Tavis: Congressman Sander Levin is the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The Detroit native is serving his 14th term in the House from Michigan and joins us tonight from Capitol Hill. Congressman, good to have you on this program, sir.
Congressman Sandy Levin: It’s my privilege, really, thank you.
Tavis: I know that over the Easter break – we all know, for that matter, over the Easter break most members of Congress went back home. You went back home post your vote on healthcare reform. You, of course, voted for it. What kind of response did you get back home in the district?
Levin: Oh, it was a mixed response, I think some very much for, others very much against it. I think the main feeling I had was we need to get out the facts, that there’s been a lot of instantaneous reaction to this, and I think there’s a need to really make sure that all of us understand what’s in this bill.
For example, some say government-run. This builds on the present system of private insurance more than anything else. Some people say Washington’s going to decree healthcare and make decisions that doctors and patients would otherwise make, and that’s not really true.
This is an effort, as I said, to build on the present system, but to make sure we get control of healthcare costs but also make sure that 50 million people, or at least a large number of them, who now have no healthcare get it.
I had panels, roundtables in the district, and the stories that were told are really difficult to accept. People who have diabetes who can’t get insurance because of a preexisting condition; others who were laid off and the have no place to turn. People have to have a place to turn in this country when it comes to healthcare.
Tavis: How are Democrats going to do crashing through the message that this was a bad bill? How are Democrats going to do getting that message out between now and November?
Levin: By doing what we’re doing – talking with people everywhere, in their homes, in their neighborhoods, at shopping centers and grocery stores like I do. Just talking about what this is all about, because the din that comes from some places – look, this is a free country and I fully want it to stay that way, and there will always be differences of opinion, different points of view, but the critical thing is to make sure the facts get out about this healthcare bill because the status quo is just unacceptable.
We’re the only industrial country that has a huge number of people who have no health insurance, and also costs are going up and up and up and more and more people can’t afford their healthcare. So we have to get a control of healthcare costs and also make sure that people are covered, both of these things, so those who have it can keep it and those who don’t have it can get it.
Tavis: As chairman now of the very powerful House Ways and Means Committee, I want to ask you two questions about where the president and the White House seem to be placing their focus and attention now, at least where domestic issues are concerned.
Let me start with the issue of jobs. No one knows better than you, being out in Detroit, that what the American people need now more than anything else – jobs, jobs, jobs. Tell me what Congress is going to do now to address that issue now that healthcare reform, at least for the moment, has been dealt with.
Levin: I just looked at a chart a few minutes ago about what’s been happening and the report just a few days ago. For the first time in a long time, a real increase in jobs. I think in part that’s because of the Recovery Act – only in part, and we have to do much, much more – much, much more.
We passed a bill through the House, it’s now in the Senate, that would provide some help to small business, for example, and also help communities use bonds to create jobs, infrastructure jobs. So we have a lot to do, a lot to do.
By the way, we also have to make sure that those who are looking for jobs in this country and can’t find them get unemployment compensation insurance, and when we recessed just a week or so ago that bill was stuck in the Senate, and unless it can get unstuck, it means beginning next week, Monday, a lot of people who should receive a payment for unemployment comp won’t get it.
So we have to create jobs but also make sure that those who are looking for work aren’t just left without any assistance whatsoever.
Tavis: You referenced the numbers that came out last Friday, the unemployment numbers. Again, because you are from Detroit you know this better than most. It’s clear that so many Americans, too many Americans, in fact, are being challenged by this economy, but Black folk, it’s also clear, African-Americans specifically are getting crushed.
The numbers on Friday indicate that unemployment did not go up in the last report, and yet we keep seeing signs of it inching up more and more inside of Black America. What do we do about those Americans who are hardest-hit by this recession?
Levin: No, those figures are telling. You mention them and we really need to step up to the plate. So providing some assistance, for example, for infrastructure to make sure that those jobs are available, also small businesses, to make sure that within the Black community and beyond that money is available for small businesses, we have a lot to do, a lot to do, because while the unemployment rate has stabilized, jobs have gone up.
