America’s Collision Course With The Debt Ceiling
As the nation counts down to default, Diane talks to longtime Congress watcher Norm Ornstein about the debt limit negotiations, what's at stake and whether he sees a way forward.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
The 113th Congress has been sworn in and it’s the most diverse in history. It includes the first Hindu in the Senate, and the first openly bisexual woman in the House. Republican Congressman John Boehner is re-elected House Speaker despite some opposition in his own party. A deal is reached on the fiscal cliff but big battles still loom on the debt and government spending. The economy added 155,000 jobs in December. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she’ll return to work next week after being hospitalized for a blood clot. And Al Jazeera buys Current TV from Al Gore.David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News and syndicated columnist Michael Gerson join guest host Tom Gjelten to discuss the week’s top national stories.
Friday News Roundup Video
Recently retired Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he would like to be appointed as an interim senator to fill John Kerry’s seat until a special election later this year. Gov. Deval Patrick has the power to name the vacancy created by Mr. Kerry’s nomination to be secretary of state. David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine, says he would like to see that happen.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. A deal is reached to avert the fiscal cliff, but battles remain over the debt ceiling and spending cuts. John Boehner is re-elected speaker of the House despite nine Republican votes against him. The U.S. economy added 155,000 jobs in December, and Secretary Clinton is released from a New York hospital. Joining me for the domestic hour of the Friday News Roundup: David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News and syndicated columnist Michael Gerson. Good morning to you, folks.
MR. DAVID CORNGood morning.
MR. MICHAEL GERSONGood morning.
GJELTENAnd we'll be taking calls throughout the hour. You can reach us with your comments and questions at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, the December employment report is in. As I say, 155,000 jobs added in December. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 7.8 percent.
GJELTENBut going forward, who knows? A big question, Mike Gerson, is what this week's fiscal cliff deal -- what effect it'll have on the economy going forward. You wrote this week that it'll probably be a drag, at least on short-term economic growth.
GERSONWell, you know, it could have been worse because if they had gone fully over the cliff, economists were saying you might have had a drag of 5 percent on -- compared to actual growth. Most economists are now saying that this is -- will reduce growth in the next year by about 1 to 1.5 percent. The Moody -- the head economist at Moody says that we'll probably create maybe 600,000 jobs less this year because of the package that was just passed.
GERSONYou know, that doesn't make much sense as an economic issue, but it did reduce the tax cliff that we faced by about two-thirds. It just delayed the spending cliff for two months when we have that debate, and it really did nothing about the long-term debt problem. So this was a, very much, a European style, minimal...
GJELTENKick the can down the road.
GERSON...kick the can down the road.
CORNWell, yes, and...
CORNAnd the drag that will come will probably be more attuned and more connected to what happens with the debt ceiling fight and the fight over government spending, which will come two months down the road from now. You know, it's -- from the very beginning since the Tea Party Republicans, you know, got control of the House, they have shown no concern for the connection between spending cuts and growth. You know, their argument has been that if government spends less actually, it's better for the economy.
CORNBut most economists would tell you that if you cut back dramatically on government spending, you do have a drag on the economy. You do have -- jobs don't grow as fast. Maybe in the long term you get something. That's perhaps a theory. And if you create a financial crisis as they did back in the summer of 2011 by not raising the debt ceiling and a crisis that could actually go global, they'll have far more of a drag than anything that just happened with this package. That's really what we should look out for.
GJELTENWell, Jeanne Cummings, as David said, we have at least three more big fights coming up: the debt ceiling fight, the continuing resolution and the sequester issue, which has just been postponed for a couple of months. What do we know right now about how those fights are going to shape up?
MS. JEANNE CUMMINGSWell, the plan, I believe, in Washington on the Hill and in the White House -- you never with these guys -- but it's to co-join some of these issues, the -- particularly sequester and the debt ceiling. The Republicans want to couple them. And so that, in order for the president to lift -- get a permission or for them to approve an increase in the debt ceiling so the government can continue to meet its obligations, in exchange for that, they'll try to adjust the sequester cuts that have been outlined.
MS. JEANNE CUMMINGSThe Republicans feel like there's too much defense or national security in the mix. They want to change that and shift some of that -- some of those cuts to other parts of the government, and they want to couple it with entitlement reform as well, Medicare in particular. So it may be that we don't have three big fights. We have one big one. However, you know, they talk about this grand bargain-type deal all the time, and twice, it has eluded them. And so they are once again talking about that sort of thing.
MS. JEANNE CUMMINGSIt may be easier now that tax question is off the table because that's what stopped the House Republicans the last two times, that a grand bargain included tax increases. They wouldn't approve that, and so the whole deal collapsed. That rate is off the table. That doesn't mean the White House doesn't have some other tax issues on the table though. There are loopholes. There are other modifications to the tax code that they may be seeking to generate more revenue, which could, again, become a stumbling block.
