Tavis: Tonight, though, we begin with the tense budget battle in Washington. Chris Van Hollen is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee who has been at the center of these budget negotiations. He joins us tonight from, where else, Capitol Hill – where else can he be with DEFCON 3 upon us? Congressman, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time, sir.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen: Good to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: I made a joke about DEFCON 3. Is that where we are, or is it worse than that at this point, given that Friday is D-day?
Van Hollen: Well, that’s where it is. The problem is it’s heading in the wrong direction right now because what you have is the total takeover of the House Republican Party by the Tea Party wing. Speaker Boehner is no longer driving this train. It’s been taken over by the Tea Party wing and they’ve taken the position that unless they get 100 percent of what they want they are going to shut down the government.
That has made for a very difficult situation because the president’s been working very hard to reach a compromise. In fact, the president put on the table the amount of cuts that Speaker Boehner had originally proposed – in fact, a little bit higher number – and they just keep moving the goalposts.
Tavis: When you say it’s headed in the wrong direction, I’m trying to figure out how it is that we keep getting different reports. We hear at one moment from you and others that it’s headed in the wrong direction, and then we get a glimmer of hope I guess a day ago with the meeting between Boehner and Reid. So is it really headed in the wrong direction or is there any progress being made at all?
Van Hollen: Well, look, it’s uncertain, but all the feedback and all the sort of signs that keep coming out of the House Republican caucus is that we may be headed to a shutdown.
Let’s put it this way – yesterday it was reported that when Speaker Boehner told his caucus that they were going to shut down the government they got a standing ovation. So if that’s the sentiment in the Republican caucus it means trouble when it comes to shutdown.
Look, make no mistake – it would be a big problem for the Congress, for the country, if the federal government gets shut down. I know the president and those of us on the Democratic side, and even some of the Republican leadership have been trying to avoid it, but this is what happens when you have a runaway caucus that doesn’t follow the cooler sort of views of their speaker.
Tavis: Is this, Congressman, as you see it, about partisan politics at this point, partisan politics or, respectfully, principle differences?
Van Hollen: Well, here’s the reason I think it’s about partisan politics. Not only are the Tea Party folks and the Republican Congress demanding a certain amount of cuts, they’re demanding that we make their cuts. If you were really interested just in deficit reduction it wouldn’t matter whether you were making a dollar cut in education, which they want to do, or whether you’re taking away a dollar subsidy from the oil and gas companies, which is what we’ve said.
We’ve said let’s not cut education, let’s not cut cancer research at NIH, let’s not cut critical investments in our country. Let’s get rid of some of the big taxpayer giveaways to special interests, oil companies and others, and they’ve said no, even though both would impact the deficit.
For example, they want to use these discussions on the budget as a vehicle to impose their particular social agenda on the country. They’ve said we want the cuts to family planning at Planned Parenthood. So they’re really using this budget debate as a vehicle to impose their sort of social agenda on the country. It’s not just about deficits.
We can deal with deficits. That involves choices. We choose to get rid of tax breaks for special interests; they choose to cut education, cancer research and critical national investments.
Tavis: How ill-timed – that’s my word, obviously, not yours; you may want something else – but how ill-timed is this debate about deficit reduction? You start reading certain columnists, people like Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, you read Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate, and others, who’ve said repeatedly that now is not the time.
The deficit is a real conversation, but at this point in the nation’s fragile economy this is not the moment to make deficit reduction the priority. I’m curious as to your thoughts about balancing the budget versus a conversation, a debate about deficit reduction.
Van Hollen: Well, that’s exactly right. You have to look at two timeframes, and what the Republicans are proposing is very deep and immediate cuts, and there’s no doubt about it – that will hurt the fragile economic recovery, it will slow down job growth at a terrible time.
We’ve just finally seen a couple months of very positive job growth. In fact, we saw over 200,000 jobs created last month. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, said that if you adopted all the Republican proposed cuts you would lose 200,000 jobs, and his was the low estimate.
You’ve had lots of other independent economists, including the former adviser to candidate John McCain, say it would be up to 700,000. So it is simply bad for jobs and the economy to take these deep cuts in the short term.
Now, it is absolutely true that we need to act now to put our long-term deficits on a downward path, and that is what the Democrats are proposing – a responsible and predictable way of doing that, not a crash and burn approach that will both hurt jobs in the short term and also deny critical investments, important economic growth, in the longer term.
In other words, let’s have a balanced approach. In the fiscal commission, the authors of the fiscal commission yesterday said that the House Republican budget was not a balanced and comprehensive approach because they didn’t ask the wealthiest Americans to help share in the sacrifice of getting our budget deficit down.
