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Newsmaker: Dennis Hastert

February 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: And with us now from Capitol Hill is Illinois Republican, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Welcome, Mr. Speaker.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Good evening.

GWEN IFILL: Dick Gephardt, the Minority Leader, just said that he felt that George Bush’s plan for a tax cut is fiscally irresponsible. Your response?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, we had the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, look at the projections in the next ten years which is a long time to look out, but that’s what we’re constrained by law to do. We said we are going to have $5.6 trillion dollars in tax surplus over the next ten years. $2.5 trillion dollars of that is Social Security taxes or FICA taxes. We are going to wall that off, lock it off. $400 billion of that is Medicare taxes. We are going to wall that off or lock that off. Then the President’s tax cut is going to be between $1.5 and $1.6 trillion dollars over a ten-year period. And we have $1.1 trillion left for inflation, for paying down the debt, for other things that we want to do. I think certainly abundant, this is a good plan. And what we want to do instead of playing with big numbers say, “here is good policy.”

We need across the board tax cuts. I think we can all agree on that. I think when two young people get married and they have to pay an extra $1,400 because they are married rather that single, it doesn’t make sense. We ought to be able to do that. The whole idea of a child tax credit double from $500 to $1,000 especially for working families is pretty important. I think we can do that. These things really interpret into dollars in people’s pockets. Also in a time of economic downturn and economic shows that we peaked last September and have been going downhill since, we need to do some things both in monetary policy and fiscal policy to spur the economy on. And this puts money in people’s pockets. It allows them to purchases goods. What we found over the last six months is that people are increasing their credit card debt just to get by. And they pay too much taxes; when they have to borrow money to get by, we need to cut taxes.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Speaker, before you get to the point where you can put the money in people’s pockets, you have to take it out of the federal budget first. So let’s talk about those numbers for a minute. You just said there is a range there from what we’ve heard Speaker Gephardt talk about $900 billion, to the President talk about $1.6 trillion but you have said that the will of the Congress should be respected and come some of the leaders in your own party have suggested there should be even more spent than $1.6 trillion.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, again, I don’t want to get into the numbers because people really see 1.5 or 1.6 trillion dollars — those numbers go over their head, quite frankly. We need to see what good tax relief policy should be. It should be across the board so everybody gets a tax cut. It should be for people with children and families so that they have a better quality of life so they can start planning for their kids’ education and not have to borrow money on their credit card to get by — especially when they are paying a tax surplus. That is the whole point. And I’ll tell you something. If we don’t give money back to people, then people in Washington will spend it. We need to take the money off of the table in Washington so over the next ten years, people aren’t spending these dollars and growing government. My good friend Dick Gephardt talked about the problems that he perceived during the Reagan administration. He forgot to say that a Democratic Congress for almost ten years spent every dollar of the surplus – every dollar that was there. Social Security dollars, Medicare dollars got spent. And the reason we had huge deficits is that we spent too much money.

GWEN IFILL: If it costs more than 1.6 trillion, I’m sorry is to keep coming back to that terrible number — if it costs more than that to accomplish the aims that you’ve just outlined and perhaps to satisfy some of the agitation in your ranks for say a capital gains tax or raising the limit on the ceilings on IRA contributions, would you be willing to support the idea that you spend more to get more?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: What we want to look at policy first and we want to get the right policy for the American economy, for the American people. And there is a whole range of potential tax relief packages. One is across the board. One is repeal of the death tax, another is the marriage penalty. Another is the minimum tax — alternative minimum tax. Another is capital gains — there is a whole series of things that we could do. But we need to make sure that the mix is right; that the policy is right, that we can do the right things economically for this country in the future and that we can get money back into people’s pockets so that they can spend that money instead of the federal government. GWEN IFILL: To satisfy the President, would you have to move first on that across the board rate cut?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, we are thinking probably that’s what we’ll do. And we haven’t actually defined exactly what we are going to do yet but I think we would like to move this. My personal view is we ought to move these tax bills out individually at least in the House so people understand what we are trying to do instead of getting people confused with 1.5 or 1.6 or 2.8 or whatever those big trillion dollar numbers are. People really ought to understand the policy — what the tax policy does for them.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. One more on the policy then -

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Sure.

GWEN IFILL: You’re saying it’s possible that there will be a capital gains tax cut bill on the floor -

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I’m saying -

GWEN IFILL: IRA’s – marriage penalty repeals – all these pieces could come out in this tax cut?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I’m saying there is a menu of things that we need to look at. And we need to work with the President. We need to work with our friends on the other side of the aisle to see what is the best mix economically for the American government and the American people.

GWEN IFILL: Okay speaking of working with your friends on the other side of the aisle, how is that going?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I think it’s going fine. We have had several meetings – Mr. Gephardt and I — and talked about things that are mutually important for our members in trying to make Congress work a little smoother and a little better.

GWEN IFILL: How do you do that?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Just sit down and talk.

GWEN IFILL: Just talking. Is that enough?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, so far it’s good. Of course, you have to follow up on what you decide to do.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there are so many issues where already you’ve begun to see the Democrats stake out their case against vouchers in education, for instance and to a certain extent this tax plan as well. How do you get past talk into action?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, first of all, there’s a lot of things that you – just how to run the House that we can meet in accord and basically our meetings have kind of focused on those issues. You know, when you really talk about education policy, tax policy, that’s what this great debate is about. You know, some countries you have great battles with guns or pitchforks or whatever to try to decide these issues. We decide these issues in debate and voting. We are going to have to persuade some Democrats it’s the right thing to do. And they’ll try to persuade some Republicans that their thing is the right thing to do. But that’s what this process is about. And the best thing is that the American people can kind of join in this process as well.