GJELTENMichael Gerson, do you think that the next one is going to be easier or far more difficult as some people are saying? What lessons have been learned here that might apply to the next showdown?
GERSONWell, I think it will be a little bit easier for Republicans because they're not going to just be talking about taxes, and this was a tough thing for them to swallow. And John Boehner eased it as much as he could, ended up passing something in the House and getting past this, but now you're going to see a very united Republican front now, including McConnell all the way to the Tea Party, that the next stage has to be about spending cuts. And that will be a genuine confrontation with the president.
GERSONYou know, no one thinks it's responsible to not fund the debt. And, you know, this is a recovery-ending event if you were to go off this cliff, this particular cliff. Everybody knows this. And so you're going to end up -- unfortunately, the lesson here is you'll probably end up the last 12 hours with another crisis and another kick-the-can deal towards the end that avoids the worst.
CUMMINGSWell, we will end up there. It's a guarantee we'll end up there. And that's simply because you can't have a compromise. And that's what we're headed towards. You can't have a compromise in terms of what programs you're cutting, how much, are there tweaks to Medicare. You can't lay that over for 48 hours and give the special interest time to shred it and make sure there aren't the votes there. So it'll be passed in the blink of an eye just like the other ones.
CORNBut the notion of compromise still is a foreign notion to at least half John Boehner's House Republican caucus. He got to cut a grand bargain with the president back in 2011, maybe even this past December, but he couldn't because he's not representing a organized body, I mean, the House Republicans. And yes, maybe it's easier, the tax issue taken off the table partially, but it's harder now, too, because the president came out quite firmly and said, I will not negotiate with terrorists about the debt ceiling. And, you know...
GJELTENWell, he didn't say terrorist, right?
CORNWell, he didn't say terrorist, but I'm pointing terrorist with hostage takers, which he has said privately but not publicly yet. And I know, you know, I had a book that came out last year about the last time we went through all of these back in 2011. And there's a scene in which the president is saying, I'm not going to go through this again and again, and his aides, his top aides are saying, listen, Mr. President, we have to leverage this. We may have to -- you may have to give in to a six-month temporary extension. And he said, no.
CORNI will not do this because the framers of our Constitution did not believe that the president should be held hostage again and again and again by a Congress unwilling to pay its own bills. I think he really feels this quite personally and for the sake of the office he holds. So he came out with a harsh statement, and I think Republicans are only more emboldened now after kind of losing on the tax fight -- the House Republicans -- and they're going to wait -- want to make this even more of a fight than ever. So we have two opposing forces with the (unintelligible).
GERSONI think the president does not want this as a fight. But you don't always get what you want. This is the primary form of congressional leverage right now in the budget process. It's existed this way since the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. This is not new. The Congress approves debt ceiling increase...
CORNBut it was routine matter. It was never been used like...
CUMMINGSYeah, it was routine. It's different now.
CORNIt's never been used like this politically. The Democrats never did this to George W. Bush, never once.
GJELTENBut, Michael, the point that...
CUMMINGSYeah, it's definitely different.
GJELTENBut, Michael, the point that the Republicans are making is that there are no spending reductions in this fiscal cliff deal. There has to be a discussion of spending reduction. And if this is their only option to bring that issue up, they are determined to bring it up, aren't they?
GERSONWell, I think that's where they are, right? You know, Mitch McConnell did a op-ed immediately after this compromise where he said, we've seen the last word on taxes and the next step is on spending. That's where Republicans are. This is a divided, fractious coalition in the House and the Senate in many ways, but not really on this issue at this stage in the negotiations.
CUMMINGSWell -- and I don't know that there's that big -- on the point that we have to address spending, there isn't tension because the president has said so as well. So the question isn't do we have to address spending. That's not the question. The answer to that is yes, and everyone said so. It's where, how, how much and what else do you put in the package.
GJELTENJeanne, how do you see Speaker Boehner's position now going forward in terms of his ability to sort of make things happen on his side? He was re-elected speaker, but he had -- he actually came fairly close to having to go to a second round, didn't he? And what -- where's -- what is his position going to be like going forward?
CUMMINGSWell, it'll be interesting how he manages. He's got a new caucus now. So he's got some new freshmen. And if he can bring some of them in because -- the freshmen of 2010, not all of them are as intransigent as they were when they came in. They see how hard it is in Washington. He is still, though -- he's dealing with a herd of cats, and that's tough business.
CUMMINGSI think the model of starting the Senate is probably a model we will see again. It could be that we'll see Biden and McConnell start earlier rather than later. You know, there might be some lessons learned here. But I think Boehner, you know, he hung on not by a big margin, but the point -- the very fact that he hung on is a show of real confidence, and at least he's the only guy who can manage it right now.
