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Shields and Brooks on Boehner’s ‘New World Order,’ Wisconsin Protests

February 18, 2011 at 6:43 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's top political news with Jim Lehrer, including the House's spending deliberations, Speaker Boehner's willingness to lose a few battles, fights over government funding and the future of public employee unions and collective bargaining amid protests in Wisconsin.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, what do you make of the way the Republicans — the House Republicans are running their spending-cut show at the moment?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, I love the process.

You know, with Gingrich or with Speaker Pelosi, you really had five people running the House. It was sort of a semi-dictatorship. Now we have got a process. It looks like a legislature. And it is messy and it’s kind of ugly. But I think Boehner has actually done a great thing.

And he promised transparency. I thought he would back off when times got tough, but it’s tough. He has lost some things. He has lost an engine firm that will help GE, which is big in Ohio, his home state. And he’s stuck with the idea that it will be open. So, I think I’m — all power to him, because it is a real legislature now.

Now, as for the cuts, I guess I don’t agree with all of them, but I do think they’re taking the deficit seriously. And to me, the most important thing that happened in the House this week was the Republicans announcing, when they do next year’s budget, they are going to put entitlements on the table.

And that is a big step, much more than the president’s willing to do. About this current continuing resolution this year, you know, I’m glad they are taking the deficit seriously. I don’t quite see the exit strategy here. I see them voting on this stuff. I don’t actually see it getting through the Senate, and certainly not through the White House.

So, is it — are they positioning themselves for a compromise? Or have they thought about what the next step is going to be? I don’t quite see it. And I get the sense from some of the Republicans I have talked to, some of the older ones, that it is a little — getting a little out of their control.

And so I wish I knew if they had a next step, an exit strategy for what is happening in these days.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, first of all, that you have a choice. You can be a strong speaker. Nancy Pelosi was a strong speaker. Newt Gingrich was a strong speaker. And that is, you have a very tightly controlled legislative forum and very few amendments even entertained.

And what you put together, and as we have in recent years, is two armies in the House of Representatives. You’ve got the Democratic army and the Republican army. And if you have got more Democrats, you can get all your army to vote for it, and the Republican votes against it, and you pass it.

What we saw this week was, all of the sudden, with the F-35 engine vote, 100 Democrats, more than 100 Democrats and more than 100 Republicans voting for it. I mean, that’s…

JIM LEHRER: That’s the new world order, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: That was the new world order.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And, I mean, I do — John Boehner is — by doing this, fails to be a strong speaker, which is what is coveted and sort of admired in Washington.

He is being true to his word. It is an open process. But I think what they are doing is they’re letting off steam from an awful lot of the folks, the Tea Party people and the new people. They can vote for these things, but what happens when the point of frustrations comes, when they don’t pass?

What — they are using the appropriations process, Jim, to thwart and rewrite public law. I mean, whether it’s the — the Securities and Exchange Commission today, they defunded the Securities and Exchange Commission. Why? Because they hadn’t done their job in 2000. They hadn’t done their job properly.

They hadn’t done their job properly in 2008, when they were not at the top of the previous administration’s priority list. That wasn’t — they weren’t looking for an aggressive SEC.

But this is a way of saying, we’re not going to enforce the Wall Street reform act. And I think the same thing is true on Planned Parenthood defunding. It’s a way of expressing their convictions, their passions, their beliefs. But it’s not going to pass the Senate. It’s not going to be in law. The president’s not going to sign it.

And what we are doing, I think, is stumbling toward that moment where both sides could be facing a shutdown.

JIM LEHRER: You think so? Could it go that far?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I’m, as I say, a little mystified.

You know, the Republican leadership has said quite clearly, we are not going to have a shutdown.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: At the same time, they said they want to use the raising of the debt ceiling as leverage.

But the leverage is essentially, unless you come to our demands, we will throw ourselves out a window. I mean, it’s not like it’s leverage. It’s — the Democrat actually would love a government shutdown. They are clearly sort of rooting for it because of what happened in 1995, because, politically, it benefited — redounded to their benefit.

So I’m not quite clear what the Republican leverage is here and why they have made such a central issue this year’s continuing resolution and this year’s budget, as opposed to next year’s budget, which actually is where the real money is and where you can have — actually have some real reform.

I would have said, OK, we will fund the rest of this year, and then we will have a fight about next year’s budget, which is a real thing.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

But explain this, so I will understand this. You say we could shut the government down. But everybody concedes that a lot of what was passed today and will be passed tomorrow is not going to make it through the Senate. And, if it did, the president would veto it.

So, then what happens? I mean, then, if there is nothing there that has been enacted, then how does that result in shutting the government down?

MARK SHIELDS: No, well, I think that you then have to come — just, this makes it more difficult, in my judgment, to reach a compromise, OK, I mean, because are you digging in.

JIM LEHRER: Because you have to raise the debt ceiling.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that comes later.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But we’re sitting there. We have done these things. We feel good about them, say the freshman Republicans and a lot of the conservatives in the House. And then it goes nowhere, and they realize that there’s not a change in the public policy.

But we still don’t have a continuing resolution to fund the government.

DAVID BROOKS: Which is to just carry over…

MARK SHIELDS: Just to carry over at its — at current level.

So, how do you — how do you get out of that? How do you save face and walk back from that position if you are John Boehner and the Republican House leadership?

JIM LEHRER: Can’t they say, oh, well, we made our point, and let’s move on? But they won’t do that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s what the leadership, I think, would like to do. That is what with the committee chairmen would like to do. And they came in earlier with a smaller series of cuts, and I think a little more politically plausible.

But the freshmen said: Not good enough. We were sent here for a job. I don’t particularly like this job. I love my job back home, but I came here with a mission. And I am going to enact the mission. I made a promise. I’m going to fulfill my promise.

They are utterly sincere about this. They’re not political — politicians in the normal sense. They are sincere about what they want to do. And so — but how they negotiate that with what is doable, I don’t think they have made up their mind, basically.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It is real, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: It is real, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I can’t recall in 45 years in Washington when the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives has cut the president’s appropriations.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, this is really unprecedented. They went back. They not only had it reduced. Then they went back and cut it further. So, we’re in really new…

JIM LEHRER: And that was the new people who did it, the new people on the Appropriations Committee.

MARK SHIELDS: Put the pressure — put pressure right on them.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

Well, what did you — you mentioned President Obama’s proposed budget, not — not what we have been talking about, but the one for the next fiscal year. What did you think about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I thought it was a failure of leadership.

JIM LEHRER: Failure of leadership.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I think the Simpson-Bowles commission really opened up the possibility of having a real debate about the fundamental issues that are really causing the looming fiscal crisis.

You have a series of senators, some liberal, some conservatives, Dick Durbin, Tom Coburn, Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss, who…

JIM LEHRER: We had Chambliss and Warner on last night.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

So they are talking about doing the really serious stuff that needs to be done.

And so, at this moment, I think this was the time for the president to capitalize on that and say: This is going to be big. It’s going to take a long time, but I’m going to be out in front of this. And I’m going to explain to you, the American people, what the scope of the problem is. And it can’t be solved by cutting foreign aid. And so we’re going have a big discussion. I’m going to be out front.

Instead, the president proposes a budget which, in the one year, it only — the only year it actually controls, next year, actually increases the deficit. And then it has a lot of gimmicks to imagine $368 billion in transportation money, which is magical thinking. And all the real cuts are off in past 2016, which is to say they’re fanciful.

And, so, I thought the budget, while doing some things quite well, reforming Pell Grants and stuff like that, on the big things, on the macro things, was — was a failure of leadership.

JIM LEHRER: Failure of leadership?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that you could say that it certainly wasn’t bold. And it wasn’t seizing the Sputnik moment, if this was a Sputnik moment and we were going to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But there is a political reality here.

I mean, to be very blunt about it, we had four consecutive years of balanced budgets in the past half-century. They were under Bill Clinton, and it was because revenues in the country were at 19 percent. We were collecting 19 percent of the gross domestic product. And we were spending less than that, OK?

And George W. Bush came in and with a Republican Congress, God bless them, they had tax cuts in 2001, 2003. They had two wars that they put off the books. They…

JIM LEHRER: Iraq and Afghanistan were not counted.

MARK SHIELDS: Not counted.

And then we had Medicare prescription drugs. And that was off the book. That wasn’t funded. And so you look around, and they doubled, doubled the deficit in — the debt — excuse me — in eight years, doubled it, OK, took Clinton’s balanced budgets and went right by.

And now, all of a sudden, they come back in office, and wait a minute, they’re born-again budget-balancers. I mean, I’m not questioning their sincerity, but for eight years, they were mute — not Tom Coburn, but the overwhelming majority of them were mute.

And now they are saying you have to do this. I mean, Bill Clinton had to do it when he came in, in 1992. And he increased revenues without a single Republican vote. And he lost the House in 1994. And that did bring back balanced budgets. So, I can understand that.

I will say this, that neither side wants to take the step on to entitlements and dealing with Medicare and dealing — and confronting defense. And I applaud the work of Coburn, and Durbin, and Saxby Chambliss, and Mark Warner and everything else. They have not produced that document.

DAVID BROOKS: The Republicans said this week, Eric Cantor said, we will throw it in there. And Democratic staffers were gleeful, because they think, oh, these guys have walked into our trap.

But at least this leadership, at least it’s taking a step in the direction of sobriety. And the president could have done that. I think there are people in his administration who wanted to do it. You know, the fierce urgency of now turned into the fierce urgency of whenever.

And he just pushed it down the line. And for those of us who have been covering this White House and who have been regaled with promises year after year that, we’re about to get serious on the debt, have, at this moment, another set of promises: Well, maybe next year, we will get serious, but not right now.

It’s just — it’s just — well, you just get sick of it after a while.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, before we go, Wisconsin, the issue being raised there, which we reported on at the beginning of the program, how do you read that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think, in state after state, for decade after decade, people, governors didn’t want to raise salaries, so they said, OK, we’re not going to give you salaries, but we’re going to give you these pensions and these benefits.

And these were irresponsible promises. And in state after state, the chickens are now coming home to roost. Now — so, I think it’s right to be charging more for the benefits. Whether I would at the same time go after the collective bargaining, just on a matter of politics, I think it’s probably asking too much, to not only get the benefit cuts, but also to have the basic arrangements renegotiated.

And that’s not to say I think the basic arrangements are just, because they have led to crisis in state after state. But politically, I think, if you really care about the deficits and you wanted something practicable, I would have just gone after the benefits.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s an adroit political move by the Republican governor of Wisconsin. He sees his opportunity. He’s using the deficit, which is real, which has been compounded by $117 million in tax cuts that he and the Republican legislature have recently enacted.

But the reality is, A., the public employees do pay a lot less in the benefits. The average family — the average in America is 32 percent paid for — on employee for insurance coverage. And we’re talking about 5 to 6 percent.

But what this is really about is, again, defunding, destroying, on a policy basis, what is a very politically formidable institution. And that is organized labor and the right of workers to collectively bargain. And that’s what — that’s what is behind it.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, do you see this growing to other states?

MARK SHIELDS: I do.

And I think that, in 1958, we had this in Ohio, in California, in big elections, where they tried to put right to work on the ballot. They did. It went down in both places. But, at that point, Jim, one out of three American families had a union member in it. That’s not the case today.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.