Tavis: Since you raised the Democratic Party and their position on this issue and the White House and most principally and importantly you raised the issue of jobs and the numbers that came out the other day that showed a slight uptick – to your point, about 200,000 jobs created, we’re told, over the last quarter – the last month, that is – tell me how it is or why it is that we’ve not heard any real conversation about the fact that in the African-American community in particular unemployment went up.
I ask that again because Black people in this country vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. The president announced this week his reelection campaign. People are running around Washington, Democrats, beating their chests, raising their arms up in the air in some “Rocky” form as if their plans are now working.
But in the African-American community in particular, the only community in this country at the loyal base of the Democratic Party, unemployment goes up and nobody in Washington said diddly about that. Why is that, sir?
Van Hollen: Well, Tavis, look, you’re absolutely right. What we’ve said is that there are some positive signs that the overall economy is picking up, but it would be a huge mistake for anybody to declare victory, for the reasons you talked about.
You have African-Americans still out of work in much greater numbers than the rest of the population, which is exactly why we’ve said it would be a huge mistake to take the kind of actions the Republicans are proposing now, which would put that fragile recovery at risk.
Look, people are still having their homes foreclosed on. We are not out of the woods by any means on this and the numbers you cited are proof of exactly that. That’s why it’s such a mistake to take the actions that are being proposed by Republican colleagues, because all these independent economists have said that it would slow down the recovery. We’ve got a long ways to go, as you said.
Instead, the Republicans in their new budget are focused now on taking away important protections for people, including taking away the Medicare guarantee for seniors. So they’re off on another whole escapade when it comes to their 2012 budget, again saying we’re going to continue tax breaks to the folks at the very top but we’re going to cut investments for jobs and we’re going to get rid of the Medicare guarantee for seniors. That’s just the wrong set of priorities, we believe.
Tavis: Two quick questions and I’ll let you run. Number one, Democrats and Republicans, you guys had your date night, as it’s been called, the night the president gave his State of the Union address. You all sat together as opposed to sitting across the aisle from each other, and the word of the day around that time was “civility.”
I want your honest assessment about how civil this debate has been when you got the president saying that Republicans need to act like grown-ups and you got Republicans calling his proposal smoke and mirrors. What happened to all that civility you guys were talking about just days ago?
Van Hollen: Well, Tavis, I think we’ve had a very vigorous debate over this. I think for the most part it’s been vigorous but civil. You haven’t had the kind of outrageous allegations and name-calling that we’ve seen in the past. Now, that doesn’t mean that will last forever, but I think on this budget debate you’ve had some very heated rhetoric, yes, but so far I haven’t seen it go into sort of orbit like we’ve seen in the case before.
Now again, that’s no guarantee. I think when we all were able to get together at the State of the Union address it was a moment to express the need for a more civil debate. I hope that will continue. But again, it’s going to be a vigorous debate. I hope people will still keep their remarks within the bounds of civility.
Tavis: Finally, right quick, given the debate about these issues that we’ve talked about in this conversation tonight, how does this debate about the budget recast the politics as we move into the future – namely into this presidential election season?
Van Hollen: Well, it raises a very critical choice for the American people, both in the budget that we’re discussing in the budget committee today for the coming fiscal year and for the next couple years.
The fundamental choice is this: If you want to grow the economy, if you want to help put people back to work and if you want to reduce the deficit in the long term, you’ve got to make the right choices. What we’ve said is that you shouldn’t have the folks at the very top not paying their fair share.
What we’ve asked is they simply go back to the same top tax rate that was in place during the Clinton administration. During those years we had 20 million jobs created, we had economic growth. You came in; you had the Bush tax cuts. They did not generate the kind of economic growth they said. In fact, we know at the end of those eight years you actually lost jobs. So we have a budget proposal that will invest in the future, invest in education, make sure that we invest in critical infrastructure, science, research, opportunities for the American people, and theirs says no, we’re going to cut back on those investments all so they don’t have to ask the folks at the very top to pay what they were during the Clinton administration.
That is a fundamental debate we’re going to have. I’m sure the president will be taking that debate right into the elections, because it is about values, it is about choices and I think the American people will have a very clear decision about which of those choices they want to make going into the next election.
Tavis: Congressman Chris Van Hollen is the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, out of Maryland. Congressman, thanks for your insight. It’s good to have you on the program tonight.
Van Hollen: Thanks, Tavis. Thanks for having me.
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