GJELTENBut a lot of hostility toward the Senate and the House, isn't there, David?
CORNI think there's a lot of bad blood between the Senate and the House, and I think Boehner now is -- I call him speaker name only. He's sort of the spy now 'cause he can't make a deal. He can't cut -- he can't negotiate with the White House. He hasn't been able to for the last year and a half. I don't know what's going to change about that even with a new Republican caucus.
GJELTENDavid Corn is the Washington Bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine. And he's the author of the book "Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor and the Tea Party." And that's actually not about this showdown but about the one a couple of years ago.
CORNCould be the same.
GJELTENWhen we come back, we'll be taking your questions. And we'll be discussing some of the other issues in the domestic news of the Friday News Roundup. Thanks. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. This is the domestic hour of the Friday News Roundup. A little bit later, we're going to be taking your calls. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. Michael Gerson, just before we -- Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. He's joining me here in the studio along with Jeanne Cummings, who is deputy government editor for Bloomberg News, and David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine.
GJELTENMichael, we were talking about the role that John Boehner -- Speaker John Boehner is going to play going forward. The former House Speaker Dennis Hastert used to have a rule called the Hastert rule, where he didn't allow legislation to go forward unless a majority of his own party supported it. Is that then finished? Are we now -- maybe we're going to see a period of bipartisanship here where Speaker Boehner allows bills initiated in the Senate that has a Democratic majority to actually come to the floor. Is that possible?
GERSONWell, Hastert himself commented on it yesterday. He was interviewed and said, look, you can do this a couple of times when you're defying your own caucus on things when you're passing legislation. But if it becomes a regular event, then you're no longer in power. That's the words he used. And, you know, I think that Boehner may be recognizing this. His staff has put out that they're not going to engage in direct negotiations with Obama again on a grand bargain.
GERSONThey feel like they've tried twice. It's not been a promising approach. They're going to be much more likely, I think, in this next round to pass what they want to pass as part of this process rather than pre-negotiating a deal with President Obama, which hasn't worked out so well. So I think he may well be edging back towards the Hastert rule.
CORNThe conflict will be, and we saw the model here, that the House Republicans will pass things that have no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate or getting approval -- attraction at the White House. So you're going to end up getting to these, you know, midnight deadlines where the House bill -- and that's if Boehner can even pass anything in the House. He couldn't pass his own tax cut plan.
CORNBut you end up with the midnight deadlines and deals probably negotiated between McConnell and Joe Biden, who does this with, you know, with President Obama's full backing. It's not like Biden's an independent player here. And the House will be -- the House Republicans will be the odd man out again and again and again, and it will fall to Boehner to figure out what to do.
GJELTENJeanne, let's talk for just a minute about what's actually in this bill that was passed. I mean, we're talking so much here about the politics and the process. What about the substance of the bill? For example, Jim of McLean, Va. wonders how much pork is in the new spending. I mean, you know, the CBO actually came out and said that this could theoretically, in a sense, add to the deficit, not take away from it, which is kind of odd for a deficit reduction deal, isn't it?
CUMMINGSWell, it is. The reason for that, though, is because -- or the biggest chunk of that is that taxes did not stay high. They technically went up for a few hours.
GJELTENSo it added to the deficit in comparison to what would've happened if nothing had been...
CUMMINGSExactly. So if everybody's taxes had gone up, which is what the fiscal cliff initially envisioned, then, you know, that's where we'd be, and that didn't happen. They kept the -- maintained the tax breaks for the middle class, which is billions of dollars, and that is what is contributing to the debt. So that's a big part of the CBO number. There are some special favors in this legislation. It's less spending as it is tax breaks. Broadly, what the legislation does is it raised taxes on people who earn $400,000 and couples who earn $450,000 and up from 35 to 39.
CUMMINGSThe payroll tax break goes away, so everybody is going to see a little less in their paycheck, and if you -- those are the big components in terms of dealing with prior tax initiatives. What is also in here are tax breaks, and that includes child credits for parents, that includes some student loan-type tax credits. It also includes breaks for Hollywood so that they can get special breaks to do movies in the country. It includes breaks for clean, green energy companies. So that was...
GJELTENIncludes breaks for Puerto Rican rum manufacturers as well.
CUMMINGSThat's right, and algae growers somewhere, so...
GERSONNASCAR, too, right?
CUMMINGSYeah, right. NASCAR has got one, too. So those provisions were in a prior Senate bill, and apparently the White House wanted to see them come back.
GJELTENMichael Gerson, the House after voting on this bill was supposed to vote on aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy and reconstruction in the whole Northeast. That vote was put off and apparently is going to be happening today. Why did Speaker Boehner decide to put off that vote on spending for Sandy victims?
