Senator Bennet, a Democrat, was first appointed to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate to represent Colorado in 2009. He was elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2016.
What legislation are you most focused on passing during the 117th Congress?
As Congress turns its attention to an infrastructure package to create jobs and grow our economy, I will work to put our farmers and ranchers, water systems, natural landscapes, and rural communities at the forefront. I was pleased to see President Biden include my Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act in his American Jobs Plan. My bipartisan bill would invest billions into collaborative, locally led forest and watershed restoration projects across the West. If it’s done right, we can create millions of good paying jobs in rural parts of the country.
I also plan to introduce the Senate companion bill to the House’s Farm Workforce Modernization Act with Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). This legislation would make much-needed improvements to our immigration system for producers and farmworkers. It would reform the H-2A agricultural guestworker program and create a visa program specifically designed for our country’s agricultural sector. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the House of Representatives in March 2021 on a bipartisan vote; it’s time for the Senate to do its job and pass this legislation.
What have you done on immigration?
In 2013, I was part of a group known as the Gang of Eight—four Democrats and four Republicans—who put together a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. Our bill had $46 billion for sophisticated, 21st century border security, supported seasonal workers and business owners, and created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. While our proposal passed on the Senate floor with 68 votes, it failed in the House of Representatives. The Gang of Eight worked well together because we understood that immigration has been a defining characteristic of American history and those who come to our country are an engine of innovation that strengthen communities in Colorado and across the country.
That’s why I’m working on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to reform the H-2A program and provide a pathway to legal status for certain farmworkers. Republicans and Democrats support this legislation because they understand we need to bring certainty to our country’s agriculture industry and the hard-working producers and farmworkers who have put their lives on the line to feed and sustain the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You have a history of winning tough elections. What do you think sets you apart from other legislators? What do you credit your success to as legislator?
My job as a senator is to listen and take Coloradans’ experiences and ideas with me back to Washington to make life better for them. Over the last decade, I’ve held more than 2,200 events and meetings, and driven more than 100,000 miles across Colorado because it’s important that I hear from Coloradans in every corner of our state to help inform the decisions I make in Washington. Before every Farm Bill, I’ve held at least 20 listening sessions to find out what is and isn’t working for Colorado’s agricultural community. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve visited all 64 counties to hear from Coloradans and local public health officials about the challenges they have faced. Coloradans know what their community needs. It has been my honor to be their voice in Washington.
What has been the toughest part of your job?
If I had to sum up what I have heard in my town halls with Coloradans over the last decade it would be this: people are working really hard, but they cannot afford some combination of health care, affordable housing, childcare, and higher education. They worry they can’t save for the future and their children will have less opportunity than they had. That’s because for the last 50 years, we have had an economy that has worked really well for the top 10 percent, and not very well for the rest of America. For over a decade we’ve had a federal government that is utterly dysfunctional. It’s our moral imperative to get past the partisan gridlock in Washington and build an economy that provides opportunity for everyone, not just those at the top.
While I’ve been frustrated with Washington’s dysfunction and inaction to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time—such as economic inequality, climate change, and the growing threat of China—Coloradans have kept me motivated and focused on making change. For example, I’ve worked closely with Robert Sakata and Bruce Talbott, two Colorado growers, to ensure the Farm Bill we work on in the Senate Agriculture Committee reflects the needs of growers across our state. It’s really important to me that the work we do in Washington is rooted in Colorado.
What has been the highlight of your career?
In America today, most people cannot afford a middle-class life. That hurts everyone—but perhaps no one more than our children. In America today, there are 10 million children living in poverty. To me, that is unacceptable. That’s why for many years, I’ve been pushing to expand the Child Tax Credit to provide a measure of economic security to middle-class and low-income families.
I first introduced the American Family Act in 2017 with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). The American Family Act boosts the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child for children age 6 and older—and $3,600 per child for children under age 6—and delivers the credit monthly to help families meet their expenses throughout the year. For the first time, the bill makes the credit fully refundable so that it no longer excludes an estimated 27 million low-income children, including 350,000 Colorado children, who have been left out of the credit’s full value.
