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.
The January unemployment rate of 6.6 percent is the lowest in five years. But analysts are disappointed with the creation of just 113,000 new jobs. President Barack Obama signs a farm bill that trims food stamps and ends direct payouts to farmers. House Speaker John Boehner casts doubt on getting immigration reform done this year. An extension of unemployment insurance fails again in the Senate. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential prospects take a hit in the wake of the George Washington Bridge scandal. A panel of journalists join Diane for analysis of the week’s top national news.
CVS Caremark announced this week it will stop selling tobacco products by October. With the decision, the nation’s largest drug store chain is a step closer to becoming more of a health care provider, said Politico reporter Manu Raju. As more Americans get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the demand for primary care physicians will rise. CVS seeks to fill this gap with its Minute Clinic locations. Molly Ball of The Atlantic said the White House hailed the move. She added that it’s an example of how the Obama administration partners with the private sector to reach its goals in a time when few initiatives get through Congress.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Labor Department reports the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in five years, but the economy created just 113,000 jobs in January. Congress passes a $1 trillion Farm Bill after a two-year standoff. It goes to the president for his signature today. And CVS says it will stop selling all tobacco products this fall.
MS. DIANE REHMHere for the top domestic stores on the Friday News Roundup: Manu Raju of Politico, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, and John Prideaux of The Economist. Do join us. Questions, comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Happy Friday, everybody.
MS. MOLLY BALLHappy Friday, Diane.
MR. JOHN PRIDEAUXHi, Diane.
MR. MANU RAJUHi.
REHMGood to see you. Manu, a mixed report on the economy. What do you think?
RAJUYeah, certainly disappointing. I mean, economists were hoping up for about 180,000 jobs created. There were 113,000 jobs created. And that comes off of a very disappointing report in December, Diane. There were about 74,000 jobs created then, and that was about 100,000 less than economists had projected for December. And, you know, it came as a surprise because the economy was doing so well in the second half of last year, really the highest rate of growth of the GDP that we've seen in the past decade.
RAJUPeople were expecting a resurgence in the labor market. But the last two months have really raised concerns about whether the momentum has been sapped out of this economy and whether the Fed will need to do anything to pare back its efforts to slow down its stimulus program. We'll have to see when they meet next month.
BALLWell, we did see the unemployment rate tick down to 6.6 percent. And I think, you know, as Manu said, this is a middling picture. And there have constantly been these sort of optimistic predictions that the economy is sort of going to break free of its torpor and take off. And that's consistently not happening. And so I think there's a persistent feeling that there's this sort of low-grade flu afflicting the U.S. economy that they're just -- that just doesn't have the ability to take flight and really begin recovering in earnest.
REHMJohn Prideaux, welcome to the program.
REHMWhat do you make of it?
PRIDEAUXLow-grade flu sounds about right to me. I mean, I think most people listening to these jobs numbers will hear a good thing -- the unemployment rate is low -- and a bad thing -- job creation is weak -- and think, how do these two things possibly exist in the same universe? And the answer is that the employment rate is dropping, the labor force participation rate. That means that people are dropping out of the labor force. That means they don't show up in unemployment numbers.
PRIDEAUXAnd so you can have weak job creation and the unemployment rate go down at the same time. The unemployment rate, I think, is, you know, obviously good news. But I think this drop in labor force participation is a real worry for America. It's the lowest it's been since 1978. And if you think of the kind of society we had in America in 1978 -- there were fewer women working and so on -- this is not good news.
REHMSo does it indicate to all of you that the economy is beginning to slow down? Is that how you see it, John?
PRIDEAUXI don't think you can read that into these numbers. The job creation numbers, which as Manu and Molly have said were weak, are based on a survey of employers. And it's quite a small survey. And people who follow this stuff think that it may have overestimated job creation before Christmas, and it may be underestimating it a little bit now. So I think it's hard to -- you don't want to read too much into this, is my view. But you can, as Molly's already said, say that things are not going brilliantly.
REHMI wonder about all these estimates we hear before the job numbers come out. And, as John has just said, it's on a pretty small sampling. So why don't they just keep quiet before the news come out, Molly?
BALLWell, of course, there is an expectations game here, as we're familiar with in politics as well.
BALLBut the reason it matters from a concrete point of view is that -- I believe it's north of 200,000 jobs per month are what is necessary to just be -- just replace the amount of job -- of people retiring and leaving the workforce for other reasons. So the economy is not going to really be able to take off and grow until there are more jobs being created that are available to people than being lost every month and that -- and so as an absolute number, as something that's not just a matter of expectations, this is the phenomenon that John is talking about.