GERSONI think it's pretty simple. I think that the House caucus had swallowed a lot with this deal to move immediately to another large spending vote where there were some disagreements between the House and the Senate on the bill itself. I think that Boehner made the judgment that that was not going to work with this caucus. Now, that created tension with the majority leader, who had promised a vote. It created tension with Gov. Christie...
GJELTENA lot of tension.
GERSON...lots of tension -- a vivid tension in this case because he's a vivid man. But it -- but I think a lot of that has faded with the promise of this immediate vote, which I think is on the flood relief portion, and then another vote in the next week or two on the larger emergency package. So it's going to come fairly quickly.
CUMMINGSAnd basically, he was going to have to turn around and ask them to pass $60 billion in unfunded spending or it wasn't offset anywhere else, which he concluded was a bridge too far that night and the bill might have lost.
CUMMINGSBut he should've taken Christie's calls.
CUMMINGSIf Gov. Christie calls you and he's mad, take the call 'cause otherwise he goes to a microphone, which he did, and his diatribe against Congress and the Republicans in particular was a spectacle we have not seen in a really long time.
GJELTENBut Peter King came out a couple of hours later and said all is fine, you know, John Boehner is fine.
CORNHe said all is fine, but he made a big fuss, too. And I think it was -- listen, Boehner is supposed to be speaker. He's supposed to have the wherewithal to figure out how to schedule things. And he promised this vote. It wasn't just that the vote didn't happen. It had been promised, which is what got Peter King so upset even at conservatives against the measure saying -- conservative Republicans in the House saying you don't promise something if you're not going to do it.
CORNSo it was completely botched in the most basic way. He didn't -- he could've tried to find a way to put it off before promising to do it, and he did fail to do that. So it was just, you know, it's interesting. He won the speakership for the second time in his life. It was one of the worst weeks of his speakership.
GJELTENWe have a couple of comments from listeners, a tweet from Alice, who is wondering when the Republicans are going to put their proposed cuts on the table. Also an email from Rick, similar question, he says that, "The tax increase has passed. Romney wanted spending cuts. What is it that the Republicans want to cut?"
GJELTENMichael Gerson, are we going to get some specificity here going forward? Are we going to see some proposals from either the White House or the Republican leadership about where exactly we're going to see the kind of significant spending cuts that will actually make a deal in dealing -- make a difference in dealing with this country's fiscal challenges?
GERSONWell, I think the encouraging thing here is that in the last round that President Obama mentioned the possibility on Medicare, of limiting cost of living increases as a possible beginning point for negotiations. That would be, I think -- for Republicans, the main concern is whether entitlement reform is on the table. Now, they, of course, have voted on their own budgets that have entitlement reform in them. That, you know, that's a specificity that, I think, is quite real.
GERSONYou know, the balance here -- because I agree with David -- is not to do immediate damage to the economy with large cuts, which I think would be a mistake, but to create future certainty and predictability in the economy to lead to greater investment by making sure that that percentage of the GDP taken by debt goes down over time. So it looks manageable over time. And that, I think, is what Republicans are pushing for, and that requires entitlement changes.
CORNBut we're going to have a fight over the, you know, the next budget, which runs -- the current budget for government runs out in March. And if you go back and look at the Ryan budget that was passed by the House in previous years, again and again, it's not specific. In fact, The Washington Post, the editorial board, the last time Ryan put a budget, called it dangerously vague.
CORNAnd if you sort of just, you know, extrapolate numbers, you end up having to sort of say, oh, my God, looks like he has to cut half of the FBI, half of the EPA because, you know -- and this was a problem with Mitt Romney, too. He put out very drastic budget cut, top line numbers, but won't say how these will apply to the government services people are accustomed to receiving, whether it's law enforcement, environmental protection or national parks. And I until I think the Republicans do that, it's hard to take them seriously.
GJELTENI want to go to a caller now. Mary is on the phone from Cornwell -- Cornwall, Conn. Good morning, Mary. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARYGood morning. Thank you.
GJELTENYour comment or question?
MARYWell, now that Putin has offered the French actor Depardieu Russian...
GJELTENPresident Putin of Russia.
MARYYes. Has offered him Russian citizenship to take advantage -- he's having a fight with the French government over taxes, apparently. And I thought, you know, maybe he could be persuaded to make the same offer to the Tea Party people, and then we could all be happy.
GJELTENWait. You want the Tea Party people to move to Russia?
MARYYeah, 13 percent flat tax.
GJELTENWell, there -- that -- there may be an advantage in your tax rate by moving to Russia, but there are a number of disadvantages.
