of the world. I felt I needed to stay here and fight the good fight.

What are the some of the other priorities that you want to focus on over the next four years?
Manchin: My biggest concern is that the youth of America do not believe that they have ownership and responsibility for this great country. I truly believe we’ve lost that.

I try to use as a comparison owning a car versus renting a car, which most people have done at some point in their life. I always ask people, “When you rented that car, did you check the oil level and the tire pressure and make sure everything was perfect before you took it back? Or did you go find the cheapest gas you could and hope the damn thing was running when you turned the keys over?”

The youth of this country need to understand that the values that we have didn’t come cheaply, didn’t come freely and involved a lot of sacrifice. They ought to be giving something back.

I tell young people that I don’t think there’s another country on earth that can take on the might of the United States of America. But [other nations] have time and patience on their side. They’ve waited for years and years, and they think that if they sit back, and if we don’t become as educated as we have and we don’t have the skill sets that we have in the past, then we won’t be able to compete on a global level and we won’t be a world power. That’s what they’re hoping for. I want to disappoint them.

As a Democrat who’s succeeded in a red state, what advice do you have for Democrats nationally – and for Hillary Clinton specifically – in 2016?
Manchin: If West Virginians thought they had the right person with the right values and the right ideas, they’d be for [that person].

We’re still a state that’s basically fiscally responsible and socially compassionate. That’s what I am. I don’t claim to be a Washington Democrat. I’m a West Virginia Democrat, a proud West Virginia Democrat, and I think we’re a little different.

We expect you to get up in the morning and go to work. We expect you to contribute, volunteer and give something back. We expect you to help your neighbor who may be in a tough spot. We expect you to take care of somebody who doesn’t have the ability to take care of themselves. And we expect that if you make it to the top of the ladder, you ought to remember how you got up there, one rung at a time and not look down on people. These are pretty simple lessons to live by.