Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
D.C. prepares to hike taxes on high-income residents. Virginia gets ready to charge tolls on a major federal highway. And Prince George’s county moves a step closer to installing a new council member. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Mark Warner Member, U.S. Senate, D-Va; Former Governor, Virginia
- Muriel Bowser D.C. City Council Member (D-Ward 4); Chair, Committee on Government Operations
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
Politics Hour Extra
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) answers a caller’s question about the sustainability of Social Security benefits. Warner said that when the system was created, the retirement age was set at 65 because average life expectancy was about 62, and the fact that people are living much longer now has created imbalance. Noting that reform is necessary, Warner said that politicians need to explain some of the math issues at hand (without intending to scare seniors) so that the public may understand future adjustments:
D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) talks about recent tensions between councilmembers concerning issues of civility, as well as some planned reforms concerning earmarks, constituent funds, and campaign contributions. Bowser said she had introduced a bill that would cut the amount of constituent funds that the mayor or a member could use from the current $80,000 limit to $40,000:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour, starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. He joins us in the studio. Tom, starting out on a sad note -- sometimes you want to say these things at the end of the show, but we get so caught up in the discussion that sometimes they get lost.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo I'd like to start by mentioning that Joe Barber passed this week. He's one of those people that everyone in media in this town knew, a lot of listeners and viewers interested in the arts knew. He did movie and theater reviews at WTOP, joined us here regularly, wrote for The Current Newspaper where Tom Sherwood has a column, and much more. How do you remember Joe Barber?
MR. TOM SHERWOODWell, his infectious good nature. You know, I couldn't understand it. He was -- he saw so many bad movies, and he was able to still be a good-natured person.
NNAMDIYeah, that's so amazing.
SHERWOODHe -- as a critic, you know, you have to be able to talk intelligently about things and also kind of be entertaining with the people who are listening to you. And Joe did it, you know. He was -- he just had so much fun doing that type of work. I mean, so he was infectious about it even when he was being critical, unlike some reporters like me. He was good-natured about how terrible some movies were.
NNAMDIAnd even though we all knew at some point or another, that he was facing serious challenges with his health, that he had to be juggling jobs, try to make both ends meet, as you pointed out, he never really complained about that.
SHERWOODHe never did. He just -- he would talk about doing what he loved best to do, and that's why he was very well-liked in the newsroom at WTOP, which is a nice, happy, friendly place -- most of the time -- until some of the people who work there come in the room.
NNAMDIThank you very much for mentioning that. Also passing this week, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, retired, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington. She was 79 years old. She was chief judge of the same federal court that, in 1963, when she was a new Justice Department lawyer, the chief judge of that court refused to let her speak in his courtroom, and a white colleague from justice had to be called to take her place. Ironically, she became the chief judge of that same court at some point.
SHERWOODYes. And she was very well-respected. She was fierce judge. And I say that not because of her reputation, but because I appeared in her court.
SHERWOODYes. You know, when I was a Washington Post reporter, the union that I had, The Newspaper Guild, we sued The Post for, we think, unfairly not paying us overtime. The case was assigned to Judge Johnson. And it took it 10 years of, you know, back and forth in litigation on that. And I hate to say it, as a reporter, I have to say we lost the case. But she was terrific. She sat there, and you just did not want to get out of line.
NNAMDIYou got to write a memoir at some point because this is something I never knew, that you were in her courtroom.
SHERWOODWell, it always did feel badly that Judge -- even though, I'm sure, is impeccably fair in all this. But, you know, only later that I realized after we'd lost the case that she had been a very close friend of Sharon Pratt Kelly, and I think had maybe swore her in or something -- swore her in, I think. But the issue being, I, of course, as a reporter was just beating the heck out of Sharon Pratt Kelly.
SHERWOODOh, I wonder if that had any influence on her decision, but she was -- Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was a terrific judge, and I think most people would agree with that.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he's our resident analyst and NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Joining us now from studios on Capitol Hill is Sen. Mark Warner. He is a Democrat from Virginia, where he also served as governor. Sen. Warner, thank you for joining us.
