A BuzzFlash Interview With U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Democrat and Progressive
May 9, 2002
BuzzFlash last interviewed Jan Schakowsky in February of 2001. We talked with her again in late April of 2002 about the challenge that the Democrats face in bringing domestic issues to the forefront at a time that the Bush Administration is making the "war on terrorism" its ongoing media message.
As we noted in our 2001 interview:
Jan Schakowsky's is currently the Chief Deputy Whip for the Democrats
in the House.
* * *
BUZZFLASH: Given that we've had the press pretty much covering September 11th and the Middle East nonstop, it seems domestic needs are not getting the attention that they deserve. As a person who is a progressive leader in Congress, what sort of issues do you think that BuzzFlash readers should be paying attention to on the domestic agenda that are kind of getting swept under the media rug?
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, first of all, you've got it right - that it's the media coverage that's not representative of what's going on, because the same issues that people came home and talked about at their kitchen tables for dinner on September 10th are the ones they're talking about now. And with the downturn in the economy, now even more so, people are worried about getting a pink slip. They're worried about whether or not they have health insurance, or if they can afford their prescription drugs. And if Social Security and Medicare are safe, and if their kids are getting a quality education. And if their neighborhoods are safe, and if the air is clean, and the water pure.
The same things that I think are the bread-and-butter issues of Americans are still uppermost in their minds. That's what our polling data is telling us as well. They're worried even more now, since Enron, about pension security. And on all of these fronts, you find that, at best, the Republicans are all rhetoric and photo opportunity. And when it comes to delivering what most Americans need and want, they're only for the very wealthy. This is an administration that shamelessly, without apology, without being tentative, without backing down, supports the wealthiest Americans, the biggest and most powerful corporations. And that is their agenda.
I have of late, been giving a speech called "Why I Admire the Republicans." And why I admire them is that they are on message all the time, and never wavering for a moment. And if you think about the audacity of these people, it's breathtaking.
If you look at the federal budget deficit since 1980, what you find is it keeps growing through the eighties -- through the Reagan and Bush administration. Then there's this tiny moment where it spikes up into surplus in the Clinton presidency, and then plunges down again with a $5 trillion loss. Now, do you think that stops them for even a second -- that they lost $5 trillion, and that we're back into deficit spending? That we've invaded the sacred, sacrosanct Social Security lock box. That we have pages of promises from the President, to Dick Armey, to Tom DeLay, that it will never, ever be invaded. Do you think that stops them for a second? Oh, no. The Republicans continue to want to claim that they are wearing the jacket of fiscal responsibility, and then point their fingers at the Democrats. You know, they still call us "tax and spend." They accuse us of class warfare when, in fact, they have declared war on the poor and the middle class. It's quite astonishing.
BUZZFLASH: What do you think of the President's proposal the other day to make the tax cut permanent?
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: We're actually in the midst of a vote on that right now. And in fact, on the rule to allow that, we did not lose one Democrat. All of the Democrats opposed it. And all of the Republicans supported it. Completely, totally party line. And I want to tell you that the kind of unity that you're seeing in the Democratic Caucus is in part attributable to our great new whip, Nancy Pelosi, (CA-8th District). It is also indicative of what I think you're going to be seeing - that the Democrats are going to be clearly on message and on the side of the ordinary American people.
This piece of legislation - to make the tax cut permanent - will cost another $4 trillion in the next decade, making it impossible for us to meet the priorities that I first outlined, when you said "What are the domestic issues?" Four trillion dollars lost, and that will happen at the moment that the Baby Boomers are retiring, and we're going to need every dollar to make Social Security solvent and pay full benefits. So this is the most radical and irresponsible position for the President and the Republicans to take.
And these guys don't even like to play it straight. Why didn't this come up the first time, when they proposed the taxes? Because they're trying to make a gimmicky budget that, on the surface, they like to say somehow balances out. They always intended to make it permanent, and it's a huge transfer of wealth to their constituents that we see going on. Maybe we should call them investors or stockholders. And that's what this is about. And the Republicans don't care.
BUZZFLASH: And how is that wealth being transferred?
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Through tax policy that overwhelmingly will return those dollars to the wealthiest Americans. I was on O'Reilly last week, and he was just outraged at some article that claimed that too much income tax is paid by the wealthy. I said, "Bill, the good news is they are making more of the money." If you look at their incomes, which have increased, the top one percent has seen their income increase 120-157 percent. And we've seen that the bottom 20 percent have actually lost ground and have lower incomes. For the wealthiest, as a percentage of their income, which is what really matters, they're paying less than they have in the past. So they're doing just fine, Mr. O'Reilly.
Ask most Americans: Do you want a tax cut, or do you think we should be putting money into programs and services? Things like reducing the deficit, shoring up Social Security and Medicare, paying for a prescription drug benefit and education funding. The American people, in overwhelming numbers, say programs and services. If you recall, George Bush had to go out on the stump to sell the tax cut in the first place, and people have never really bought it. They don't really trust that it's going to mean that much to them. And it doesn't for most Americans. But this is the ideological agenda of the Republicans, and they shamelessly pursue it.
BUZZFLASH: Well, it's the cheapest political stunt in the world to ask, "Do you want a tax cut?" Everyone wants a tax cut. But Bush never mentions the cost of the tax cut. But the way he's financing that is through the deficit and cutting programs and services. So, I mean, anyone can do that. It doesn't take any leadership whatsoever.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Yes, he is doing it through deficit spending. And that's really the transfer of wealth, because what we're talking about is for ordinary Americans -- their taxpayer dollars, instead of going into the schools that they need, the healthcare that they need, the Social Security that they rely on, is all going to tax breaks for the wealthy. That is imminently unfair and irresponsible.
BUZZFLASH: But with the tax cuts that we've seen thus far, from BuzzFlash's perspective, what has happened is that the Bush administration advocates cutting taxes knowing that it's going to end up in a deficit. They increase military spending and then they say we have to cut government spending on social programs in order to tighten the budget. So it helps defend their agenda -- their sort of Heritage Foundation, Enterprise Institute agenda -- dismantling the government, by using the deficit as an excuse to dismantle social service programs.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: That is exactly right. They are accomplishing both. They are giving benefits to the wealthiest and providing themselves an excuse for cutting other programs.
I had a fit in the Housing Subcommittee that I'm on because the Republicans have the nerve to ask these housing advocates, for who, some of them, for twenty years, have been pursuing an affordable housing trust fund. "Where do you think you're going to get the money?" the Republicans ask. Now do they ask the defense contractors who come in the same question? Here's the deal with the defense budget right now. We are going to be asked to vote on a proposed $400 billion defense budget -- more than a billion dollars a day -- a $48 billion increase. And let's put that in a little perspective. Just the increase -- $48 billion -- is larger than the total defense budget of any other country on the globe. Two, it is larger than the GDP of two-thirds of the nations on this planet.
Now I am the ranking Democrat on the Government Efficiency Subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee. And to his credit, my chairman has been having a hearing on the defense budget because the Defense Department cannot pass an audit. And what the Inspector General of the Department of the Defense has said is that they, the Department of Defense, cannot accurately account for $1.2 trillion in transactions. I asked Donald Rumsfeld about that yesterday. He says, "Well, that -- the only problem is that we can't match purchases with expenditures." It's like, yeah, that is a problem -- $1.2 trillion.
Then we had a hearing about the 1.7 million credit cards that have been issued to Department of Defense military and civilian personnel. The total credit card bill adds up to $9 billion. And what do we find among those expenditures? Toys, designer bags, breast enhancement surgery, bills to Hooters, gambling bills, exotic trips, so never mind whether or not you think the notion of $8 billion on a missile defense system is an appropriate expenditure. We don't even know where the credit card charges went, and the Inspector General continues to experience significant challenges with oversight and in preventing incorrect payments to contractors.
We're going to reauthorize the welfare program this year. Now which budget do you think is going to get more scrutiny? $400 billion for defense, or the $14 billion for welfare. You can bet the Republicans are going to make sure that not a single poor woman or her child gets a nickel too much. Now I'm not for anybody getting more money than the rules allow, although I don't know how a woman is supposed to live in Chicago with one child on something like $258 a month. You can't do it. But the point is that there shouldn't be any funny business, and yet we're talking about billions and billions and billions unaccounted for at the Defense Department, but nobody's really interested. Certainly not the administration, who's wrapping everything in the flag, including the defense budget.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask you quickly about seniors. Bush promised the world to seniors in the campaign, and yet it seems now we've got Social Security in jeopardy. We have, although it seems a little dormant for now, but I think just waiting to be reactivated, the sort of high-risk idea of people investing in the stock market for their Social Security.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, let me just say something about this privatization. Don't think for a minute that it's not still on their agenda. It's just a question of timing. And they are waiting until after the November elections to bring it back. They are fully committed to the privatization of Social Security. There is no doubt in anybody's mind.
And George Bush still continues to talk about it; he just doesn't want to have it dealt with in a very public way before the election. And regarding a prescription drug benefit, they are going to offer those phony discount cards, which aren't going to help anybody with anything much.
BUZZFLASH: In fact, that would help the drug companies, because it's my understanding that it's the pharmacies that would take the hit.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: The pharmacies would mainly take the hit, since there's no cost containment at all. The Democrats are coming out with a proposal that will deal with a serious Medicare prescription drug benefit, and the issue of cost containment as well, so that these pharmaceutical companies, the most profitable industry on the globe, aren't going to continue to rip off the American people.
The Republicans talk the talk, but don't walk the walk, not even one baby step. And so Democrats are going to have to draw the right lines to make sure that the American people understand the differences, and, if we do that, I think we will take back the House, we keep the Senate, and we put George Bush out of office in 2004.
BUZZFLASH: On another subject, I don't quite understand the media giving the President so much credit, just because after September 11th he said he was going to fight terrorism. I mean, I don't think there are many people in this country that are for terrorism. So anybody who was the president would have said, "I'm against terrorism. I'm going to try to fight to protect our country, and do everything possible to protect American citizens from terrorism." Any president would take actions to protect the American people.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: When we want to question Tom Ridge in public sessions, the administration refuses to even let this man appear in public. Look, we understand, as members of Congress, those things that get into national security. And we're not willing to jeopardize that either. As you said, we're all in this, and we're all responsible. But here is someone who won't even really give us a good description of how he wants to spend the money, or what the plan is, and won't meet in a public hearing.
BUZZFLASH: So how do you expect, as a part of the leadership in the Democratic House, the Democrats, in 2002, are going to bring the issues we've just been discussing, into the forefront, and break through that sort of cover the Bush administration has developed, about the war against terrorism, that's made it so hard to highlight our domestic concerns?
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: I'll tell you how: because it is still uppermost on the agenda of ordinary families, they are waiting for us to talk about these issues. These are the issues they're talking about. They want to hear from us on that, and they do believe that the Republicans are only out for rich people, that it really is Enron economics. The time is right for us to be making our case that people are hearing . . . ready to hear and ready to support it. I don't think it's going to be hard to accomplish. Everywhere my colleagues go, from the rural South to the Northeast, everywhere, they came back from their two-week spring break saying, "what I'm hearing is when are the Democrats going to stand up and fight back?" I think my colleagues are ready, and I do believe the American people are ready.
BUZZFLASH: Congresswoman Schakowsky, thank you for your time.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you Buzz.
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