MARYWell, that's what I was hoping they would find out after they've enjoyed the 13 percent tax rate for a while.
GJELTENJeanne, speaking of the Tea Party, where -- we have a new Congress now, and it's really an amazing picture on the front page of The Washington Post today of all the new female members of Congress, a very diverse Congress. What's your -- what are your thoughts about sort of the composition of this Congress, the representation of the Tea Party, of women, of minorities?
CUMMINGSWell, it is nice to see that the House, at least, is beginning to look a lot like America where you have representation from Asians. You have your -- we have our first Asian senator from Hawaii. We have the first black Republican from South Carolina in the Senate as well. So the Senate is seeing changes as well. And what that does is, I think, is that it provides more voices. A lot of different communities who have not had a seat at the table now have more than one or at least their first one, and so their concerns can be expressed directly in the debate.
CUMMINGSSo all of that is very good, and it's very good for the country overall. As for the Tea Party, I think it really remains to be seen how they're going to manage this. When you listen to the head of the Tea Party Express and some of the other leaders of the movement, they seem to recognize they lost. They lost in the election, and they say that has consequences. But what does that translate to?
CUMMINGSThe House may not have any bigger Tea Party bloc in the Republican caucus, but their influence has moved the entire caucus. And so it's just a more conservative caucus than it was two years ago, than it was four years ago. And that -- and meanwhile the Democrats have become more liberal. And so while we have great diversity there at the table, we have the two sides actually moving further away from each other ideologically.
CORNAnd to a degree less ideological diversity with the loss of a lot of moderate Republicans and very gerrymandered...
CUMMINGSAnd Democrats, both of them.
CORNYeah, very gerrymandered districts, which doesn't encourage them to move any more towards the center.
GJELTENDavid Corn from Mother Jones magazine, and Jeanne Cummings, deputy government editor for Bloomberg News. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's move on to another -- lots of interesting subjects to bring up today. How about the, Michael Gerson, how about the sale of the Arabic TV channel Al-Jazeera -- the sale of Current TV to Al-Jazeera? Quite a remarkable -- Current TV was owned in large part by former Vice President Al Gore. What are the headlines to you in this sale now of Al Gore's TV network to Al-Jazeera?
GERSONWell, I think that Al Gore got a really good deal.
GJELTENOh, boy, did he.
GERSONHe got $100 million out of this where the average prime time viewership of Current TV was about 42,000 people. That ends up to be about $2,400 a viewer purchase in this. That's actually, you know, a good deal on his part.
GJELTENThose of us who have actually watched it should maybe get a little.
GERSONYeah, get a little of that. It shows the enormous strange bedfellows that are produced by the profit motive, by capitalism, because Al Gore was essentially taking money from the oil and gas. That's the source of this, the emir of Qatar, who is, you know, behind Al-Jazeera, that a lot of this money comes from the oil and gas industry.
GERSONAnd, of course, that society is not a particularly liberal society in its treatment of women and others. So this is a very strange bedfellow situation for the vice president on these issues. But I do think it was interesting that, almost immediately, that Time Warner, the second-largest cable network in the country, dropped the channel after the sale.
CORNWell, I think they probably would have liked to drop Current to begin with...
GERSONRight. That could be, yeah.
CORN...but they couldn't because of legal obligations, contractual obligations. But they're using this as a way out, although it's unclear whether -- the contracts they have. I mean, Current made a lot of money because Al Gore used his influence early on to get it into a lot of different cable networks, which you get paid not by the viewer often. You get paid, you know, by the carriers...
GJELTENAnd that's the issue here, isn't it, that Al-Jazeera now perhaps has an entree into American homes that it wouldn't have had before?
CORNWell, they do have a channel already, Al-Jazeera English, which doesn't...
GJELTENBut it's not carried very...
CORNIsn't carried before. So that's -- and I think Al-Jazeera English -- I mean, you can say what you want about Al-Jazeera -- is a pretty damn good news organization in a lot of ways. During the Arab Spring, you could watch what was happening in Tahrir Square on your iPhone app while doing the dishes and getting, you know, firsthand reports.
CORNIt was marvelous. But that's why they wanted Current TV. They didn't want any of the people working there. They just want an access to these homes, and, you know, and they're going to create a whole new entity now. I'm just glad that I didn't take a deal that Current offered me when it was starting up because I think everyone's gone.
GJELTENWell, Al-Jazeera is, to some extent, a controversial news outlet because of the background that Michael mentioned. Does the fact that Al Gore has now made $100 million off this deal, does that basically take him out of the political picture? Is he now an entrepreneur, Jeanne?
CUMMINGSHe was out of the picture around Jan. 1, 2001. Yes, this does. I mean, he -- but he has been off the scene for a long time. It could diminish his credibility to some degree when he speaks on environmental issues, but in all likelihood, you know, the climate change issue is going to ebb and flow with or without Al Gore and his big paycheck. And so it was a good lottery hit for him, and his life will continue.