GWEN IFILL: Are you going to find yourself in a position of persuading Republicans about the right thing to do as well as Democrats?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, it happens from time to time that is what the job of Speaker in part is.

GWEN IFILL: Is it more difficult for to you rally Republicans against the Democratic White House than it is to rally Republicans in favor of Republicans initiatives sometimes?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, you know, one of the things that we tried to do over the last couple of years was to pass good legislation that we hoped that the White House would sign. So our big job was trying to persuade the White House of the legislation and the policies that we signed were credible policies and sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t. So rather than rallying against, we’re always trying to persuade people to join us; it’s the right thing to do.

GWEN IFILL: How are your powers of persuasion holding up with say Dick Armey and Tom DeLay on this tax cut bill? I hate to keep coming back to that, but I’m curious.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, I’ll tell you, Tom Delay and Dick Armey work with me. Tom counts the votes. Dick Armey has certainly been very, very helpful in trying to put together a holistic plan on tax policy. And we meet every day and work together.

GWEN IFILL: On another issue, also tomorrow on Capitol Hill there will be hearings that will be beginning about President Clinton’s last minute pardon of Marc Rich, who has now come to be popularly known as the fugitive financier. What is it that you expect to come out of these House hearings? What can come out?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Let me just say, first of all, the parameters, most people who are pardoned are people who have committed some type of breach of the law, either have either served their time or gone through a judiciary process. Mr. Rich’s situation is somebody who has evaded that coming to grips what he has done. Actually he has been a fugitive of justice. It’s a very unusual situation. And you know, I’m not sure if we are going to changes the face of the law or the Constitution but there are some facts there that people want to bring out, and I think we ought to and I think probably Dick Gephardt agrees with me on that.

GWEN IFILL: He actually does. Is this a question of just airing the facts, or do you think that the House or the Senate or Congress at all should pursue a change in the way this sort of thing is done?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, I think maybe some guidelines and I think there already were some guidelines, and the question is were these guidelines breached, and I think that is a fair and open question that we should ask and hopefully find some good answers.

GWEN IFILL: Do you sense there is any support in the House or in the Senate if you’ve been talking about this for any kind of a change in the Constitution that would limit the President’s powers?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Quite frankly, we don’t have all the facts yet, and that’s why we’re having these hearings.

GWEN IFILL: Dick Gephardt, Minority Leader Gephardt, spoke just now also about trying to get Democrats to agree on fundamental principles. What are the fundamentals principles which the Republicans will be bringing to this session of Congress?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, I think first of all the principles are who makes choices over their lives. Do you have bigger government with more, with more government programs, which means more government spending? When you have more bureaucrats and more government — you have more government control otherwise people interfering in what people do in their lives, and we believe that basically some of that — we ought to step back from that. You take money off the table, especially if there is a surplus; you give it back to people so that they can deal with their life, that they can spend their money, that they make the choices for themselves and their children — and what their future is going to be rather than a bigger federal government. I think that’s a fundamental difference between how Republicans think and how some Democrats think. And that is what this great debate is all about. I think certainly Democrats will be talking about their principles. I think Republicans will be talking about their principles.

GWEN IFILL: The difference there is such a narrow majority that you hold. And therefore you’ve got to find more room for common ground. Any examples of where you’ll be able to find that?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, that’s what this debate is all about, and I think one of the things that is refreshing is that there’s a lot of Democrats out there as well as Republicans that think the American people need to have a tax relief — and that there is a tax surplus. And we have a downturn in our economy. And we need to spur that economy along both on monetary policy and fiscal policy. There are some ways to do that. So our job is to bring people together to try to get some agreement. We are not going to agree on everything. But I think there is certainly some things we should be able to agree on especially when it benefits the American people.

GWEN IFILL: How is your relationship with President Bush and how do you expect it to continue to develop with the Democrats since there has been this “hug a Democrat” initiative happening at the White House?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, you know, this President has certainly reached out probably more in the first ten days of his administration than most modern Presidents at least since I’ve been around. I think that is a good thing. Certainly the Democrats of all persuasions — none of them agree with President Bush on all issues but I think that there are some things in education that people can agree on. That are some things in tax policy that people can agree on. Certainly we agree on protecting Social Security and Medicare. And so he can reach out and touch people that can help him and he can help them get good things done for the American people. That’s what this whole process is about. I think he has been very successful in the first two weeks of his administration and hope that he can continue to do that.

GWEN IFILL: In your experience as a member of the House and as a longtime Democrat in Washington – I mean Republican in Washington – let me get that right — do you sense that the Democrats are taking him seriously or is this just a honeymoon?

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Well, I think some take him seriously and some see this as an avenue of actually getting something done that they want to do. And I would think if the President of the United States calls you down to meet you and ask what your feelings are and what your ideas are and how we can work together, I think most Americans would take him seriously on it.

GWEN IFILL: Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, that is Republican, thank you very much for joining us.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: My pleasure.