By Paul Feinberg
There isn’t much typical about Jim Matheson (‘87).
Let’s start at the top: He’s the only UCLA Anderson graduate in the United States House of Representatives.
Matheson represents Utah’s second district, and earlier this year he was sworn in for his fifth term as a congressman. He’s a Democrat, but not a typical Democrat, as even on his own web site he’s referred to as a “Utah Democrat” – which translates into something a bit more conservative than, say, a Santa Monica or San Francisco Democrat.
Even as a candidate for business school, Matheson says there was something a bit different about him.
“I was a less traditional candidate for business school,” Matheson said in a phone interview recently. “I was a government major (as an undergraduate). I had worked as a campaign manager in a governor’s campaign and was a lobbyist in Washington.”
“I enjoyed management roles and this led me to get an MBA,” he said. He chose Anderson in part because one of his best friends, Chris Furgis (’85), was already enrolled; Matheson visited, saw firsthand what Anderson was like and wanted that same educational experience for himself.
Matheson is not the only MBA in Washington, but those with management degrees are still a minority in a land of lawyers. He concedes that his degree allows for a somewhat different perspective when evaluating legislation.
“I majored in finance,” Matheson explained. “So, when issues come across my desk or when I’m looking at a bill, I try to see how it relates to the real world. (Bills are) not theoretical. Business school was great training – it grounded me in practical applications. We used a lot of case studies in our courses. We got to ask a lot of questions, we weren’t spoon fed answers, we were taught to think expansively.”
There is another aspect of his management school training that Matheson feels influences his approach as a congressman. “There is a cost associated with uncertainty. Uncertainty equals risk and risk is a cost,” he said.
“A lot of legislation is confusing. There are a lot of policies that expire, such as an investment tax credit,” he continued. “People in the private sector deal with the cost of uncertainty in a more substantive way and my management training helps me to appreciate that. (I value) more consistency and transparency. It allows everyone to make more effective decisions.”
For the first time since he’s been in office, Matheson is working with a president other than George W. Bush. But even though he shares a party affiliation with Barack Obama, Matheson has not yet experienced huge differences. “I think that on one level, there’s not that big a difference (between President Bush and President Obama). Both the congress and the executive branch still have their roles to play. I have had interactions with both and there is not a huge difference, so far.”
“It’s the issues of the day that affect the agenda,” he said. “The terrorist threat dominated my first year in office, as 9/11 made national security the issue of the day. Today, the downturn and unemployment are most dominant.”
Matheson voted for President Obama’s stimulus package, but believes there is still much work for the government to do regarding the economy. He believes that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) passed last October has not worked and that it did not create needed liquidity in the credit markets. He admits also that the stimulus package was not what he would have written.
“I still don’t think we’ve adequately addressed the credit implications,” Matheson said. “The challenge we have is that the government can’t wave a magic wand. There may be some appropriate public policy to mitigate problems in the credit market, but that means the market will have to readjust and that creates some (other) challenges going forward.”
Among those challenges are a few close to the congressman’s heart. Here, he admits he’s no different than others on Capitol Hill.
“I’m a typical elected official (in that regard),” Matheson said. “The issue that’s closest to home for me is keeping Utahans safe from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. The government tests its nuclear weapons underground in Nevada and though they knew it wasn’t safe, they did it when the wind blew into Utah. There was still fall out even when the testing was underground. I have family members who died from cancer and I want to make sure that there is no new testing in Nevada.”
There are other, broader issues that Matheson takes a keen interest in. He worked in the energy industry before taking office and he now deals quite a bit with energy policy. Matheson believes the nation needs a new, transformational approach to energy policy as it seeks stability in pricing and supply. “It’s hard for the government to think transitionally,” he noted. “The framers of the constitution wanted government to move slowly, they wanted stability. That makes it difficult to adapt, but we need to think more transformationally when it comes to energy.”
Matheson also focuses on health care, believing we can’t sustain the path we’re on. “We need to think transitionally here, as well,” continued Matheson. “The cost structure (of health care) cannot be sustained -- we’ll go off a cliff. These two broad issues (energy and health care) are the issues for the next generation.” Not surprisingly, Matheson also noted that the terrorist threat – and specifically al Qaeda – continues to be the number one foreign policy issue of our time.