GJELTENJeanne Cummings is deputy government editor for Bloomberg News. I'm also joined this morning by Michael Gerson, who is columnist for The Washington Post and the author of "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era," and by David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. And he is the author of the book "Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party."
GJELTENWe're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we're going to be talking about Hillary Clinton returning to work after her scary bout in the hospital and some other stories in the domestic hour of the Friday News Roundup. Please stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. It's the Friday News Roundup, the domestic hour. I'm joined in the studio by David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine, Jeanne Cummings, deputy government editor for Bloomberg News, and Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post. And we're going to go to phones now. First up is Tiffany who's on the line from Pensacola, Fla. Good morning, Tiffany. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
TIFFANYGood morning. And thank you so much for taking my call. I just have two comments, and then I'll just take the answers off the air. But the first one with Current TV, the purchase from Al-Jazeera, you know, there probably is a market for that. We have a burgeoning immigrant population which may not have some of the concerns that others may have about viewing news from that station, and, you know, they could give Fox News a run for their money. I mean, if we want to talk about conservative stations, we have plenty of them here in this country.
TIFFANYAnd the second one is I just don't understand how the House could make some of the decisions it does when it really does affect the livelihoods of people. They did send a very heartless type of message to the folks in New Jersey and New York. Yeah, you may not want to stomach passing another bill, but these are people that have been without homes, that have been without shelter. And you didn't want to pass a bill because you couldn't stomach the increase. You know, you may not raise the debt limit because you have some hesitancy about it.
TIFFANYBut at the end of the day, you're not the one that's going to be sitting there without getting a paycheck because you're a government contractor or not going to work because you're a government worker worrying about your job security. So, you know, people need to become connected and understand that these are people's livelihoods we're talking about. And that's why people are mad, and that's why they re-elected Barack Obama.
GJELTENThank you, Tiffany. But, Tiffany, you mentioned this issue of the debt ceiling and whether there should be just sort of an automatic approval of an increase in the debt ceiling or negotiations over it. We actually have a tweet who says this morning that House Speaker John Boehner actually read from a poll that he had showing there is broad support in the United States for negotiations over the debt limit.
GJELTENI also have an email here from Ed, who says, "Who loses more if we go over the rest of the fiscal cliff and allow the U.S. to default on its obligations? Your panelists are assuming we have to avoid it. Remember, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans shut down the federal government. The Democrats should just allow the rest of the slide over the cliff and basically see what happens."
GJELTENMichael Gerson, we have not seen a conclusive answer here about whether there is political support for pushing the United States up against the debt ceiling again. We saw a couple of years ago, a year and a half ago, that we lost our credit rating when we flirted with this once before. What do you see as the arguments here about whether that can be an issue for negotiation again?
GERSONWell, I think, there are two sides here. I think that most responsible Republicans recognize that, you know, not increasing the debt ceiling eventually is not an option in this case. It would really undermine the American economy in fundamental ways. The question is -- but I think the flip side here is that the credit rating agencies are not just looking at that, they're looking at our long-term fiscal viability as a country and a long-term -- a genuine long-term debt problem.
GERSONAnd so Republicans will essentially try and leverage a short-term crisis in order to get some solutions on a long-term fiscal challenge that everyone recognizes exists including the president of the United States, and to some extent, that's just calling a bluff. I mean, the president has argued in the State of the Union address that you can't have a tax-only approach when it comes to Medicare in the long term that you have to have reform. And so I think Republicans are trying to use whatever methods are at hand to try to, you know, force our political system to confront those eventual needs.
GJELTENBut you quoted President Obama saying he was not going to negotiate over this. How can the president actually take that position because Congress does have to approve it, right?
CORNWell, it's an interesting question because Michael just said most Republicans recognize that it's -- wouldn't be responsible to do this, that is, to not raise the debt ceiling and not pay your bills. But if that's your belief, then why would you threaten not to do so? You know, if you think it's wrong to blow up a bank, why would you say, but we're going to blow up the bank if you don't do this? And for, you know, decades, this was considered -- yes, it's, you know, Congress has the right to do this, but it was considered routine measure because it's Congress who accrues the bills.
CORNThe president doesn't do anything that adds money to the deficit. It's -- Congress does when it passes these bills. The president signs them, of course, but it's their own bills. And, you know, the poll question is interesting because at the beginning of the last fight we had on this, you know, nobody wants to raise the debt ceiling. It sounds terrible, right? You're spending money...
GJELTENBarack Obama voted against it when he had the chance.