We have a long ways to go because when you include people who have given up looking for work, the unemployment rate is even worse. This administration inherited a terribly deep hole, the worst since the Depression, and we’ve been trying to dig out of this hole. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but we have to keep building the foundation here.
I think this administration is determined to do it. It’s often tough, there have been some tough votes here, but it took a lot because the hole was so deep to get us moving out of it – a lot, and a lot of people are stuck in the hole of unemployment. In Michigan and other places for every job there are six, sometimes 60, sometimes 600 people looking for work for that one job.
Tavis: The other issue I want to raise that the White House seems to be focusing more attention on, the first, of course, being jobs now that we’ve addressed healthcare, the second issue being financial reform. These two issues obviously are connected. So many Americans disappointed, upset, angry at the way we bailed out Wall Street and they’re still waiting for theirs to come in terms of help from the government.
What’s going to happen, you think, in the coming weeks here? The president, I’ve heard and read, would like something on his desk by Memorial Day, say, with regard to financial reform. What’s your sense of what’s going to happen on the Hill?
Levin: I just read an article in a local periodical about the fight, whether the Memorial Day target is reasonable, whether it’s not reasonable, and you can have all of this discussion about these targets.
But one thing is clear: Whenever it’s done, and I think sooner rather than later, there has to be re-regulation. Not wild re-regulation, not thoughtless, but what happened here in the first time in our lifetimes, except for those who remember the Depression, you really had a failure of the system.
We had all of these new instrumentalities that ran wild, and so something has to be done. In a word, what the president has said is we can’t let it happen again. Look at the deprivation – Tavis, you talk about it all the time – that has resulted from this recession. I talk to families, people have lost their jobs, have lost their home, and I come originally from Detroit, right?
My brother and late sister and I were raised in Detroit, it was where the middle class across racial lines, the middle class was able to develop, build a home, have for the first time retirement benefits, have a job, and yes, their kids began to go to college.
Now there’s a danger that we’re going to lose that and we just can’t afford to do so. That’s why this re-regulation of the financial institutions is part of it. Not wild, as I said, not unregulated re-regulation, but we have to make sure that what failed last time cannot fail again without our being able to grab a hold of it before the hole is so deep.
That has to happen in this town. That has to happen in this town. I hope it happens on a bipartisan basis. I hope the Republicans don’t say they’re against everything. We can’t afford that. We can’t afford it. The impact is on the people of our country.
Tavis: I’ve got just a minute or so to go here, Congressman. You were mentioning earlier in this conversation a couple of periodicals you’ve been reading over the last few minutes prior to our conversation. I’ve been doing some reading as well, and I saw that wonderful story in “The Washington Post” recently about you and the brother you referenced just a moment ago.
His name happens to be Carl Levin. He happens to be the very powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee; you are the chairman of the very powerful House Ways and Means Committee – the first time two brothers have headed these two major committees since the 1800s.
You two are only outdistanced at the moment by brothers in Congress by a clan named Kennedy, so what’s it mean for you and your brother at this point, this critical juncture in American history, to be chairmen both of these very powerful House and Senate committees?
Levin: I was reading a comment – I was talking with a colleague of mine about this very briefly. I think whatever else is in that article, if people read it, I think it says something about the vital nature of bonds in families and bonds among siblings. As my brother said so well in that article, nothing can take the place of love within the family and love among siblings.
I think more than anything else, that’s what that article speaks to. I hope so. Power, that’s one thing, but love of family and of siblings is more important, is more powerful than any other power – at least earthly power, at least earthly power.
Tavis: I hear you on that distinction, I agree and I accept it. He is Congressman Sandy Levin, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, out of Detroit, Michigan. Congressman, good to have you on the program, sir.
Levin: Nice to be with you.