Clinton’s First 100 Days
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ROBERT MacNEIL: Our major focus tonight is the first 100, make that 101days of the Clinton administration. For better or worse, the hundred days has become a significant marker in the life of the presidency, with everyone, including the administration itself, eager to issue a report card. So how’s he doing by his own standards and the opposition’s?
To begin, we hear from Roger Altman, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. He joins us from the Old Executive Office Building. Pete Domenici of New Mexico is the ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee. He joins us from a studio on Capitol Hill. Sec. Altman, is the administration going to do anything differently as a result of all the critical advice it’s been getting the last few days?
ROGER ALTMAN: Well, I think you have to put that critical advice in perspective, and I think it’s very short-term. The president promised that he would come to office and effect change. And he’s charged out of the box doing that. He’s changed the economic direction of the country. The Congress in record time passed the largest deficit reduction plan in history. Interest rates have come down dramatically. He’s moving into the final stages of his health care reform plan, and now, unlike the past, the only issue in Washington is what type of reform and when, not whether they’ll be reform, and, of course, you have the Russian aid initiative, which is critically important to enable us to continue to build down our defense establishment. So I think the president has gotten off to a strong start.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Does that mean you can just ignore all this criticism and go on as you were?
ROGER ALTMAN: Well, it’s a four-year term. It’s not a hundred-day term. And I think what counts in the end is whether we have delivered, whether we deliver for the American people over those four years. Do we deliver jobs, as I believe we will. Do we reform the biggest single problem affecting the country, which is health care, that Americans are crying out to be changed? You don’t turn the country around in eight or ten weeks. But the foundation for this change is being laid, and it’s being laid aggressively.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Senator Domenici, do you think and other Republicans think the administration should change its ways?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind, and, Roger, it’s good to be on with you, first of all, the president can take credit for a number of things. I think the Yeltsin situation in Russia, the way he handled that, he ought to get a big plus for that. I think his insistence that banks in this country lend money to small business is a great economic movement. Whether we can get it done or not I don’t know. Today I was just impressed and wanted to say I think he did a great job bringing his wife to Washington. I think she’s doing a marvelous job on health care. We may not agree with her, but she’s coordinating it and organizing it.
On the other hand, I think the reason we’re judging his hundred days is because the promises he made as to what he would do in a hundred days. He hasn’t been able to do any of the things he said he was going to do and then he’s already had to renege on a number of things he campaigned on, and, you know, will cut middle income taxes, will reduce the deficit in half. We will only cut defense $60 billion. Instead, he’s cutting it 120.
So I think all that’s catching up, but I think what’s really happening, Robin, is that the people are now understanding that essentially all this change that he’s talking about is really a major, major tax hike. That is the largest in the history of the republic. The deficit package is not the largest. In fact, the five-year agreement was larger than this one. It had many more cuts than this one. The ratio is about $4 in new taxes to $1 in cuts. And I don’t think there’s anything new about that. Talking about a new direction, it seems to me it’s kind of an old direction. I don’t believe it’s going to work because small business needs relief, not taxes. They need regulations removed. They need incentives to grow and hire people. That’s what we ought to be focusing on, not a new tax package that is almost the exclusive way that we are reducing the deficit.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Secretary Altman, not a new direction at all but an old one?
ROGER ALTMAN: I just don’t accept that at all, although I respect it, Senator Domenici, and I’m happy to be on here with you too, Senator.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Thank you.
ROGER ALTMAN: But the president, as I said, most basically was elected on the issue of economic change. And with all due respect to Senator Domenici and his colleagues, his party was unable to produce it from the point of growth. We all know we had the slowest growth over the last two years in any post-war recovery, and they certainly weren’t able to do anything about the deficit which grew in a skyrocketing fashion over the past 12 years. The national debt increased from $1 billion to $4 billion today.