CORNYeah, right. But what happened was the polls were 85-15 against raising the debt ceiling when the fight was started in 2011. At the end, it was about even, and if you took blame on who came out worse because of this, Obama or the Republican Congress, the Republican Congress took a tremendous hit because Obama again and again made the case this is irresponsible, and the missing piece here is the business community.
CORNRepublican CEOs are already telling the White House, we don't want to go through that again. So Republicans who threaten this will get pressure at some point not just from, you know, White House or Democrats but I think from the business community. No one wants to see credit come at, you know, hit a tremendous crunch.
GJELTENOK. Let's go back to the phones now. Dan is on the line from Charlotte, N.C. Hello, Dan. Thanks for calling.
DANGood morning. I'm wondering why there's no story about -- and its filibuster rule. I expected a move to alter that. And if nothing, in fact, took place, was there a private deal about how the Republicans will use the filibuster, or did Harry Reid just loses nerve or what?
GJELTENJeanne, where does this -- this issue has not been -- I mean, this issue is still out there, isn't it? I mean, the Senate's Majority Leader Harry Reid is still talking about changing filibuster rules.
CUMMINGSHe is still talking about it, and the last reports I saw, he didn't have the votes. The votes aren't there yet, and...
GJELTENAnd what is it specifically he wants to do?
CUMMINGSWell, they want to confine the number of times that a filibuster can triggered. So now it's used on every single thing. And they want to also, you know, senators can do it from their office with a phone call. And, you know, everybody remembers the Jimmy Stewart movie where he had to stand there and actually stay in the chamber and stay awake. And so they want him -- they're not going to go to that extreme.
CUMMINGSBut they want to make it a lot harder than just a threat or, you know, a phone call from the office that I'm going to hold this one up and, you know, make -- and make the senators have to really take responsibility for when they're going to stand in the way of moving legislation forward. One of the problems for Harry Reid that could present itself this year is he has a new chamber as well.
CUMMINGSAnd while he has more Democrats, he has a more conservative Republican adversarial caucus. And so just this past year, there were five -- about five moderates -- Republican senators that worked with moderate Democrats and could sometimes be counted on to vote with the Democrats to move legislation forward even if they might oppose it in the end. They're gone, and so what's left is a pure Republican caucus. So it may be even harder to prevent filibusters in the future.
GJELTENBy the way, Jeanne, we had an alert. A listener sent an email quoting you as talking about the first Asian senator from Hawaii.
CUMMINGSOh, she got it. She succeeded...
GJELTENShe is wondering about...
CORNYeah, Asian female 'cause, yeah.
CORNThere is that...
CUMMINGSMy first mix-up. Sorry about that.
GJELTENAnd there was a guy by the name of Daniel Inouye who served there for many, many years.
CUMMINGSYes. He's very much a hero. Yes, yes.
GJELTENAll right. Let's go to...
CUMMINGSThanks to that listener.
GJELTENLet's go now to John, who's on the line, from Fort Wayne, Ind. Good morning, John.
JOHNYes. I just have one comment. You keep talking about entitlements for Social Security. I put money into Social Security for 40 years. If that money had been invested in an index fund instead of spent by the government, I would have millions of dollars in there now. And my complaint is they have a debt to me. They don't have an entitlement to me. I'm a debt holder just like foreign countries that own treasury bonds.
GJELTENMichael, do you want to -- Michael Gerson, do you want to respond to John?
GERSONWell, I think you can make that argument maybe on Social Security. It's much harder to make on Medicare, which is the real source of our fiscal problems in the long term. I mean, the mathematics on Medicare is simple. We're going to have, over the next 30 years, double the number seniors in America. And seniors pay in about half of what they get out of the Medicare system. That's not sustainable. And it's not, in that sense, a social insurance system, it's an entitlement that, you know, clearly, in this case.
GERSONNow, that's either going to be adjusted in the long term by the middle class getting less benefits or the middle class paying in more taxes or some mix of those things. That's a hard case for politicians to make. It's very, very difficult. But, you know, I do think that the Social Security reforms that would make that system stable are relatively simple. That's not the real problem. The real problem is the combination of health cost inflation and aging population, demographic shifts that make the Medicare system really unsustainable in the long term.
GJELTENBefore we go back to the phones, I do want to bring up Hillary Clinton who's had a number of health problems recently. And, of course, this week, we learned that she actually had a blood clot in her head. She's been released from the hospital. David Corn, what do we do know about Hillary Clinton's health right now? When is she returning to work? What kind of condition is she in?
CORNWhat we're told is she -- they expect full recovery for her. She's apparently starting to work from home and will -- is expected to come back to the office sometime next week. You know, I think we often don't realize how hard some of the people in the government actually work for us. Hillary Clinton, I think, has been a pretty good secretary of state. But more importantly, I think she has just worked her tail off. I mean, she is really, you know -- and her job, in a lot of ways, I think, is harder than the president's, in terms of travel schedule. I mean, you've covered her. You know this, Tom.
