Rep. Xavier Becerra

The California Democrat and member of the new congressional “super committee” explains why the biggest deficit America faces is jobs.

Rep. Xavier Becerra has been a member of the House since '93. The first Latino to serve on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, he's also a member of the new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—known as the "super committee," created after weeks of difficult negotiations—and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which he previously chaired. After earning his J.D. from Stanford Law School, he began his legal career representing the mentally ill and previously served as California's deputy attorney general and a member of the state assembly.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Next month the 12-member congressional deficit super-committee will begin the process to find common ground on ways to reduce the growing federal deficit. Xavier Becerra is one of the six members from the House on this new committee. He represents a district, of course, here in California that includes parts of Los Angeles. Congressman, good to have you back on this program.

Rep. Xavier Becerra: Tavis, great to be with you.

Tavis: You doing all right?

Becerra: Always well.

Tavis: Good. Let me start with something that might be a bit unorthodox as a place to start, but if I said to you, respectfully – and I’m glad you’re on this committee. If we have to have the committee, I’m glad you’re on it.

Becerra: Thank you.

Tavis: But if I said to you, respectfully, this is the worst way to govern, this is the worst way to run a country, the worst way to make decisions – you pick 12 people out of 535 members that we elect to send to Washington and 12 of y’all get to make these high-level decisions. If I said to you, “That’s a horrible way to run a government,” you’d say what?

Becerra: This is where we’ve gotten to, and we’ve got to do something, because every day people are balancing their budgets at the kitchen table, and we have to do it as well.

I wouldn’t have chosen this way either, but I got elected to do work, and work I will do. Hopefully, this 12-member super-committee will get it done so that Congress can vote on it, the president can sign it and we move forward. The biggest responsibility we have right now, Tavis, is creating jobs, not cutting deficits. It’s creating jobs. The biggest deficit we face is a jobs deficit.

Tavis: So how do you feel, then, being on the committee that is a super-committee that is focused on deficit reduction, when by your own admission that’s not where our energies ought to be? We ought to be talking about jobs.

Becerra: Well, think about it – how do you best get us out of this economic hole? Putting 15 million Americans back to work. If they’re working, they’re paying taxes. If they’re paying taxes, the Treasury’s collecting money. If they’re not working, they’re using services.

So quite honestly, the best way to get ourselves back in the black is to get America back to work.

Tavis: But my question, though, is how is your focus now on this super-committee at deficit reduction helping the jobs deficit that we have right now?

Becerra: Because what you can do is make sure you target the right things to get the economy going again. So for example, many of us don’t believe that the way you get jobs back going again and the way you get the deficits reduced is to make devastating cuts to services right now.

What you do is you put in abeyance to some degree some of those cuts, and we’ve already done $900 billion worth of those cuts already, but you don’t do it so you’re shaving off the bone. What you do is you make them strategically, so that what you can do is for example repair our roads and our bridges, get those schools back in order.

Some good American job is going to be created if you get that school retrofitted again. So you can put Americans back to work, make good investments, at the same time that you’re no longer spending money paying Halliburton to provide a meal to a soldier, bills the government, the taxpayer, for that meal, but the soldier never eats it. That’s silly.

We can do things – there shouldn’t be 1,500 millionaires in America who pay no taxes. We can do a number of things that quickly get the deficit going back down and American jobs back up.

Tavis: To your point, Congressman, about these strategic cuts and how you go about not further decimating the American economy by making the wrong kinds of cuts, there are some who are suggesting that if we really want to be strategic and surgical about protecting the programs that matter most to us, programs like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, those programs, the way this new law is written, those programs are not in your purview really to touch anyway as a part of this 12-person committee. They’re pretty much exempt.

In my reading of the law, those programs – Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare – aren’t really allowed to be touched anyway. If I’m right about that, maybe the best way, according to some, is for us not to figure this out. Make this 12-person committee have to kick in, and when it kicks in, at least those major programs are protected. You’ve heard that logic before.