BALLThis is an economy that is recovering, but very slowly, and it's really just treading water. I don't think we have momentum in one direction or the other.
REHMAnd going back to your point, Manu, do you see the Fed readjusting its adjustment?
RAJUIt's hard to say exactly. I mean, I think they're going to be under a lot of pressure to decide whether or not to go forward with the paring back. This very aggressive bond-buying program is something that Janet Yellen said that she would do -- the new Fed chairwoman who's coming after Ben Bernanke, who just left the Federal Reserve. And the other question will be whether or not the Fed increases interest rates at all. I mean, it's kept its benchmark interest rate, you know, near zero.
RAJUThey said that they would potentially raise that if the unemployment rate reached about 6.5 percent. And now we're at about 6.6 percent. So what does the Fed do? Do they look at it and say, you know, maybe it's time to increase some of those interest rates? Or are they worried about these job numbers and decide that, let's keep things low for a while, and let's not, you know, put -- take our feet off the gas pedal?
REHMAnd the other question that has come up in the last few days: Is the unemployment number or the inflation rate a better guide to what's happening in the economy? John.
PRIDEAUXPeople who follow really nerdy debates about Central Banking have been wondering for a while where they're given that there doesn't seem to be too much of a problem with inflation. Central Bank should start targeting unemployment instead and try and push the unemployment rate down. But looking at these numbers, you'd see an unemployment rate that's falling anyway.
PRIDEAUXSo it's hard to see how even if you changed the Fed's mandate to deal with unemployment, they might look at the numbers falling and say, well, you know, things are OK. There's this odd thing going on in the economy with people dropping out the labor force. And I'm not sure anybody really has the answers to deal with it.
REHMJohn Prideaux, he's Washington correspondent at The Economist. Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Manu Raju of Politico, we are live video streaming as well as audio streaming the program today. You can go to drshow.org and click on video if you'd like to see the show in action. Unemployment insurance, Molly, apparently those long-term unemployed did not get the kind of help they were hoping for.
BALLThat's right. This has been a continuing debate since the long-term unemployment was not extended at the beginning of January, I believe. And it's continued to be an acrimonious debate in the Senate. At one point, there were 60 votes on a procedural motion, and then they were unable to move forward from there to actually pass the measure.
BALLThey've continued to debate it. Majority Leader Harry Reid's continued to bring it up. Just yesterday, they got 59 votes on another proposal that Democrats say would have satisfied Republican demands that this be paid for. But the upshot is it's not going anywhere. Even if it passed the Senate, it's very doubtful this measure could get through the House. And so these 1.7 million people who have been unemployed for more than six months are essentially out of luck.
RAJUYeah. Yeah. That's right. I mean, this was just a three-month extension that they were talking about in the Senate yesterday. And, you know, that was -- the idea was to buy time for a larger overhaul of the unemployment program. You know, there is a chance it can get out of the Senate. I mean, there were two guys -- senators who voted -- and for that first procedural motion that Molly mentioned, who voted against it yesterday.
RAJUThat's that Rob Portman of Ohio and Dan Coats of Indiana, two Republican senators, and they're still in the middle of the negotiations about the best way to pay for this three-month extension, which would cost the government about $6.4 billion. So whether they agree to it will be a question, I think, that we'll focus on the coming weeks. But, even as Molly said earlier, if this gets out of the Senate, the chance in the House are grim.
RAJUI think people can expect that these unemployment benefits will be lapsed for a while.
REHMAnd certainly an issue in the upcoming elections in November. John.
PRIDEAUXYeah. I think unemployment benefits will be an issue in the upcoming elections. I think the reason this issue generates such heat -- going back to the unemployment numbers, some Republicans look at those numbers. They see people dropping out of the workforce, and they say, you know, why are we extending unemployment insurance when we've got this negative trend of the workforce shrinking anyway?
PRIDEAUXOther people look at the job creation numbers and say, well, look, there aren't enough jobs for people to take. And so we need to extend unemployment insurance for them. But that's why there's quite so much heat around this issue. I thought it was interesting, looking at the Senate roll call, you looked at the people who, on the Republican side, reached across the aisle and voted for the extension.
PRIDEAUXAnd you have a familiar crew of sort of Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and it looks a lot like one of the preconditions for bipartisanship in the Senate, is you have to be a woman who comes from a sort of state where everybody owns a pair of snowshoes.
