RAY SUAREZ: And I'm joined by three members of Congress with diverse constituencies and unique economic problems. Nydia Velazquez represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, New York. Harold Ford's district includes the city and suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee. And Earl Blumenauer represents the city of Portland, Oregon, and its surrounding areas. And let me quickly go around the table to get started.
RAY SUAREZ: If we were to visit your districts and walk its streets, what would people there say are the challenges, the main issues concerning the American economy, Congressman Ford?
REP. HAROLD FORD, JR.: Wages going down, schools needing to be improved and more jobs. We're in a economy that depends heavily on our distribution and logistics network. Fed Ex is the largest employer in our district, employing some 40,000 people in and around Memphis. When they do well, we do well. And one of the things that we hope that John Kerry will bring and his administration will bring will be a newfound and a renewed commitment rather to creating and building skills with our existing workforce and investing in our schools to ensure that we produce the kind of entrepreneurs and thinkers who can lead our economy in Memphis and nationally for some time to come.
RAY SUAREZ: Congresswoman Velazquez?
REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: As Harold said, wages going down. In New York City, we are facing a housing crisis. For small businesses, they feel that the government is not there; that they are not provided with the economic tools; that access to capital is not affordable, that health care costs are skyrocketing, that the federal government and this administration has turned its back on small businesses.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Blumenauer?
REP. EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, I think there'd be a great deal of agreement with what my two colleagues just mentioned. I would refer to two other things that I think are important.
In a state like Oregon and a community like mine that bet heavily on the global economy, high-tech, we have been hammered by escalating energy costs and the refusal of the Bush administration to do something about the fallout of the Enron debacle, which has really had a devastating effect on our community. The notion that this administration inexplicably has decided to prevent a bipartisan majority in Congress passing the transportation bill, which would put tens of thousands of people to work literally within weeks to rebuild crumbling bridges, deal with infrastructure, roads, transit and that there has been a frustration on the part of people where we have a false choice as far as the environment is concerned. In my community, people don't think that protecting the environment is bad for the economy.
They think that that is something that would help enhance the economy. And it's really frustrating to see this administration turn its back on it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, today a poll was released by the Washington Post that showed a lot of voters don't yet know what John Kerry stands for. Is there a central Democratic message that answers those sets of challenges that you identify for your district?
REP. EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, John Kerry has been speaking about these issues. I know I went out and endorsed him in Iowa seven, eight months ago. He's been articulating it slowly to the public attention in terms of his proposals for energy, which would create jobs, stabilize the economy -- his issues that relate to infrastructure and environment and what the Kerry-Edwards ticket is going to do in terms of empathizing to people in communities like mine where we've suffered from one of the highest unemployment rates in the country for the last three years.
RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Ford?
REP. HAROLD FORD, JR.: I think a lot of what Earl is saying is right on point. I think one of the things that the country will hear Thursday is John Kerry begins to unveil his vision with some specificity and his plans for doing some of the things that have been mentioned at the table, from helping to create more jobs and better-paying jobs, to make investments in a workforce, I think Earl touched on a point that so many small business leaders complain about in the district and so does Ms. Velazquez, who's a leading Democrat in the small business community in the Congress.
Small businesses complain about the cost of health care and energy. And this administration, as Earl said so well, has not only turned their back, but it blamed Democrats for us not doing much. The reality is both the House and the Senate are controlled by the Republicans, and obviously the White House is and they have been unable to do much because they can't agree amongst themselves.
Our plan is a very clear one. We believe we should make investments in alternative fuels and other ways of doing things and new technology. Their answer is to drill more. In fact, there is no promise that we would find anything if we went drilling, and what promise we do have is we could muck up the environment up there.
RAY SUAREZ: You've all mentioned health care. Sen. Kerry has also promised to cut the deficit in half in four years. Can he make the investments that he's promising in health care, big-ticket investments, and cut the deficit in four years?
REP. HAROLD FORD, JR.: Well, as you know, he has a tax plan that would repeal some of the tax cuts of the ultra wealthy in this country and close many of the loopholes that allow for some businesses to profit while being located overseas and not paying taxes here in America.