Becerra: Yes and no, if that’s the right way to answer this, because one, if we did nothing, the way the laws are written, certain things in the law would expire that would allow us to get the economy in better shape, believe it or not. So in some ways it’s the Hippocratic Oath of the doctor – do no harm.

So the reality is, for example, the Bush tax cuts, which have been the largest drivers of these deficits, would expire next year. That’s about $3 trillion or $4 trillion that we would recoup into the Treasury if we didn’t have these Bush tax cuts that went mostly to wealthy folks.

So do nothing, and guess what? All of a sudden you get healthier economically. But at the same time, this committee has a task. If the 12-member committee fails, then what happens is automatically – this is what you’re talking about – automatically we make cuts to all sorts of services. The services that don’t get harmed are Social Security.

Medicare is touched. It is touched. Not dramatically, but it is touched. Medicaid would not get hit. But who wants to go to the point of saying that we’re going to leave it to some automatic trigger that has nothing to do with reality on the ground for Americans?

We should do this because we’ve been tasked by the people of this country to do it, and so whether it’s 12 of us or the 435 in the house or the 100 in the Senate, we should just get it done.

Tavis: The fiscal year for the government ends on September 30th, as you well know. How much danger is the country in, how much more difficult is your job going to be if by the 30th of September we don’t figure out the mess that we’re in now relative to our annual budget?

Becerra: We already have a sense of what faces us. This isn’t rocket science, either. It’s simple math. It’s just making the tough choices. What the 12 of us on this super-committee have to do is agree that we’re going to leave our preconditions, our special interest pledges, our sacred cows at the door, and we’re going to walk in ready to look at everything, put everything on the table, and let good judgment and principle guide us to a solution.

Tavis: If we had a Congress, respectfully, that had good judgment and principle, we wouldn’t be in this mess with the 12 of y’all being charged to do this in the first place, which raises this question – why is it, respectfully, that I or any other American should believe that what Congress couldn’t do 12 members of Congress can do?

Becerra: Well, Tavis, remember there is a guillotine waiting for us if we don’t get this done. If the 12 members don’t come up with something that Congress can support and the president can sign, then the guillotine makes $1.5 trillion of automatic cuts. You can’t decide, oh, I want this to be cut and this not to be cut – comes down.

Secondly, I think more importantly, the public has finally said what you’ve just said. We just elected you to do a job. If you’re not going to do it, then why are you there? It’s time for us, whether you’re a D or an R, to prove that we can get it done. That does require – it says Ds and Rs. As I said, to not come to the table to negotiate, saying, “You can’t touch this” or “You can’t touch that.”

I have to be ready to say, even though I don’t believe this, that Social Security has to be on the table. Social Security has never contributed one single penny to these deficits or the national debt. Some people want to cut Social Security.

I’ll say all right, let’s put it on the table. I hope that I can prevail by defending it on the merits, but if we can walk in and say, “That’s off the table,” then all of us are going to walk in saying, “That’s off the table,” and then we’ll never get it done.

Tavis: Two things – when you say that guillotine is waiting for you if these cuts aren’t made – and I hear that – I say again this respectfully, I’m trying to figure out how members of this committee are impacted if these cuts kick in.

Put another way, pardon my English, ain’t none of y’all broke, ain’t none of y’all poor, ain’t none of y’all unemployed. None of you are without health insurance.

I’m trying to figure out, even if these cuts do kick in, when you say the public wants us to get this solved, it’s not like it’s going to impact you if these cuts don’t kick in. So I’m trying to understand, again, how it is that 12 members of Congress who are no different than their other colleagues, who aren’t going to be impacted by these cuts themselves, can get this done when Congress couldn’t get it done.

Becerra: Yeah, I’m glad you’re always respectful. You’ve constantly you’re respectfully asking the question. Tavis, you’re absolutely right. There’s not a member of Congress who lives the life of someone about to lose a home or who lost a job a year or two ago. That’s a fact of life.