BALLAlthough I would point out that the champion of this bill, the main Republican pushing for this has been Dean Heller of Nevada, which is the state with, I believe, still the highest unemployment rate in the country, if not among the highest. And he is someone who has had sort of a mixed record. He's not necessarily one of the go-to moderates who can be counted on to support bipartisan legislation. And so he's had an interesting role in this as well, and there are certainly not a lot of snowshoes in the state of Nevada.
REHMSo what does this mean for the unemployed, Manu?
RAJUIt means that their -- what some people consider a lifeline may not exist for a while. I think that, you know, there's just a fundamental difference between the two parties right now in how to restructure the program. And I think we're going to have to wait till next Congress to really get resolution.
REHMManu Raju of Politico. Short break here. We'll talk further, take your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with: Molly Ball of The Atlantic, John Prideaux of The Economist, Manu Raju of Politico. Here's our first email talking about the job numbers from Linda in Commerce, Mich. She says, "These job numbers are looked at through a very small and inaccurate window. It reminds me of a friend I have who weighs himself several times per day and alternately rejoices or laments the number. It's ridiculous and causes a lot of unnecessary drama." What do you think, John?
PRIDEAUXI think there's so much incentive built into the system to produce these surveys even if there are problems with them. What seems to be important, rather than the absolute number, is the direction of travel. And there's a whole expectations game on Wall Street and, you know, in politics around these numbers. I think people find them useful for putting them in their economic models even if, as your -- as our correspondent rightly points out, the numbers can be a little shaky sometimes.
RAJUYeah, and the numbers are oftentimes revised at the end of the day. I mean, I think they're saying, you know, typically they could be 100,000 jobs off at times. So they really go back after a couple of months and decide whether or not these numbers need to be adjusted. So we may see some of this adjusted. And maybe some of it has to do with the weather, too. I mean, December and January were very frigid months.
RAJUAnd that was one of the reasons some blamed, at least for the December numbers.
BALLYeah, I think what we've tried to do here is to put these numbers in context. And, as John sort of said, there is a consistent long-term trend here. There is a consistent pattern that we are seeing over the past more than a year of an economy that is gradually recovering but unable to sort of achieve liftoff.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about the Farm Bill, which Congress finally passed. The president is about to sign. What was the holdup, John?
PRIDEAUXThere were lots of holdups in here. I mean, the Farm Bill is an extremely odd piece of legislation.
PRIDEAUXIt's a huge piece of legislation.
PRIDEAUXIt's a big appropriation, but you also have these two elements that make strange bedfellows, in a way, that were put together in the 1970s: food stamps, which accounts for about 80 percent of spending in Farm Bills, and agricultural subsidies. And so you have this weird combination of subsidies for the poor and farm subsidies, much of which unfortunately go to relatively well-off farmers.
PRIDEAUXIt's being presented as a sign of bipartisanship and a sign of Congress working again, that this Farm Bill, which was delayed for such a long time, has been passed. And, you know, there's some rejoicing about that. But actually you look at the law. It's a pretty ugly thing in my view.
BALLWell, I would agree with that to the extent that there are a lot of objections to this bill from both the ideological left and right. The left, particularly the environmental community, tends to hate the farm subsidies. They feel that they lead to the misuse of land and the wrong types of incentives for food producers. And then the right is -- some on the ideological right, the sort of libertarian wing, don't like the farm subsidies because of the distortions that they produce in the economy.
BALLAnd, of course, they also have some objections to the food stamp program, believing that either it's too generous or that it encourages dependence or that it just constitutes too large an expansion of the welfare state. So there's a type of bipartisanship there as well. There's bipartisan objection to it. But it's really been -- to zoom out a little here -- a remarkable turn of events that the Farm Bill was so delayed.
BALLThis is something that has been a staple of American bipartisan policymaking for 75 years since it was enacted in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl as an attempt to make sure that America's food supply was secure. And there were fights over it over the years, but they always got it done. And it's really a sign of how bad things had gotten in Congress that back in 2012, when they began trying to renew the 2008 Farm Bill, the entire process completely broke down and stalled out.
REHMI want to go to this $8 billion cut in food stamps. What's it going to mean for those who are on food stamps?
RAJUIt was projected that about $90 a month will be -- people who were relying on food stamps may see about $90 a month less to spend on food and other food products.
REHMAnd what was the bargain there?