Our belief and the campaign's belief is if we do those things, you'll create additional resources to address not only the problems that small business leaders have in providing health care for their workers, although we can also make some needed investments in education and even make some needed investments in attracting more young men and women to serve in the military.
The Bush administration does a big talk on this game about the military, but the reality is they're overstretched and there's no plan on the table from the administration at this point to try to attract new men and women or I should say to try make the military an attractive life and an attractive career in America.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, Congresswoman, your colleague mentioned the tax plan. Your district includes some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America -
REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: -- and some of the poorest.
REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: So some of your constituents might be anxious to hear about health care coverage, that they don't have, but many of your constituents are going to have their tax bills go up. Are they ready to sign on to that?
REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ: And I will invite President Bush to come into my district and to talk to those wealthiest families in my district and they will say, "I don't want your tax cut. I would prefer that you invest in human capital in our country, that we improve the quality of education of our children."
And in order to expand our economy and to get this economy back on track, they will prefer that we reduce the deficit. But we can't do that if we do not revisit the tax cuts that they want to make it permanent. The fact of the matter is this is a president who said, "I am for businesses."
And small businesses in America thought that he was talking to them. The reality is that he was talking to big, corporate America. None of his policies have been -- have helped small businesses. When you talk to small businesses in this country, the biggest problem that they're facing is not... is health care costs. Forty percent or more of all those uninsured are either small businesses, their employees or their relatives.
And then access to capital -- the president submitted a budget request cutting funding for the most important loan program for small businesses. And then he says that he wants to help small businesses but he cut the budget for the Small Business Administration by 40 percent.
RAY SUAREZ: Whoever takes the oath in January, Congressman Blumenauer, won't their hands be tied somewhat by the size of the federal deficit? You've talked about investments in the environment. Congressman Ford mentioned education. You've all talked about health care. Will the country be able to do these things?
REP. EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, I will tell you that the Bush administration would have their hands tied because they have refused to deal with the long-term costs and consequences of their programs. The approach that we have seen from Sen. Kerry are investments that will make money over time for the federal government. Investing in education, in infrastructure, in protecting our environment, are things that are not extraordinarily costly.
The alternative is you see our Republican friends in Congress and the Bush administration, every time they come up with the most minute initiative, they lard it with additional tax cuts and benefits. Their agricultural bill, their energy bill, $30 billion worth of additional taxes -- that adds to the deficit and ties their hands.
The Kerry-Edwards administration would not be so encumbered. We'd be able to make significant progress while meeting the needs of the American public.
RAY SUAREZ: Are blue dog Democrats ready to sign on, so-called blue dogs, ready to sign on to more government spending in the way that Congressman Blumenauer talks about investments as a way of …
REP. HAROLD FORD, JR.: I think Earl was answering your question directly. I think we all agree at this table -- you can look at our voting record and see that we've been committed to fiscal discipline and responsibility throughout our time.
Earl and I have served some time -- work - make it sound like we were in jail with the blue dogs - we work closely with blue dogs. I'm a member of the coalition. And our belief all along has been if you're going to ask for a tax cut and pass one, or ask for new spending and pass it, then you should be able to pay for it. And Democrats have offered this. I hate to be caught up in the minutiae of procedure, but we offered the Republicans an opportunity to do this. We call it "pay go" - very simple. Whatever you're spending money on, you should be able to pay for -- that's how American families and small businesses have to operate.
The second point, I make this real quick, we've given the president everything he wanted on this economic policy bill. He wanted tax cuts for this group, for that group and Republicans and some Democrats gave it to him. He made us promises that it would help all the people that Nydia touched on and even Earl in some way.
And the question I have for him, and I think the question the American people will have is: Is it really working? The president travels the country saying that the fundamentals are strong. We're creating jobs; we're doing this; we're doing that, but there's a big disconnect between regular folks and what the president is talking about.
When you're paying $1.90 for gasoline, you're paying more for bread, you're paying more for beer and for milk -- it's a big issue. These are problems that I think we'll hear a lot from John Kerry and John Edwards over the next few days and the next two weeks as they talk about a new and different kind of tax cut for American families and American business, particularly small businesses that will replace the tax cut regime that George Bush has given.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I'm going to have to leave it there. Congress members, thank you all.