CORNAnd I don't know if that's taken a toll. She's 65 years old now. But, you know, I think everyone wishes her well. But it was sad to see people, you know, people on the right in the last couple weeks just, you know, say she was faking and that she's doing this to get out of testifying. I mean, she is kind of a gutsy person to begin with, whether you like her policies or not. And I don't think she would duck a committee appearance and fake something like this. And it was very, very unseemly, particularly given all she's done for this country the last four years.
GJELTENDavid Corn is Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jeanne Cummings, what about this testimony on the Benghazi developments? Can we expect now Hillary Clinton to go to Capitol Hill and testify on Benghazi?
CUMMINGSYes. She had made a commitment that she would do that. And her office reported yesterday she continues to be committed to doing that. It's going to be scheduled for later this month, I believe. There -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, who's not on the committee, she'll testify in front of. However, he was one of the biggest critics of how the administration's handling of the incident there.
CUMMINGSHe had said he would hold up John Kerry -- Sen. John Kerry's nomination to replace Hillary Clinton until these hearings took place. So she has said she wants to do it there, insisting she do it, and Sen. John Kerry said she ought to do it, too. I think he'd love to have her take care of that before he steps into the chair.
CORNYeah. That's right.
CUMMINGSSo, yes, I think you will see those hearing.
GJELTENWell, Michael Gerson, if that's the own -- if that's holding up John Kerry's confirmation hearings, it's about the only thing that's holding it up, isn't it?
GERSONYou know, I agree with that. I mean, he's going to be confirmed by the committee he currently heads. He's being vetted by the staff that he hired at the committee. He's actually a non-controversial nominee, a safe nominee, but really a good one, has been a trouble shooter for President Obama in key diplomatic situations. And I think that it's an easy choice.
GJELTENOf course, if John Kerry -- and it appears he will be -- if he does go to the Department of State, there'll be a vacancy in the Senate from Massachusetts. And we have learned this morning, David Corn, that Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts Democratic congressman, would like Gov. Deval Patrick to offer him a temporary appointment to the Senate to fill Sen. Kerry's seat. What do you think about that?
CORNI think this is great news for all us in the media and anybody who likes a little hot sauce with their politics. I mean, you know, Barney -- we all call him Barney, I mean, rather than representative or senator or Mr. Chairman 'cause he's has been such a fixture here -- has one of the quickest wits that we've ever seen in Washington.
CORNAnd he'll be there for a few months. They'll be -- but there'll be some key issues, and he'll be, you know, he'll do the work that he has to do. But I think to throw him into the stodgier U.S. Senate, you know, for a few months and hear what he has to saw about that, will be rather entertaining.
GJELTENBut the House is a different body than the Senate. The Senate, you know...
GJELTEN...values decorum. And Barney Frank is not known for decorum.
CORNBut he knows he'll only be there for a couple months before he gets his permanent TV gig. So he will have not much incentive to go along with the decorum.
GJELTENOK. Kasha (sp?) is now calling us from Alexandria, Va. Good morning, Kasha. Thanks for calling. Kasha, is that correct?
KASHAYes, yes. That's correct. I was -- I just wanted to make a comment about the lack of respect in general in Congress and how it's gotten worse like we don't know about it. My recommendation will be I would love to see a very strong recommendation given to all congressional leaders, including -- and the president about taking interest-based negotiation at the beginning of every Congress.
KASHAAnd number -- I used to teach it. And the top thing on what you could do is just learn how to respect each other again, sit down face to face, do the exercises, learn them and promise that you're going to follow through on this and have the president and the highest ranking opposition members take it as well and show that as an example. You know, the older congressman, who are now gone, they used to socialize together.
KASHAThey saw -- they talked face to face a lot more. There's a lot more jibs and jabs. I mean, nobody wants to work with someone who's going to cut them down. I mean, that's just respect, respect, respect.
GJELTENMichael Gerson, what do you think about that, conflict resolution training for members of Congress and the White House?
GERSONI think it's a good idea. You know, this is -- I think that interpersonal aspect matters. I think we've also seen some structural changes though that are not good. I mean, particularly in the House, people increasingly are present hyperpartisan districts because of gerrymandering, and it produces a more hyperpartisan atmosphere. You know, by one of these measures in 1992, there were about 103 swing districts in the House, and now, they're about 35. And so it produces a different body.
GJELTENMichael Gerson is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and the author of "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era," also been joined this morning by David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine, and by Jeanne Cummings, deputy government editor for Bloomberg News. I'm Tom Gjelten. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm today. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Jill Colgan. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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