RAJUThe bargain was they needed to -- the cuts could've been much deeper. I mean, the conservatives didn't want this to be part of the overall package to begin with. A lot of conservatives were pushing to -- for dramatic, even more significant cuts to the food stamp program. So the proponents of this Farm Bill really had to usher through what they saw as a compromise in order to have -- allow for some of these cuts, but not as deep as a lot of folks were proposing.
RAJUAnd that's what generated a lot of criticism on the right, that it did not go far enough, and that's what put a lot of Republicans in a tough spot at the end of the day because there was all this amped up criticism from the right, even if they wanted to support it. I would point out, Diane, an interesting opponent of this measure was Pat Roberts.
RAJUHe's a Kansas senator. He's on the Agricultural Committee. He voted against this bill, even though he got a big win for the crop insurance industry in this proposal. But he's facing a primary challenge this year in this election. And there's -- and the folks on the right do not like this bill, even though it would benefit rural...
REHMBecause of the food stamps?
RAJUThat's one of the reasons, and for the generous subsidies, as Molly pointed out earlier. So this is a very difficult thing on the right. And that's what led to this opposition for the food stamp program and the deep cuts at the end of the day.
BALLWell, and as Manu alludes to, this is yet another symptom of the schism in the Republican Party between the ideological right, often shorthanded as the Tea Party, and the sort of traditional constituencies of the Republican Party, in this case, rural people. And for farmers particularly, who tend to be very conservative people culturally and ideologically, a lot of them really feel they've been abandoned by the Republican Party that used to represent them because Republicans did not make it a priority to compromise on the Farm Bill until now.
BALLSo there's been some damage done, I think, to some Republicans in these rural states by the delays that the Farm Bill has seen. And there may, in fact, be political consequences for some of them.
REHMInteresting that sugar producers and catfish farmers got lots of help, Manu.
RAJUYeah, the catfish, you know, in particular, that was a -- it was overseeing -- these imports of catfish were overseen by the FDA. But a lot of these southern lawmakers didn't think the FDA really had the teeth to inspect these catfish imports, so they created about a $20 million office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to inspect these catfish imports.
RAJUCritics of this measure call this sort of a protectionist effort used by and pushed by southern lawmakers to protect a home state industry. But, as we see in the Farm Bill, a lot of this is regional, and a lot of this is parochial. And that's what generally leads to broad support in Congress.
PRIDEAUXI think if you look at America at the moment, it would be hard to conclude that one of the great threats facing the nation is imported catfish. I mean, there's been very few problems from -- you know, I suppose the argument for regulating this stuff is that you have health problems, you know, catfish poisoning. You look at the numbers. It's extremely hard to find cases of catfish poisoning about the place.
PRIDEAUXAs for the sugar subsidy, I mean, we have -- 35 percent of adult Americans are obese, and the Farm Bill has just added, you know, further subsidies to the sugar industry. I think it's a crazy piece of legislation in many ways, more so for the agricultural subsidies at a time when, you know, American farms are more profitable than they've been for a very long time than for the food stamps, which you can make an argument for even if it's a slightly odd thing to provide welfare in the form of food. I don't know any other rich countries that do it.
BALLWell, and the food stamps also have support from the agricultural community because they do end up constituting a gigantic subsidy to food producers in the end. That's who is making the food that, you know, goes through the supply chain and ends up in people's grocery stores and farmers markets and so on. So the agricultural community actually supports both parts of this bill, both the food stamps -- now I believe something like 20 percent of Americans receive food assistance in this country, so that is a big chunk of the purchasing power for food in America.
REHMAll right. Let's turn to immigration reform, Manu. John Boehner says he's already giving up on immigration reform for this year. How come?
RAJUWell, he didn't go that far, but that's what has been interpreted. You know, he's putting the blame on the White House saying that, look, our conference does not believe that even if we pass this immigration bill that the president will go along with it, given the president's stated desire to go around Congress and do a number of things on the executive and administrative level without congressional consent.
RAJUReally, what that is is sort of a deflection. I mean, the Republicans are totally divided over how to move forward on immigration. It has caused a major revolt among the conservative base. This is a very difficult issue particularly as primary season begins to heat up. And, look, they put out a one-page document last week on a huge piece of legislation.
RAJUThey haven't even put together the details of the fine print of the legislation. And they're already getting massive pushback. If this started to move through the House, it would get very messy. And the Republicans just don't want to deal with that right now. They'd rather focus on things that they can be on the offensive on, like Obamacare, and not on things like immigration.
REHMAnd yet out of John Boehner's mouth came something such as our emailer Cal points to. He says, "Can America really take Boehner and the House Republicans seriously anymore in terms of not being a completely obstructive body after his comments about Obama not being trustworthy?" Molly.
BALLWell, I think that is in the context of a State of the Union where Obama made very clear that he wants to go around Congress any way he can because he's fed up with Congress. Now, you may agree with the president that Congress deserves whatever (word?) he's heaping on them. But this is an insult to Congress, and Congress doesn't like it. So they feel that the president doesn't, you know, respect their role in the process. So why should they respect his or give him a win or do something that he wants them to do?
PRIDEAUXI'll just point out briefly that this objection that the president can't be entrusted to enforce immigration laws -- and one of the things I've been looking at recently is deportations from America. The president's administration has deported almost 2 million people since 2009. It's almost a tenfold increase compared with the numbers of 20 years ago.
PRIDEAUXYou talk to campaigners on this, and, you know, they're extremely upset that the president is enforcing -- his administration rather is enforcing these laws very vigorously. So I think to say we can't pass this thing because we can't trust the president to enforce the law and -- is a bit rich given that.
BALLAnd deportations are at an all-time high. Spending on border security is already at an all-time high before we get into the Senate bill which would commit tens of millions more to border security. Border apprehensions are at an all-time high. So fewer people are -- contrary to popular belief, are coming across the southern border, and more of them are being caught than ever before.
BALLWhat we're going to see happen next, if indeed immigration is pronounced dead for the umpteenth time, is there's going to be a lot of pressure on Obama to stop deporting so many people. You have the immigration reform community that wants him to do for all immigrants what he's done for the so-called dreamers and give them a way to stay in this country and come out of the shadows.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Rich who's listening on WCPN radio in Cleveland. He says, "The Republican response to immigration reform makes perfect sense. If they pass immigration reform this year, they'll have a tougher time winning back the Senate. If they wait until 2015, then they improve their odds of winning the presidency."
RAJUYou know, I think there's some truth to that. I'm not sure if I agree to that completely, but I think that this is -- immigration is important for the Republicans for 2016. I think that they all know for national election they need to do much better with Hispanics than they did when Mitt Romney ran or John McCain ran. They really are shedding support from a growing and influential bloc of voters. They need to get this bill through.
RAJUAnd that's what drove a lot of the momentum last year and got it out of the Senate. And that's what prompted, you know, John Boehner who wanted to do something on this. He knows the politics of this. But to keep the -- to take back the Senate, to keep the House, it's not as important for the Republicans. They -- a lot of these members in the House come from districts where there aren't big pockets of Latino voters or voters who are pushing hard for this immigration bill.
RAJUIn the Senate, there are a number of states or red states in which Republicans are on the offense and where Democrats who are holding those seats are on the defense and don't necessarily need an immigration bill to take back the Senate. So there isn't -- from a political standpoint, there's not an immediate imperative for the Republicans to pass it. But the smart Republicans and their party will argue that, look, we need to get it done if we want to take back the White House in 2016.
PRIDEAUXI think it's an interesting place where the Republicans' short-term interest and their long-term interests conflict completely. I mean, the party reminds me a bit at the moment on this issue of somebody who knows they need to go on a really severe diet but just keeps having one more big slice of chocolate cake.
PRIDEAUXThey know that they must get on the right side of this argument. As Manu said, it hurts them every presidential election, but there's never really going to be a good time to do it. That now ought to be a good time to do it in the House. I mean, I don't think anybody who follows the House races thinks there's any real danger of House Republicans losing the House in these midterms. So if not now, when?
BALLYeah. And the immigration reform community has really had a hard time trying to incentivize the House Republicans to do this. They've put a lot of pressure on the House Republicans who do have substantial Latino populations. There aren't a lot of them.
BALLBut you do have some strong advocates for immigration reform in the House Republican caucus who have districts in places like California and Nevada. And they're the ones that are going to be targeted for defeat if this doesn't get done in an attempt by immigration reformers to show that there are actually consequences for them not doing anything.
REHMAll right. And today marks the end of the current debt limit suspension. What does that really mean in practical terms? And are we going to see a fight on that, lifting the debt ceiling?
PRIDEAUXWell, the Treasury Department always has a little more room to maneuver than these deadlines suggest.
REHMAnd they said they do.
PRIDEAUXThat's correct. And we've been through this recently. I mean, for people who follow this stuff, there's sort of -- the words debt and ceiling put together invites a kind of, you know, horrible sinking feeling. We got pretty close last time. I think the consensus is, this time, Congress will get there. The question is, what, if anything, is attached to raising of the debt ceiling? The White House overseer said, as it said before, we won't negotiate over the debt ceiling.
PRIDEAUXHowever, if you look at the history of previous raises to the debt ceiling, there have been small things attached. I think -- so I think to say we won't negotiate at all is not completely credible. I think where the White House is right is that they can't negotiate a debt ceiling raise in exchange for something enormous like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. But I think the Republicans have got that message now.
REHMJohn Prideaux, Washington correspondent at The Economist. Short break here. We'll take your calls when we come back. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMWelcome back. Time to open the phones first to Lexington, Mass. Hi, David. You're on the air.
DAVIDAmericans don't want immigration reform, and they don't want it because it's going to put people out of work in a country that already has high unemployment. And they understand that you can't bring in a huge influx of labor and not put people out of work.
REHMAll right. What do you think, Molly?
BALLWell, I would say a couple of things to that. First of all, the polling is pretty consistent. Americans do support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, generally between 60 and 65 percent. So it's not an overwhelming majority, but most Americans do favor this policy although it's not particularly high on their list of priorities. The idea that immigration reform puts people out of work is also quite debatable.
BALLThere may be some displacement effect, but, overall, for the economy, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that, I believe, $800 billion over 10 years -- I may be getting that wrong -- but a tremendous positive effect on the American economy overall were the Senate bill to be passed. So, on those points, I don't think the caller is necessarily correct.
REHMAll right. To Indianapolis. Hi, Marcie. You're on the air.
MARCIEThank you, Diane. I just wanted to comment or ask your panel, every time they talk about the low job numbers and the fact that it hasn't gone up as much as people expected, they never consider the fact that so many municipal and state and federal governmental jobs were lost during the recession. And those, as far as I know, have never been restored. So wouldn't that make a big difference in the overall jobless rate?
RAJUYeah, I think this most recent jobs report showed that, I believe, it's about 20,000 or so jobs were added, government jobs. So the government is clearly not adding nearly as many jobs as it initially lost. That's a factor that's -- as we look in the overall job picture.
REHMAll right, to Cassius in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
CASSIUSHello, Diane. Thank you for receiving my call. I was just wondering, are there numbers to show who receive food stamps? Sometimes the media make it look like it's one ethnic group or another that receive it. I was just wondering if there was numbers to back up who receives it.
REHMAnybody have those numbers, Molly?
BALLI don't have any kind of ethnic or racial breakdown handy. I know that the raw number is about 45 million Americans receiving food stamps, and it is people of all, you know, races and ethnicities. There is not an...
REHMI would certainly think so. John?
PRIDEAUXThat's right. If any program that has 45 million recipients, you've got to have a pretty good mixture of Americans, you know, in racial or ethnic terms receiving it. One thing I would say about the numbers is they've gone up a lot recently. It's a benefit that's quite responsive to economic conditions, by which I mean, when the economy is weak, food stamp recipients shoot up quite fast.
PRIDEAUXThere was also a concerted push to widen the eligibility for food stamps. So it's actually a feeling amongst people who follow this stuff some years ago that not enough people were eligible for food stamps. So the criteria were widened. So those two things -- the economic being soft and the eligibility being sort of opened up -- has the number shooting up, and they're projected to fall.
REHMAll right, to Randy in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hi there.
RANDYI enjoy your show very much.
RANDYMy concern is that I looked up some H1B visa numbers within the past year or so. And it seems that the issuance is somewhere around 480,000 H1B visas issued. And if that number is true, that takes an incredible bite out of the jobs that are being created.
RAJUI don't have the number in front of me, but I do know that expanding H1B visas is one of the few areas of immigration that actually has pretty significant bipartisan support in Congress. And one of the reasons why that has not passed by itself is that that's sort of used a bargaining chip to add to an overall package.
RAJUSo, you know, there -- certainly there are some concern from folks in the labor community about expanding this too dramatically. But, overall, there's support for overhauling the program and adding more high-skilled foreign workers.
PRIDEAUXI think it's also important to bear in mind that there's not a fixed amount of jobs out there. And adding one group of people doesn't necessarily subtract from the amount of jobs available. I mean, you have 480,000 people coming in on H1B visas. That doesn't mean that they take away, you know, that equivalent number, fewer jobs in the economy.
