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Newsmaker: Richard Gephardt

February 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And joining us from Capitol Hill is the House Minority Leader, Missouri Democrat Richard Gephardt. Welcome, Congressman.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: It’s good to be with you.

MARGARET WARNER: This is tax cut week for the Bush White House. What do you think of the President’s tax cut proposal?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think it’s fiscally irresponsible; it really has a lot of similarities to what we did in 1981, when we passed a $750 billion dollar tax cut 20 years ago and caused some of the highest deficits, increased the national debt by about $4 trillion dollars, and I think caused the economy to have lots of problems that we don’t need to do again – high interest rates, high inflation, high unemployment. We do need a tax cut. I agree with the President on that, but I think it needs to be one that is targeted at people in the middle class; it should involve everyone in the country, but it should be priced at a price that we can afford, given the budget projections that we’re looking at over the next ten years.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the President is saying that every American who now pays taxes should get a cut. Am I reading you that you agree with that; it’s just that you wouldn’t give as dramatic cuts, or you’d allocate them differently?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think we can give a sizable tax cut to everybody. It will probably be, more or less, the same amount of money; there may be a little higher tax cut for people in higher brackets, but I really think that we ought to do something that we can afford. And, frankly, we think what we can afford is about a little less than a trillion dollar tax cut, maybe 900 billion over ten years. We need to reserve a similar amount to take care of important priorities like defense and education and health care. And we need to reserve a similar amount also for making sure Social Security and Medicare are sound out in the future. I think only that kind of a budget makes fiscally responsible sense. We need to be conservative. We need to be skeptical about these projections. Later on, if the projections come true, we can go back and do some more tax cutting.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is in the President’s tax cut proposal, which is about twice the size of what you just laid out, what is in his that wouldn’t be in yours?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think we’ll probably have a broadly-based tax cut that would affect everybody. I think we’ll probably have something to get rid of the marriage penalty, and we’ll have something that’s more sensible with regard to the estate tax, rather than getting rid of the estate tax entirely. I think their tax cut will have many other features – the business community has just started to weigh in, so I’m sure they’ll get some things in the tax bill – Republican members in Congress are talking about a larger tax bill than what the President’s talked about. I’m fearful that we’ll wind up with a Republican bill that will be over $2.2 trillion, but our bill will not get into a bidding contest. We’re going to keep it at the level that we think makes fiscal and economic sense.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the President was asked about that today – the Republicans who want more as well as you, Democrats, who want less – and he said, he thinks his is just the right size – and some commentators are calling it the Goldilocks tax cut. Do you think that in the end his might look like just the right size to Democrats who definitely don’t want the bigger tax cuts some Republicans are advocating?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: No, I think Democrats are unified around the idea of the three parts that I talked about with the surplus: First, a tax cut of about eight or nine hundred billion dollars, paying down the debt, saving Social Security and Medicare with another eight or nine hundred billion dollars of the surplus- and then a third piece that would be other priorities like health care and education, and defense. I think we’re trying to be realistic. We’re trying to be authentic; we’re trying to be responsible. We’re trying to be disciplined, and we also know that those forecasts for the next 10 years – if they take place the way they took place over the last 10 years – that this surplus is not going to be as big as we think it is today. We want to be conservative; we want to be sensible.

MARGARET WARNER: In line with that, could you or do you support the idea some have proposed, which is to make the tax cut somehow tied to the size of the surplus – in other words — each year it would only kick if the surplus estimates came true?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Yes, one of the ideas we are looking at is to make each year’s tax cut contingent on hitting certain surplus amounts. In other words, if the surplus projection simply isn’t coming true, then you can unwind some of the tax cut — maybe all of it — if things aren’t going the way we think they’re going. You know, this is pretty simple stuff. Most people have a family budget. You don’t lock into a ten-year family budget. You take it a year at a time — maybe even six months at a time. And then if the income really comes in the way you hope it does, then you can make some of those expenditures that you’ve been waiting to make. We think that same principle should apply to the national family we call America.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the political map here. The Republicans are in the majority in both Houses, and they have the White House. Where realistically do you see the Democrats’ prospects for prevailing on this?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, as you know the House and the Senate are about evenly split. The Senate is exactly evenly split. And the House is about 50.5 to 49.5. So I think you’re going to have a real debate, a real argument about this — what is the right budget and economic policy for our country for the future. What is the best for Social Security and Medicare? And I think we can, we have a chance to win that debate. We can put together a coalition hopefully of a lot of Democrats and some moderate Republicans and pass a fiscally responsible tax cut. And if we can do that in the House and the Senate, we can put a very different bill in front of President Bush sometime later this year.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see the President’s pledge to bring a new tone to Washington – do you see it affecting this tax cut debate as it unfolds?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I hope it will. I mean, I think in the House we have a better relationship. I’ve talked to Speaker Hastert a number of times in the past weeks. We are trying to achieve more bipartisanship. I think everybody knows this election was essentially a tie. And the people are really telling us, hey, we know you believe in things but until the end of the day compromise, work it out, reach a consensus and move the country forward. We are sure going to try to do that. That I hope Republicans will try to do that and I think President Bush wants us to do that. And if we can do that, we’ll send him a real compromise on taxes and I hope he’ll sign it.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you read, though, his willingness to compromise on taxes? I think just earlier this week he said he is going to fight mightily for what he wants in this.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think he has, you know, expressed the right spirit — what I’ve heard him say up until now. He has said, look, as President, I send my bills down and Congress then deals with it. He has also said I don’t want to bargain with myself. I understand that. He is not going to come down and start reducing the amount of the tax bill before there has ever been a negotiation, but I also think that he knows that we need bipartisan consensus, that the American people want us to stand and fight for what we believe in. But at the end of the day they want us to compromise and move the country down the road. If he is willing to come halfway, we’re willing to come halfway. Let’s get it done for the American people and for the future of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this weekend the new head of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, in his maiden speech to the group, one, questioned the legitimacy of President Bush’s victory and, two, vowed that Democrats would take him on the way Republicans took on President Clinton. I think he said he is going to taste the same medicine. How does this gibe with this talk of bipartisanship?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think Terry is speaking as the new chair of the party, he is speaking to the party faithful, and he’s saying what he thinks. Tom Daschle and I spoke at the same meeting and we said, that, yes, this election was a tie. Yes, there are fundamental principles that we will not bend on. But at the same time the American people expect us not only to stand for our beliefs, but to try to get a compromise, to reach a consensus in a bipartisan way and move this country forward. None of us got sent here to just haggle and fight and carry on and never really authentically try to reach a consensus. We are going to try to do that and we’re also going to try to explain to the American people what our fundamental principles are and how we are trying to get these compromises done.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that you think that the Democratic prospects say for the House elections in 2002 are better served by compromising and getting something done?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think the American people expect both sides to not only stand for what they believe in but to work very hard to get things done on their behalf — to solve the problems that they are worried about in their everyday lives. If we can do that, we need to do it. I think it will help both sides politically, but I think that is the right thing to do. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it. We are going to try hard, but I think people will know whether or not you’ve really tried hard and whether or not you are maintaining a position that is reasonable and sensible. That is why we need to explain very carefully to people what our fundamental principles are and what we are trying to do to reach these accommodations to get things done.

MARGARET WARNER: Final topic, tomorrow the House Government Reform Committee opens hearings on President Clinton’s – former President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier. What can or should Congress do about all of this?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s important first to find the facts. As you know, pardons have been in the Constitution forever, and they are something that every President has dealt with at end of their presidency. It is worthy perhaps of looking at the facts, seeing if procedures need to be changed or if procedures were followed correctly. I hope we can get through this fairly rapidly and go on, and if we are going to do something, do it. If we are not going to do something, then that is the case but I think the Congress needs to look at the procedure and see if it was followed and if there are any changes that need to be made for the future. And it’s important to know what the facts are. There are a lot of things that have been said about this. The truth is none of us really know the facts about it. We need to get those facts out.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that even though in the Constitution the President has clear power to grant pardons, that you think there is something Congress might be able to do around the edges?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, it may be more future looking than backward looking. It may be that Congress wants to formalize the procedure, try to do something around the edges to the extent we have power to do it — to try to make some changes in the way the process runs. Maybe it’s nothing more than making suggestions. I don’t know what the Constitutional provision really calls for. It may be that there is nothing more that we can do than that. But it’s worth looking at it. Questions have been raised. I think getting the facts out is important and then maybe we can make some sensible suggestions.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Congressman Gephardt, thank you very much.