I was thrilled that President Biden included the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, based on my bill, in the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law earlier this year. It will cut child poverty nearly in half in one year and provide economic security to millions of families. We need to make the tax credit expansion permanent to creating lasting change for America’s children and families.
What challenges lie ahead for agriculture?
Over 11 years on the Agriculture Committee, we’ve been able to pass a lot of bipartisan legislation that has been good for the West and for the country. It’s been one of the most gratifying parts of my job, but it’s also left me with two enduring lessons for our work going forward.
First, climate change is a threat to our Western economy and way of life, and if we’re going to tackle it in a serious way, growers, farmers, and ranchers have to be part of the solution. I’ve traversed Colorado to learn how the agricultural community is adapting to conditions that are growing hotter and drier each year. Wherever I go, I see people collaborating and using their ingenuity to face this incredible challenge. I strongly believe that producers, farmers, and ranchers across Colorado are already doing the work needed to inform climate policy at a national level.
Second, as a country, we have to start treating America’s natural landscape—our forests and our watersheds—as infrastructure. Congress needs to appreciate that in Colorado and across the West, our forests are as essential to the economy as the Lincoln Tunnel is to New York. If Congress took that view, I doubt we’d be in the mess we’re in…a situation where, as a country, we’ve spent $67.3 billion in the last five years on wildfire response and recovery, rather than investing in forest restoration and wildfire mitigation. That’s why I reintroduced the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which would create a $60 billion fund to support forest and watershed restoration projects across the West, with $20 billion of that going directly to locally led projects on forest health, invasive species removal, and watershed clean-up.
Is the trajectory of your political career how you envisioned it back in 2009?
I arrived in the Senate in early 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession. I had little experience with how Washington worked, having spent the years prior serving as superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Over the past decade, my expectations have been thwarted by the level of dysfunction and mindless partisanship in Washington. Since joining the Senate, I’ve focused on doing what’s best for Colorado and the country.
I’ve worked across the aisle—from drafting comprehensive immigration reform to passing two Farm Bills that addressed the needs growers, farmers, ranchers, and producers in the West—but Washington has failed to respond to the will of the American people. Washington has failed to invest in the next generation. I am hopeful that as we bridge our way out of the public health and economic crisis Congress can work together to unite the country and earn the confidence of the American people by responding to their needs.
Working together with Western Growers and our member farmers, what are some of your proudest accomplishments in helping advance the fresh produce industry?
One of the best parts of representing Colorado is learning from people like Robert Sakata and Glenn Hirakata about what our growers, farmers, ranchers, and producers need to sustain their operations—and continue to strengthen our Western economy. They’ve taught me a lot about trade policy and the challenges the agricultural community faces with our broken immigration system.
I have heard from fruit and vegetable producers across Colorado about how extreme weather and widespread, long-term drought conditions have devastated their operations. That’s why I’ve worked with Coloradans and my colleagues in Washington in a bipartisan way to support innovative approaches to climate resilience and drought resilience.
In the 2014 Farm Bill, I helped write the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which has funded multiple projects in Colorado, including in the Upper Colorado Headwaters and in the Lower Gunnison. In the 2018 Farm Bill, I worked with former Senator Cory Gardner to expand funding for voluntary water conservation efforts through USDA conservation programs. While this was a good start, there is still more to do when it comes to water infrastructure, drought resilience, and forest health.
I’m proud of the bipartisan work I’ve done with the agricultural community in Colorado to write the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bill. Together, we made critical investments in Colorado agriculture, conserved land and water, and provided new opportunities for rural economic growth. As we prepare for the 2023 Farm Bill, I look forward to hosting more Farm Bill listening sessions across Colorado. I’ve learned so much from these conversations. Please don’t feel like you have to wait for a listening session to reach out to our office. I encourage you to reach out to our office any time. You can visit www.bennet.senate.gov to write our office and locate a phone number for our Washington office or our regional offices across Colorado.