REHMAll right. I want to ask about the Washington Post report on the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, which released a report on Tuesday that certainly generated a lot of criticism of the new healthcare law. And yet immediately after that story was posted on the front page of the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, also of the Washington Post, came out and said this story is wrong. Manu?
RAJUYeah. It all stems around the idea of the Affordable Care Act and how it's going to impact economic growth and jobs in this country. What the report said was that, by 2024, there'll be 2.5 million fewer jobs or fewer -- it'll reduce the supply of jobs in that 2024 time period. But the reason why that's important is because it will -- the report said that workers won't be able to choose whether or not to stay at their job because of their health insurance.
RAJUNow, because of the law, they can get insurance on the individual market through the state base exchanges, through the federal exchanges, the online marketplaces and be able to purchase their insurance without having to rely on their employer. And that is going to have the impact of having 2.5 fewer jobs.
RAJUBut, you know, this is still significant uptick. I mean, the Congressional Budget Office had about -- initially projected that there'll be about three times fewer number of jobs that would not be in the economy in a 10-year time period. So it's a substantial uptick in the number of jobs that may not be here in the next decade. And it's definitely provided a political fodder for both sides.
BALLAnd this is a very big report where the Congressional Budget Office that had previously estimated the impacts of the Affordable Care Act on the economy was going back with new data to see if any of those estimates needed to be revised. There's quite a bit of good news in this report for proponents of the Affordable Care Act. The CBO found, for example, that despite the many and varied problems of the various Obamacare websites, federal and state, that enrollment will mostly catch up to the projections that the original projection that 7 million would sign up will only fall about a million short.
BALLThere'll be about 6 million. The effect on the economy that it will have a slight dampening effect on the economy. But also that this idea that a lot of employers are going to be taking people from full-time to part-time work, the CBO did not find any evidence of that. What they did find is this effect that Manu is talking about that's become so -- such a partisan football is that there are people who will choose to work less because they have access to health insurance and health insurance subsidies outside of their employers.
BALLAnd I think, even if we understand that correctly as not fewer jobs but less labor supply, there is still a partisan debate being had here over whether it's proper for the government to incentivize people to work less. This is essentially a welfare effect, saying there is more of a safety net, so people are free to choose to work a little bit less. And I think that's something that we can -- that people can disagree about.
REHMAny comment, John?
PRIDEAUXI'd say two things. The first thing I'd say is, thank heavens for the CBO. It's wonderful that we have an organization in America that can come out with sort of projections and nobody questions them or assumes that there's some kind of bad faith in the numbers. So that's an important thing, and it's a wonderful thing for political debate here. The second thing I'd say is, I think that the numbers within the CBO report, the revision, as Molly points out, are really damaging for Democrats.
PRIDEAUXAnd I think, no matter what you think of the aims of the Affordable Care Act -- and, you know, it's something I support -- I feel that America is a wealthy enough country that it want to do a better job of providing healthcare to people who don't have it. Whatever you think the aims, they were not to lower the incentives for people to work. And as we were talking about at the top of the hour, we're already got a population problem with the shrinking labor force participation.
PRIDEAUXThese numbers assert that in the middle of -- the early part of next decade, this will help to shrink labor force participation by far to 2.5 million jobs. And you can -- if you're, you know, partisan, supporting the White House to the hilt on this, you can say, oh, well, it's great because it means people can have more leisure. I'm not sure that that's a great public policy goal, and it's certainly not the one that people, you know, stated when they were backing the Affordable Care Act.
REHMAll right. Let's move on to the decision by CVS to stop selling any and all tobacco products. Is it going to make a big difference in how many people smoke or not?
RAJUYou know, it is the largest drugstore chain in the country, so it will certainly have a major effect, particularly in areas which, you know, were the heavily populated areas where there are lots of CVS locations. And, you know, so it certainly goes to that. I think what's interesting here is that, you know, the -- really, the pivot for CVS took, of course, trying to be seen as a health care provider at a time when people are going to be getting more insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.
RAJUYou know, primary care physicians in this country, there is a shortage of them. And there's a concern that because of this influx of new people who got insurance that these primary care physicians will be overwhelmed by these new patients. The -- by CVS, by moving its direction to become more of a health care provider, they could sort of fill that gap. So you'll see these minute clinics that are already, you know...
RAJUThey're already in existence.