So President Clinton is going in a different direction. He’s finally bringing the deficit down, and the deficit will be reduced in half in terms of its share of the economy. And he’s putting in place a series of investments, as he said he would, during a campaign in terms of technology and R&D, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of lifelong learning, and in terms of private sector incentives for investment. So I don’t think it’s more of the same at all. I think it’s a very sharp change in economic direction.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Senator Domenici, isn’t there some truth in that argument that you Republicans are beating up on Mr. Clinton for trying to do things that you guys weren’t able to do yourselves, like cut the deficit down?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Well, let me suggest I would really think that if the only defense to this program of raising taxes on the American people by about $275 billion net in the next five years that the only defense for that is that the deficit grew in the decade of the ’80s, and it just seems to me that’s no defense at all.
ROGER ALTMAN: May I interject?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Let me just finish. Republicans didn’t cause that deficit. Let me assure you Democrats voted for it every inch of the way. They voted for the tax cuts, 89 to 11. They voted for all of the appropriations bill that increased spending, and we ought to set that aside and say the president said he was going to get the deficit down, he was going to cut spending. And the thing is he isn’t cutting spending. He’s increasing spending.
ROGER ALTMAN: Let’s talk about taxes. First of all, Senator, I come from the business world, and in the business world the buck stops on the chief executive’s desk and the chief executive of this country for the past 12 years was a Republican, not a Democrat. Second of all, in terms of taxes, yes, we’ve proposed certain tax increases and the American people understand that there has to be some tax increase to actually get the deficit down. But who’s going to be paying these taxes?
Only 1.2 percent of the highest income of American citizens, the highest income Americans, are going to pay higher income taxes, 1.2 percent. $115,000 for singles, 120,000 for couples in terms of taxable income. The energy tax is going to have a very small impact on American families. If you earn less than $30,000 together with the offsets we’ve built in, you don’t pay anything. If you earn $40,000, you pay less than $10 a month in direct cost. But we have to get this deficit down, and it can’t be done entirely on the spending side, as your party very vividly demonstrated.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Altman, could I slightly change the direction of this? Because some of this is a debate that’s been going on for months now over the tax proposals and things. Secretary Altman, one of the criticisms leveled at the administration, and it was repeated by your own budget director the other day, Leon Panetta, that the administration is too, has dispersed its focus on too many things and that it should find, the president should find a few priorities, especially on the economy, delay health care reform, put it off, so that you won’t have two huge initiatives confusing the Congress and the public at once. Now on the issue of, do you accept the charge that the administration is too dispersed in its interests and in its focus?
ROGER ALTMAN: Well, I think every new team has a shake-down cruise. We’re no exception, and we’re moving through that. And also the president is an activist. Everyone now knows that. He wants change in a lot of areas, and as I said, he’s come bursting out of the starting blocks with a whole series of proposals to change, and that’s just the way he is.
But what are the priorities? The priorities are basically two; jobs and health care. And if we produce the 8 million jobs or more that the president committed during the campaign, and I believe we will, and if we really reform this health care system, which is the worst of all worlds, 37 million Americans uninsured, 20 million under insured, and yet, the most expensive system in the world, we will have delivered for the American people. Yes, there are a lot of other ideas the president has, today’s national service proposal, welfare reform and so forth, but the center of our efforts, and there should be no mistake about it, is jobs and health care.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Do you think health care should be put off, Sen. Domenici?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Well, I think it should be put off until we finish the work on the tax bill, the reconciliation, i.e. the implementation of the budget resolution. And let me tell you that’s far from being done. The Democrats are fighting among themselves about that plan because it doesn’t only tax the rich. You go out and talk to small business in the United States. Perhaps Roger hasn’t done that from his position. But they all know that the cost of putting people to work is too high today between health care, workman’s compensation, regulations, FICA tax, and they want some relief.
