Rep. Xavier Becerra

The California Congressman and member of the Budget and Ways and Means committees offers his thoughts on how the deficit discussion will play out on the 2012 campaign trail.

Rep. Xavier Becerra has been a member of the House since '93. He serves as vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus and is the first Latino to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He's also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and of the Executive Committee of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. In the 110th Congress, he was the assistant to the Speaker of the House. After earning his J.D. from Stanford Law School, Becerra began his legal career representing the mentally ill and previously served as California's deputy attorney general and a member of the state assembly.


Tavis: Xavier Becerra represents California’s 31st district, including this studio. We moved to a new studio earlier this year, Congressman, and so we’re in your district now.

Rep. Xavier Becerra: Don’t go anywhere. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I may be calling for some favors, though. (Laughter) Can I say that on PBS? Can I say that? I like bribing a congressman on national television.

He’s a powerful member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees Social Security. Always good to see you sir.

Becerra: Always.

Tavis: Good to have you back. I hate to remind you of this, but when last you were on this program we were in our other studio a year ago. You had just taken on a new assignment and you failed miserably.

Becerra: It wasn’t so super, huh?

Tavis: You failed miserably. (Laughter) When I last saw you, the supercommittee had just been announced, and how delighted I was that there was a Hispanic on the committee, an African American on the committee. You were hopeful when I last saw you that you guys could get something done. What you got to say for yourself?

Becerra: I tried. But at the same time, common ground has to be perceived by all sides, and I’m not going to cave to get to common ground. There are things we need to do to move the country forward. There’s just two very stark visions of what moves this country forward.

In fact, I suspect your book that’s coming out probably will speak to those different visions of America, and I think while we didn’t succeed, we laid forward in this supercommittee the elements of what could go forward. I just don’t think yet that there’s enough animation on the Republican side to get to where we’ve got to go together. Their Darwinian kind of way of doing it – I got mine, now you try to get yours.

Tavis: I should mention I didn’t ask the congressman to say this, but since he did and since you’re not in the dark, my dear friend, Dr. Cornel West, and I have written a new book together. First time we’ve ever written a book together on the heels of our poverty tour, we went around the country last summer on a poverty tour.

So we have a new book coming out called “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” The book is out in a matter of days, and next Monday and Tuesday night on this program I’m honored that Phil Donohue is coming out of retirement for two nights to sit and interview Dr. West and myself – kind of hard to interview yourself about your book.

So Donohue’s coming here for two nights to interview Dr. West and myself about our new book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” That’s on this program next Monday and Tuesday night, since you mentioned it, and thank you for saying that.

But back to what we were talking about, though – how do you think this issue – that is to say the deficit and the fact that the supercommittee failed, and more expressly that there are two visions of America.

Mr. Romney, now the presumptive nominee, has one; Mr. Obama has another. How is this going to play itself out, the deficit discussion, on the campaign trail?

Becerra: Until we get a clear understanding that the problem isn’t just the government, but the problem is that the American people have to reconcile that we’ve got some deep divisions, and at the same time, this isn’t the America of old where we get through a recession and we recover and get all these jobs back.

We’ve got a lot of competition around the world, and we’ve got to try to do this stuff together. When you do tax cuts that help, principally, very wealthy folks and expect the trickle-down effect to help those at the bottom, you’re never going to get there anymore.

So we have to reconcile this difference that there is right now among very conservative and the more moderate liberal side, where the very conservative say you can’t do anything with the tax code unless it’s to give tax cuts.

I think those of us who are on the democratic side are willing to say you want to reshape some of these programs to make them work way into the future? Fine. But if we’re going to make everyone accept a little bit of pain, then let’s spread it.

Why in the world today in America should we allow 1,500 millionaires, multimillionaires, billionaires, to pay no taxes? Because that’s what’s happening. In 2009 there were about 1,500 millionaires who paid zero in taxes.

Tavis: Mr. Romney calls that the “politics of envy.”

Becerra: No, I call it the politics of America to always say that if we all partake, we all benefit. I don’t think someone who makes over a million dollars in income and then pays zero in taxes is working as hard as someone who makes 40,000, 30,000 income and is paying taxes.

I think all of us expect to contribute some. A lot of kids in Afghanistan and Iraq, they aren’t millionaires, and they’re contributing. Why shouldn’t a millionaire contribute a little bit?

Tavis: Whatever happens and however this issue plays itself out on the campaign trail, because the supercommittee could not get the job done, these automatic cuts are scheduled to kick in in January of 2013, as I understand it.

Becerra: Yes.

Tavis: So whether Mr. Obama is successful in being reelected, whether Mr. Romney, again, the presumptive nominee, whether Mr. Romney is successful, whoever it is, come next January, they’re going to be faced with some automatic cuts across the board. So give me what Armageddon looks like next January.

Becerra: Armageddon is essentially a slow death. It is sucking the resources out of the infrastructure of America that makes us work. Our education system, our transportation system.

It’s no longer investing in our schools, K through 12, higher education, the way we used to. It’s no longer repairing the road before the potholes make it essential that you patch it up. It’s not having the communication system that’s the best in the world, even though we invented all the technology that lets others out-compete us.

It’s not putting the resources in. It’s like your house – you don’t fix the house until you see the water leaking from the roof, it’s a little late to say, “I could do it.” You’ve already damaged more than just the roof. The infrastructure of that house is damaged.

