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Congressman Cooper: 'My colleagues are misbehaving'

Rep. Jim Cooper speaking at the Oversight & Government Reform Hearing on Consumer Financial Protection.

Kai Ryssdal: Smack in the middle of the rancorous debate over the debt ceiling this week, there was another not-so-pleasant conversation going on in Washington. Elizabeth Warren took another turn in front of a House subcommittee to talk about Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She's the one who first proposed the CFPB. It made it into the Dodd-Frank reform bill from last year. And it's set to open up shop next week, even though nobody's been nominated to run the place.

Hence the hearing. The panel was pretty testy with Warren, and members were with each other as well, breaking down mostly along party lines. Then Representative Jim Cooper, Democrat from Tennessee, took the floor and said there's got to be a better way. Here's part of it:

Jim Cooper: Some of us come here so used the food fight that we want it to continue. And you'll probably score brownie points if you make your partisan hit. You might even get a better committee. Well congratulations. You will not have solved a problem.

Congressman Cooper, welcome to the program.

Jim Cooper: Thank you, glad to be with you.

Ryssdal: That was quite a set of remarks, I guess, congressmen call it when they speak. What drove you to make those remarks yesterday?

Cooper: Working in this Congress is deeply frustrating; in fact, it's enraging. My colleagues are misbehaving. They're posturing for voters back home. They're taking the cheap political hit instead of studying the problem that's before us. Our nation has tons of problems, they require a lot of work to diagnose them and then prescribe the right treatment.

Ryssdal: Anybody come up to you yesterday after the hearing the other day and say, 'Hey Jim, I'm with you; I've got your back on this one, let's fix this'?

Cooper: I got tons of compliments. In fact, no criticism, and it made me wonder why the folks who are complimenting me weren't going ahead and behaving better already.

Ryssdal: You know there is a lot on the line here, though, right? I mean there's literally the credibility of the nation, the credit of the nation; there is in the specific case of Ms. Warren, regulating the finances in the flow of capital in this country. Where do you we go if, on the biggest issues, the most important issues of our economy, we can't work and play well with others?

Cooper: We have to be able to talk to each other, to disagree without being disagreeable. Now there's so much cynicism, there's so much negativity, people are almost hoping for a scandal or an outrage. And today, the media spin is so tough and there's so little real news, it's more info-entertainment, that we really have to take a deep breath, count to 10, try to get to the real issues and then solve them in an amicable fashion.

Ryssdal: How did this happen, though? You said at one point the other day, you know, it didn't use to be like this when you got to Congress 10 years ago. What happened?

Cooper: Well there are a lot of factors. I've noticed that my colleagues misbehave more when there are cameras in the room. I also know that many people in Washington barely know each other anymore, because Newt Gingrich, when he was speaker, basically banned people living in Washington, so oftentimes, we barely know each other's names and that makes it easier to fight. The bottom line is this: it's fundamental lack of patriotism. People are not putting the country first; they're putting their own careers first.

Ryssdal: You know, Congressman, you are a member of the Blue Dog Democrats, the fiscally conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Is there not some legitimacy on the part of the Republicans when they say, 'Listen, we've got to control things around here'?

Cooper: Absolutely. And I'm a Democrat who actually welcomes the Tea Party movement because they've refocused us on the debt issues that we'd ignored for too long. But it's not enough to complain about it -- you have to actually get in there and solve the problem. And lots of my colleagues don't want to look at, for example, the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission recommendations (pdf). Those have been out there since last December. How many people have studied that 65 pages and know what they'll vote for or disapprove of? Very few people are thinking in more than a soundbite today.

Ryssdal: Do you have any hope that our present circumstance with the debt and our budget and the economic problems this country still faces, that we will have a change in politics?

Cooper: Our chief ally in World War II, Winston Churchill, said that America can always be counted on to do the right thing -- after it's exhausted all the alternatives. So if we put things in perspective, we can realize that hey, we've bounced back from a lot tougher circumstances than this. We can and will and we must do it again.

Ryssdal: Congressman Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee. Watch his remarks from the Elizabeth Warren hearing the other day. Congressman, thanks a lot.

Cooper: Thank you Kai, appreciate it.

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