SEN. MARK WARNERKojo, thanks for having me on. And I -- you know, I think it was appropriate that you mentioned -- at the front end of the show, you and Tom -- that discussion. I didn't know the judge as well, but I knew Joe from many visits to WTOP. And, you know, thanks for bringing -- mentioning both those circumstances.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for remembering Joe as well. Sen. Warner, the so-called super committee of your colleagues has been tasked with slicing the debt by more than $1 trillion. You have been putting pressure on the people on that panel to actually be, well, super and go well beyond the goal of cutting the debt by $1.5 trillion. If you were in the room, where would you start that process?
WARNERWell, I would actually start process building on the work that's already been done. The president's own deficit commission, Simpson-Bowles, which cut $4 trillion, but through both cutting tax reform that raised revenues, entitlement reform, I would actually have gone ahead and built upon taking that work and also taken the work of the so-called Gang of Six, which I was one of that gang members, I guess, that tried to take Simpson-Bowles and, you know, refine it a little bit more.
WARNERI -- let me tell you that lots of folks stand up and -- I had this dinner the other night and a bunch of CEOs saying, hell, this is easy. You can do it overnight. Well, this is not that easy. There are hard, hard trade-offs. If it was easy, it would have been done by now, but the alternative is so daunting. The alternative of only doing, in effect, $2.5 trillion, a trillion that we've done in cuts and 1.5 more, which is what the super committee is charged with, is just not enough to get our debt, the GDP ratio down.
WARNERAnd when we see the turmoil in Europe, when we see the, you know, the job losses and the economic uncertainty in this country, I, frankly, think that showing that the political class or the political leaders in this country can actually do something together and put a real plan in place would be as much positive in terms of job growth and in terms of overall American individual confidence and business confidence of almost anything we can do.
NNAMDIIf you've got questions…
WARNERSo we're trying to -- I'm sorry -- well, just one last point. We're trying to show that if this so-called super committee goes big, there's going to be an awful lot of Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, others that will be there to get their back when they get the arrows that will be coming at them.
NNAMDII just wanted to give out the phone number, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. If you have questions or comments for him, 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. Here's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODSenator, with -- not that we don't have enough bad news that's weighing on the consumer. There's more news this week of, oh, maybe, we'll go through one of these dramatic shutdown threats again from the federal government in this because the House, I believe, said, no, we're not going to do that. But, once again, it just seems to be piling on with Capitol Hill, from both parties, that nothing is going to get done, that the super committee is going to fall short.
SHERWOODIt's not going to do but the most minimum things it thinks it can do. Where is the optimism? Is there any optimism in this gloom and doom?
WARNEROh, Tom, you know, I've seen those numbers that say 87 percent of Americans are disgusted with Congress. Well, I want to make sure I tell your listeners, I've been traveling across Virginia and everywhere else. And I can't find anybody in that 13 percent because I need to ask them what the heck they're thinking 'cause I'm disgusted, too.
WARNERI mean, it's kind of like we are -- you know, the economy is tough enough. We don't need to be further inflicting damage on the public's confidence. I mean, this -- you know, if -- my belief is if we don't deal with this debt crisis, we all ought to get fired, myself included. We all ought to get fired. Throw the whole lot out on this.
WARNERYou know, there are -- I'm watching right now, sitting on -- I hope I was going to be in the studio, but we are back and forth on this -- next what's called the continuing resolution effect, how we're going to continue to fund government. If we self-inflict another 11th hour political brinkmanship, it's just remarkable.
WARNERWhat I don't get is, we went through this battle at the end of July, and part of the deal was, okay, you know, we're not going to fight about at least for the next year's budget or the arm. You know, this -- we're going to set the numbers then. And I just think it's a little bit a bad faith what I'm seeing coming out of the House now that says, okay, you know, we want to renegotiate about disaster relief.
WARNERWell, we ought to have a battle about FEMA and disaster relief. That's a fair fight to have, but it shouldn't be tacked on to the kind of ongoing operations of the government. We shouldn't make every issue a kind of this do-or-die, and that's what, unfortunately, it looks like we may be heading back into.