And what we’re saying to them, 65 percent of those to be taxed under this so-called “soak the rich” are small businessmen and women in the United States. They’re not going to be able to add new people, and we’re going to be able to do more and more through government. This president is an activist, but I think the people are asking: Isn’t there anything else other than government? I mean, do we have to have a new program every day to fix America? They just ask that the jobs be increased and that we grow and have prosperity. They didn’t ask that the government do everything.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Sec. Altman, would you respond to that? But also, would you answer the question, you said a moment ago that the question on health reform, it was not a question of whether but when, is the administration, with all the advice it’s been getting, including from Budget Director Panetta, considering putting off the health care reform as Sen. Domenici suggests until the budget resolutions have been implemented?
ROGER ALTMAN: Well, I’m not a legislative strategist. The point is that we want to take advantage of the window of opportunity that is always afforded by the early days of a new presidency and get the second of the president’s most important initiative, namely health care reform, on the table for the American public to debate it, and for the Congress to take it out, and we want to do that as quickly as we can.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Does that mean next month, or this month, or are you going to put it off, do you think now?
ROGER ALTMAN: I don’t think that the date of late May, wherein the task force, the health care task force, is to report to the president on its recommendations is going to change. But let me say a word, if I might, in response to Sen. Domenici’s point about business. I’m a businessman. And if there’s one thing the business community asked of Washington over these past 12 years, I heard it thousands and thousands of times, it was to get the deficit down. And we are delivering to the business community on its No. 1 objective.
The second biggest problem in business in general faces is health care. 14 percent of our GDP is now in health care costs. The amount of health care in each vehicle, cost in each vehicle is now larger than the amount of steel. And we are going to change that. And the president has vividly demonstrated the power of the bully pulpit by the sea change in attitudes about health care. It used to be lots of skepticism as to whether there would be health care reform. Now I think it’s universally accepted that there will be.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: And I compliment the president for making it a very big issue. But let me close by saying businessmen in the United States and average folk would like to see the $188 billion in new spending that the president has in his budget removed from that budget as a cut before they are hit with these taxes. No businessman or average American is out there saying, tax us more to get the deficit down. They are saying, cut spending to get the deficit down. And I regret, Roger, there’s very little cutting in the president’s budget.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Sen. Domenici, do you now regret with the latest indices showing some slowdown in the recovery in this first quarter, do you now regret having so vigorously opposed the stimulus package and caused it to stop when, may I just add —
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Sure.
ROBERT MacNEIL: — that the polls we’re going to discuss later show that a majority of the American people think that you Republicans did that not on an issue of principle but just out of politics?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Well, let me say I don’t regret it at all. I mean, it is a very huge effort to convince the American people that a few billion dollars in ongoing federal programs to put more in them is going to help this economy. Frankly, we were going to spend $3 billion out of that package in the first year, and it was just more money in existing programs. That can’t be the kind of stimulus that’s going to help America when we’re already $328 billion in stimulus because the deficit is that big. So I don’t regret it. I think the president said we’re going to cut spending. He isn’t cutting it. He said, let’s cut it. Only in four areas that are very urgent do we need to spend the money. The rest we can wait till next year and find room in the budget.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Secretary, in replying to that, Sec. Altman, would you say whether the administration is going to come back with some new form of stimulus?
ROGER ALTMAN: Well, with all due respect to Sen. Domenici, that stimulus proposal was put forth to create jobs. We knew we had a fragile economic recovery, and this 1.8 percent growth figure for the first quarter just reinforces that. And it’s very difficult for so many of us in the administration to understand how the Republicans after running up a $3 trillion debt over the last 12 years could turn against this jobs bill by saying just pay for it, which is their slogan. I frankly think it’s the height of political cynicism.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Well, let me tell you, we didn’t say that. We said we don’t need it, and we don’t need to spend the money.
ROGER ALTMAN: Senator, were a lot of your colleagues walking around the Hill with “Just pay for it” buttons on?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: Well, some thought that, but most thought we shouldn’t spend the money.
ROGER ALTMAN: Well, I saw a lot of them.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: We didn’t need to spend money.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Okay, gentlemen, we thank you both. We have to move on.