At the same time, my parents didn’t get an education. I’m the first in my family to get a college degree. I know what Social Security means to my parents today. I know what it meant for my parents to see their son get to college and get a great degree.

I know that my father, who worked with his hands all his life, picking crops, cleaning the hulls of ships here in L.A. harbor, fixing the brakes on Southern-Pacific railroad cars, canning tomatoes for Campbell’s soup, road construction work during the heyday of freeway construction; I know what he went through.

I know that today that same road construction worker probably could not send his son to Stanford University anymore. That isn’t right. So I may not be in the situation my dad was in, but I know the shoes that my dad filled.

So I hope that each and every one of us on the super-committee, Congress, understands that it’s not us we’re worried about, it’s folks like my parents, who built this country.

Tavis: I asked that question because I figured you might give me an answer in that vein, and I’m glad you did, which leads me to this next point. There are 12 persons on this committee, as we’ve already established. There is one Hispanic on that committee – Xavier Becerra – there is one African American on that committee – James Clyburn.

The overwhelming majority of the crushing that Americans are feeling because of this economy right now – you know where I’m going with this -

Becerra: Yes, I do.

Tavis: – are bearing down on your community and my community.

Becerra: That’s right.

Tavis: Yet there are only two persons of color out of a 12-person committee. Now, I’m not naïve about how Congress runs. I’m just asking you what you say to Americans of color – and too many folk are being hurt in this economy, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that only Blacks and Browns are being hurt.

The numbers are clear. Disproportionately, the hell is raining down on Hispanics and on African Americans more than anybody else, and our Native American brothers and sisters, who are not represented on this committee at all.

But I ask, finally and quickly, what you say to those persons of color who are being hurt the most who don’t necessarily see their interests represented in a broad way on the super-committee.

Becerra: I’m an American, and as much as my dad could tell me the stories of how he would walk on a street and there would be a sign in the restaurant that said, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed,” I get to take my father into the White House now. When he goes into the White House he sees a man of color.

So at the end of the day, whether I’m Latino or I’m African American or I’m a woman, we’re at the table now. There should be more folks of diversity at the table, but we’re at the table, and that’s the great thing about this country, is ultimately it gives us a place.

So what I hope is that as an American I can prove to folks that we can get to a solution for all Americans, not just Latino or African Americans or women. But no one will take away my heritage and what I bring to the table, and I guarantee you, just like Jim Clyburn or Patty Murray, Senator Patty Murray, we bring a lot to the table.

And Tavis, here I have to say something. I tip my hat to Nancy Pelosi, the leader in the House Democrats. She didn’t have to appoint Jim Clyburn and me, but she did, and she has done a remarkable job as a leader for this country of making sure that people are included.

That’s what leadership is about, and I hope that we can prove her right in saying that this American and other Americans have a right to be at the table because we can do it as well as any other American.

Tavis: I take your point. Respectfully, I disagree on one thing – she had to do it if she didn’t want all hell to rain down on her. (Laughter) So I take your point, respectfully. Speaking of which, as you now know, I respect you, but I do not envy you – God bless you – in this journey that you’re about to take. (Laughter)

Becerra: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, Congressman.

Becerra: Good to see you as well.

[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

At Toyota, we celebrate differences and the people who make them. Toyota – proud supporter of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Marie Isenburg

    Listening to this interview, you know that there is no place for those who stand for the disenfranchised of all races in this Congress. As someone who is perpetually aware of self-censorship, I have to say that some members of our government seem dangerously close to crossing the line from self-censorship in the name of the greater good to disingenuous chatter.

  • Marie Isenburg

    I’m not happy with the tone of my last post, but there is something we have to take responsibility for here. As a society, we can’t put ourselves in a position where we’re setting people up to fail then punish them when they do. I guess the shape of our society is a shared responsibility.

Last modified: August 30, 2011 at 1:18 pm