SHERWOODYou're in a unique position. You got Eric Cantor who's one of the leaders of Republicans from Virginia. Do you ever maybe just have a -- like, in the old days of the Congress, have a side conversation with him, just a kind of eyeball-to-eyeball of what you might do that could be acceptable? And the same thing is true on the Maryland side.
SHERWOODYou've got Chris Van Hollen from Montgomery County who's on the super committee. Are you, in any way, because of your regional connections, trying to talk to them?
WARNERI've talked to Chris, the Virginia delegation as the delegation meets on a lot of issues. We've got a group in the Senate now, 38. At this point, I've got to get it to 51, equally divided Democrat and Republican that says, okay, you know, we're willing to put tax reform on the table. We're willing to put entitlement reform on the table.
WARNERThere's a lot of good -- I think there's more good will kind of beneath the shouting levels. But too often, it seems like, I think the circumstance of what happened in July is both parties agreed to the lowest common denominator demand (unintelligible) they are the party. And what I'm trying, in some small way to do, is, you know, make it safe to be a bit bipartisan, make it safe to go after both of the sacred cows.
WARNERAt least on the debt issue, you know, we're spending 25 percent of our GDP, all-time high. Our revenues are coming in about 15 percent, a 70-year low. The only time we have been in budget balance in the last 70 years, doesn't matter if it's a Democrat or Republican, has been when spending and revenues have been between 19 and 21 percent. So we've got to bring down spending. We've got to raise revenues.
WARNERAnd we've got to do it in a way that both sides can meet in the middle. That's what the Gang of Six was about. That's what Simpson/Bowles was about. That's what other plans have been about. And, you know, I think the idea that somehow one party or the other is going to win this battle, it would be like continuing to drive the country over the cliff.
NNAMDII'd like to talk about the dinner you mentioned earlier on Wednesday night at a tent at your place in Northern Virginia. Some people have described it as a pep rally to pressure the super committee. Do you think -- would you characterize it in the same way? And what do you think it accomplished?
WARNERWell, I think -- listen. I think it was a good conversation. There were a couple of members of the super committee there. You know, I don't think it was pressure. I think it was to support the super committee. I mean, this is not as easy when you're actually making trade-offs or thinking about how you make trade-offs in the tax code.
WARNEREverybody says reform -- you know, reform the tax code, lower rates, but then -- and they're saying, you know, in principle, let's get rid of some of the tax exclusions, tax breaks. But when you actually come down to picking which ones, it's a lot harder. Everybody says let's cut back spending, but when you look, now that we've kind of taken some of the easy spending cuts off the table, when you start diving deeply into cutting back defense spending or even further cutting back on infrastructure, it gets a lot, lot harder.
WARNERSo what we were saying is we want to support the super committee and, frankly, the business community that sat out the last debate, that didn't weigh in until the last 10 days. You know, they've got to have their oars in the water as well. They've got to be willing to say, you know, they'll do their part as well.
WARNERYes, we need corporate tax reform. But we also need individual tax reform, and we need to recognize that, you know, we've got to be supportive of people of courage in both political parties who will stand up and do the right thing. And so I would characterize it more as a rallying cry to support. And it was a good evening, but if it doesn't end up in action, you know, one more dinner in Washington that had good discussions doesn't amount to a hill of beans unless there's actions that come out of it.
NNAMDIYou mentioned corporate tax reform. But the president is throwing a lot of political muscle behind the idea of new taxes on the wealthy. He's threatened to veto the deficit reduction package if it doesn't balance cuts to benefits like Medicare with new sources of revenue. He says it's not class warfare. It's basic math. As a general principle, what is your position on the idea of raising taxes?
WARNERWell, as a general principle, it is basic math that we've got to have more revenues. But it's also basic math that the entitlement programs that we have right now -- you know, Medicare starts to go bankrupt in 2024, Social Security in 2037 -- none of these are going to self-correct. If we start making changes along them now, that will preserve them, so there actually is going to be Social Security for the next 75 years, for example.