RAJUThey want to double those in the next few years. So more and more will be getting that primary care through physician's assistants, nurse practitioners at these locations rather than their typical primary care doctors.
BALLWell, in the aftermath of the State of the Union, the big sort of buzzword for the White House was that Obama was going to affect change using the pen and the phone. And the White House immediately hailed this move from CVS. And I think, while the pen aspect of Obama's proposal got a lot of attention, his executive orders, the phone aspect, is these private sector partnerships where the administration is able to use persuasion or whatever to get private companies to help them achieve a lot of their goals.
BALLWe had President Obama announcing also this week an education broadband initiative where tech companies pitched in, I believe, nearly a billion dollars to help schools have technology. So these are the kinds of things that the administration hopes to be able to achieve on a voluntary basis in a situation where nothing gets through Congress.
REHMMolly Ball, staff writer at The Atlantic. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's finally talk about Chris Christie and the bridge scandal that seems to go on forever. Last week, we heard from David Wildstein again through his attorney, saying evidence exists that the governor knew about the closings when they were happening. And at the same time, you had the woman who was closest to him, who apparently initiated the whole bridge closing, we think, from emails, saying she's not going to release any documents. John?
PRIDEAUXWe're waiting, really, to see if there is a smoking gun here. David Wildstein's statement through his lawyers, I thought, was rather oddly worded. It suggests that there were some evidence, but he hasn't come up with it yet. Instantly, I thought Chris Christie's statement about David Wildstein was among the most unintentionally funny things a senior American politician has said recently.
PRIDEAUXYou know, this stuff about, I didn't really know him at high school because I was class president and an athlete, and he was a sort of nobody. I thought that was quite funny. I don't think Christie is toast yet. If you look at the polls, which admittedly a very small poll, his approval ratings have fallen, but I think not catastrophically.
PRIDEAUXThey still look around kind of 50 percent, which, you know, for a Republican politician in a blue-leaning state is not a disaster. I think he could come back if there's no further evidence. However, it's quite clear that if he did know about it in advance and perhaps if he did know about it at the time and then didn't, you know, proceed to investigate it, he'll be toast -- but not yet, in my view.
REHMNot yet. Molly?
BALLNo. I think if Wildstein is right and the evidence is there and we get the evidence, that's -- that could be the end for Christie. But there's been this odd effect of this whole scandal of rallying Republicans around Christie on a national level where he's looking at possibly running for president. You've had a lot of people on the right feeling like this is some kind of a witch hunt that he's being victimized.
BALLChristie was invited to speak at the conservative Political Action Conference this year where he was sort of conspicuously snubbed last year. And so there does seem to be this bunkering of the right, saying, yeah, we're going to defend him. He's our guy. So what it means for Christie as a national candidate, I think, is going to depend on whether that other shoe ever drops or not.
BALLWe've certainly seen governors come out of a miasma of scandal in their states and nonetheless become the nominee. Just look at Bill Clinton.
REHMAnd you've got the Wall Street Journal/NBC survey showing that Christie's standing with Republican voters has dropped while his standing with core Republicans has actually improved.
RAJUI mean, so much about handling -- about dealing with big controversies or scandals is how you handle it. I mean, so I think there's a lot to be seen about whether Christie can survive this, not necessarily because of what happened with the lane closures but how he handles it from here on out. And as we know, this is not going away.
RAJUThe legislature is controlled by Democrats. They're going to continue to investigate. There's a U.S. attorney's investigation going on right now. There are a lot of questions unanswered, and there are allegations that are flying all around. The longer this stays in the news, the more damaging this is to Christie.
REHMIs the question still, how could he not have known until day four that this tie-up was actually occurring? Molly.
BALLIf you accept that he didn't know, that becomes the question. My biggest question is still, did he know? And, you know, he's continued to deny that, and there are others who say that he did.
REHMThat if indeed he knew that this traffic pile-up was going on, he says he did not know that.
BALLNo. He says he -- I'm not clear on when he says he became aware of the traffic jam itself.
PRIDEAUXI think the phrase is no prior knowledge, so...
BALLRight. He didn't order it.
PRIDEAUX...take that however you want to take it.
BALLHe was not part of the plan. He didn't initiate this supposed revenge plot.
REHMAll right, and we leave it there to be continued. Molly Ball of The Atlantic, John Prideaux of The Economist, Manu Raju of Politico, have a great weekend, everybody.
BALLThank you, Diane.
PRIDEAUXThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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