That’s what we’re doing. That’s what happens when you don’t invest in America, and these automatic sequester cuts that are going to start are hatchet cuts that take place. They don’t look to see where the smart savings can be had. They just say across the board, we have to make the cuts.

That’s why it was so important that the supercommittee try to come up with answers, so we can come up with an alternative to these sequestered, automatic cuts.

Tavis: Why should I believe – call me a cynic if you will, but why should I believe that those cuts across the board are actually going to happen as opposed to somehow the cuts that are supposed to hit, say, the military don’t actually go through. Are these cuts really going to happen across the board?

Becerra: First, I’ll always call you friend, but I’ll call you a co-cynic when it comes to the cuts to the Defense industry, because we just saw a House Republican-led budget in the House of Representatives that essentially sheltered the Department of Defense from any of those automatic cuts.

DOD is supposed to contribute half of those cuts to all those discretionary programs – education, healthcare, defense – and the Republicans put together a budget which would shelter the Department of Defense from any of those cuts.

They didn’t protect anything else. In fact, they took substantially more out of –

Tavis: This is the Ryan budget?

Becerra: This is the Ryan –

Tavis: That already passed the House.

Becerra: That passed the House. I voted against it.

Tavis: Right.

Becerra: If that’s the vision that you have, then I think you’re on the way to beginning to starve America of its ability to really be the force it’s always been. It’s not the America I think you or I grew up with, where we’ve not always liked the good old days for any number of reasons, but in those good old days, my dad with a sixth grade education found a way to put four kids through college, working as a road construction worker.

I don’t think there are a whole lot of road construction workers today who can look forward to having their kids go to college.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but how is it, again, if we’re talking about shared sacrifice, that the Congress agrees across the board these cuts are going to take place, and we already see legislation that’s already passed the House – we’ll see what happens in the Senate, but it’s already passed the House – where we’re not really going to cut the Defense Department.

Becerra: Tavis, again, I’m a co-cynic with you. I actually voted against that bill that created that system to create these automatic sequester cuts that created the supercommittee that I was appointed to serve on. I didn’t agree with it because I didn’t believe the cuts were well-targeted.

But I’m going to live with those cuts now because that’s the law, but we have a group in Congress that says you’ve got to pass this bill, get these cuts, and then less than a year later saying I don’t like all of it. I’m going to tweak it the way I like.

That’s why you have a right to be a cynic, and that’s why America has a right to be a cynic about the politics it’s engaged in today, where it doesn’t look like shared sacrifice is the operative word.

Tavis: Before we get to the election, even – forget next year when these cuts are supposed to kick in automatically – before we even get there, we have a budget now that is going to be in the mix, and whether or not – what happens to this budget that the House has passed when it gets to the Senate?

Becerra: Well, it’s dead on arrival in the Senate. The problem, of course, is that the Republicans, with the filibuster rule in the Senate, make it difficult for the Senate to pass its own budget. So we’re going to have stalemate, and we may have, once again, the precipice of shutting down government, the precipice of not paying for our own national debt.

All that to try to gain concessions in a very difficult electoral year. If we’re smart, what we’ll do is we’ll put that politics aside, work with the framework that was created through this bill that passed that created these automatic cuts, agree that we can stave off some of the worst parts of these cuts that would come automatically.

So for example, we won’t cut so much out of schools; we won’t let higher education take a big hit. We maybe spare defense in areas that are important – for example, the funding for our troops – but we do it in a smart way. That, you get bipartisan support for. Can we do that? It’s a very political year.

Tavis: My time is up. Let me squeeze in two questions right quick. Number one, what happens if Mr. Romney chooses Mr. Rubio as his running mate? What happens to the Latino vote if they are forced to make a choice between Obama and a Latino in the number two slot on the Republican side?

Becerra: I think you always vote for the person who will be the leader, not for the person who may have to come in to be the leader if the top guy is gone. So it’ll be Romney-Obama, and I believe the Latino vote, looking at the two on any number of issues, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s education, or whether it’s on immigration, where Romney is totally on the opposite side of where the Latino community is, that Barack Obama will earn their support.

Tavis: That means voting against your own, though.

Becerra: Let me tell you, Senator Rubio has not been the most supportive of the issues that are important to Latinos, and he’ll have to explain that. I can’t explain it for him. But I will not say that he would make Latinos envious of having him be on the ticket.

Tavis: Finally, tell me about the – I know that you’re working on legislation to get a museum honoring Latino heritage in this country in Washington.

Becerra: Been fighting it for a while. As you know, some communities in this country haven’t had a chance to be a full part of the history, at least to display everything that they’ve done to be a full part of the history of this country.

We’re hoping that in the future, if the good will of the American people and the Congress and the leaders in this country go with it, that we at one point will have a place where folks will have a chance to see, as they now do with Native Americans, as in the future, by 2015, we’ll have a chance to do with African Americans, they will have a chance to go to a place in D.C. where they can see the full contributions of Americans of Latino descent.

Tavis: Well, now that we’re in these parts, maybe I’ll be seeing you a bit more.

Becerra: Amen.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Becerra: Look forward to it.

Tavis: Congressman Xavier Becerra.

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Last modified: April 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm