GWEN IFILL: We spoke last night to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.
Now, for the Democrats’ side of the budget argument, short- and long-term, earlier today, I spoke with Ryan’s Democratic counterpart, Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
Congressman Van Hollen, thank you for joining us.
Today, we have been hearing horror stories about the potential of a shutdown, 800,000 employees furloughed, and the National Zoo closes, and IRS payments held up.
Do you know — what can you tell us tonight about whether there’s going to be a shutdown tomorrow?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, D-Md.: Well, it’s all up in the air still.
What you have is the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party in the House has taken over. They are pushing Speaker Boehner whatever direction they want. And they have taken the position that they want 100 percent their way, or they’re going to shut down the government.
They don’t want any compromises, even if it means that we would be able to keep the government going. And that’s where we are right now. And we’re all hoping that cooler heads will prevail and that we can get this behind us, so that we can move on to a major discussion about the whole budget, rather than focusing on this very narrow piece of the pie.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman, your district has a lot of federal employees living there, and a lot of them are telling pollsters at least this week that they think both sides, both parties are playing politics with this.
What do you say to them?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, look, I think at the end of the day, we don’t get anywhere by finger-pointing.
With respect to the debate that is going on here, we simply ask the American people to follow closely exactly what’s being said. The fact of the matter is the speaker of the House, John Boehner, the Republican speaker, said not that long ago that they would ask for $32 billion worth of cuts.
The president of the United States has now said we’ll do $33 billion. They said: That’s not good enough anymore, because the Tea Party wing of my party refuses to go along with that. And not only that, but they say: We want to pick what the specific cuts are. In other words, they want to cut education, and they want to cut medical research into cancer, rather than cut subsidies for the big oil companies.
If you’re really interested in deficit reduction, it would be the same thing. But they’re demanding that they have their particular ideological views imposed on the budget.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman, how did we get to this point? When the Democrats were in the majority, there wasn’t a budget passed either.
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, we passed a budget enforcement resolution, which did govern spending for this year. And in fact, in December, the Democratic Congress cut over $40 billion from the president’s budget.
On the campaign trail, the Republicans came up with this arbitrary number: You have got to do $100 billion. When they got back here, some cooler heads on their side prevailed, at least relatively so, and said, OK, we will do $32 billion.
Now they have changed it, and now they have taken the position that if they don’t get everything they want, they’re going to shut down the government. And as I said, if you’re really interested in deficit reduction, it shouldn’t matter whether you reduce the deficit by getting rid of subsidies to the big oil companies or special interest tax breaks or by cutting education and cancer research.
But they have said: No, not only do we want to cut a certain amount out of the budget, but we demand to cut the education and cancer research, rather than these special interest tax breaks.
GWEN IFILL: Well, as you…
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: And that’s — that’s part of the reasons we’re where we are.
GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.
As you pointed, that’s the short-term argument. Let’s talk about the long-term argument. Republicans have put a budget out there. They plan to do their proposal. Paul Ryan’s proposal, which he talked about on this program last night, would be at least in part to privatize parts of Medicare and to shift some of the burden for Medicaid coverage to the states.
Now, there are people who say, including people — Democrats and Republicans, at least this is a first step.
What’s your response?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, let me say this. What’s happening now on the full budget, unfortunately, is a larger version of what we’re seeing on the smaller budget.
Now, what do I mean by that? We’re seeing the same old ideological agenda, where they want to extend tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. They want to extend tax breaks for special interests, and then go ahead and cut other important investments in education and other areas. And they want to end the Medicare guarantee for seniors.
What that would do is force seniors off the Medicare program into the private insurance market, where their costs of health care are rising. So, the entire risk of health care would be borne by the seniors. Now…
GWEN IFILL: Aren’t the seniors grandfathered, anyone 55 years and older, grandfathered in under this plan?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, they’re certainly not under the Medicaid portion of this plan, because under the Medicaid portion of the plan, what the Republicans would do is block grant a fixed amount of money, which shrinks over year, relative to the demands for support, and say to governors here’s the money.
Now, the reality is, block granting is just code for cutting deeply. The Medicaid program already gives governors a lot of flexibility. And when they say, look, we’re going to help you out by sending you all the money, what they’re saying is, we’re not going to provide the needs going forward.
And saying you’re going block grant Medicaid, which is already underfunded and, frankly, whose health-care costs have risen at a much lower rate than the private sector, is like throwing on anchor to someone who’s drowning.
With respect to Medicare, I want to make this point. What they’re doing to the Medicare program is not the same as the federal employees’ health benefit plan. They’re asking seniors to bear of a much larger of the risk and cost than members of Congress, because, under the federal employees’ health benefit plan, you share the risks of rising health care costs. In fact, it’s called the fair-share formula.
They’re not giving seniors under Medicare that fair share. They’re throwing them over to the insurance industry, and all the payroll tax dollars for Medicare and all the premiums senior pay will now go to the private insurance market. It’s a bonanza for them. It is a very bad deal for seniors.
GWEN IFILL: So, what are the Democrats proposing that — assuming that you all agree that there should be something done, there should be something done to tackle the deficit, there should be some reform of some of these entitlement programs, what is the Democratic plan, and does it involve raising taxes?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, the Democratic plan will be a more balanced plan.
And, yesterday, the co-authors of the bipartisan fiscal commission said that the Republican budget was not balanced and not comprehensive. And one of the reasons they said that was it does not ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.
We have said we should go back to the same tax rates for the wealthiest Americans that were in place during the Clinton administration, when you had a booming economy and lots of jobs. Republicans refuse to ask the wealthier taxpayers to pay their fair share.
We have said we should close the giveaways, the tax giveaways, to the oil industry and other special interest tax breaks. They have said: No, we’re not going to do that. We’d rather cut education. We’d rather end the Medicare guarantee for seniors.
With respect to health-care reform — this is an important point — if you look at the eight-year — the 10-year window of the Republican budget, most of the Medicare savings that they get are as a result of reforms that we made in the Affordable Health Care Act.
And in fact, what they said last fall about those was run — they ran adds scaring seniors and said, the Democrats have cut your Medicare, when in fact, now they’re using those as part of their Medicare reform.
In the long run, the Affordable Care Act will help bend the cost curve throughout the health care system.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you a final question. There’s been much — the buzzwords that the Republicans use are choice and competition and growth. What is it that Democrats are proposing that would achieve those goals?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, in fact, if you look at the Republican plan and the job growth estimates that they said that went along with it, they are from the Heritage Foundation, the same institution that predicted that the Bush era tax cuts would lead to huge job growth in the country, when in fact, during the eight years of the Bush administration after those tax cuts, we actually had a net loss of 650,000 jobs.
Look, in our plan, we continue to invest in the future of our economy. We need invest in education. We need to invest in our infrastructure. We need to make sure that we invest in science and research and NIH.
So, yes, we recognize that you have got to make cuts. You’re going to have make serious and sustainable cuts. And we will propose those as part of a budget that we offer. But, at the same time, it’d be a big mistake to reduce our investments in critical strategic national investments.
Other countries are following that successful model from the one our past generations pursued. And, yet, this Republican budget would cut those strategic investments and reduce our competitiveness overseas.
GWEN IFILL: All right, with the Democratic point of view, Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
Thank you so much.
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Thanks, Gwen.