WARNERI think, you know, it's math on both sides. I do think the notion that people -- and I've been blessed to have done very well in business before I got into politics -- I think I ought to pay my fair share. There's the approach the president has talked about, or there's the approach that we tried to work on. And I voted for, you know, for example, raising rates for people over $1 million back up to the rates they were under Bill Clinton.
WARNERBut if we can't get that, there's another way to say, let's go ahead and look at cutting back on tax expenditures, which, disproportionately, are taken by folks in the upper income, that you can still gain the additional revenue and keep the progressivity of the tax code within a tax reform framework. At the end of the day, whether you raise rates or cut back on expenditures, we got to get -- we got to generate some additional revenues. We've got to do it in a fair way.
WARNERAnd, frankly, we've got to do it in a way that takes the, whatever, 60,000 page tax code and make it a heck of a lot simpler. The transaction cost of just trying to deal with all of the tax code provisions is a drag on our economy, and we ought to get -- lead toward simplification. You know, people back in 1986, Democrats, Republicans, when Reagan was president, did it. We ought to be able to do it again.
SHERWOODSenator, a Virginia issue or two here, as a former governor, you'll appreciate this. I was at -- I didn't go, but...
WARNERI remember those days, Tom. I remember those days.
SHERWOODAnd you thought that was hard, maybe. But...
WARNERNo. I -- listen. Richmond is rational. Richmond looked rational, even with the general assembly in town compared to what's up here.
SHERWOODAnd you got -- and you did have bipartisanship. That's a good thing. But how do you -- Tysons Corner, this week, early -- I think it was Monday -- John "Til" Hazel, one of the early developers of Tysons Corner, was there with Robert "Bob" Simon, the founder of Reston. And Mr. Hazel stood up -- he's 81 now. A pretty interesting guy -- he said that...
WARNEROh, I know.
SHERWOOD...this region has made a mistake by not having more bridges across the Potomac, that originally there were plans, seven bridges, maybe two are built. He talked about how the American Legion Bridge is crowded now. It's due to get 50,000 more vehicles the next 10 or 15 years. He said there's no place for them to go, that it carries more traffic than the Wilson Bridge.
SHERWOODAs a former governor, as a senator who has something to say in national transportation issues, is there a need for new bridges across the Potomac into Maryland and Virginia and possibly into the District?
SHERWOODAnd would you -- where would the bridge go?
WARNERWell, you know, we head back. When I was a governor, there was an effort to -- I forget even what we call the connector that was going to be north of the American Legion Bridge. And there was, you know, clearly a lot of concerns onto Maryland, so I do have some concerns onto the Virginia side. But we are going to need, you know, we can't keep funneling all the traffic into, you know, these few choke points across the river.
WARNERAs you may -- as you remember, Tom, as well, I went out -- it was an imperfect -- but I went out in 2002 and campaigned hard for a funding source for Northern Virginia transportation. It would have added a half cent to the sales tax that would have, one, also generated not only funding for transportation but also funding for mass transit.
WARNERI got my tail beat -- we got my -- whatever. But, you know, consequently, what we've done is we've had a much higher loss of productivity, loss of time and cars. You know, none of this is self-correcting. And at the federal level, you know, not only are that the state transportation funds close to bankrupt -- and Virginia has done massive amounts of new borrowing, which, you know, some of that is good.
WARNERSome of it may go beyond traditional approaches. But the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke as well because we've got -- you know, the good news is, over the years, we've got our cars more fuel efficient, but that means, you know, we don't generate as much gas tax.
WARNERSo the infrastructure, which used to be a competitive advantage for our country, infrastructure, which, in the Capitol region, helped us grow, now is becoming a chokepoint and is going to kill the golden goose where the jobs are, whether it's in Montgomery County, PG County or out in Northern Virginia, in the Dulles courthouse square.
WARNERAnd we've been talking about it for 10 or 15 years. Til Hazel has been one of the leaders on it. Unfortunately, the progress hasn't been, at best, incremental.
NNAMDIYou're listening to The Politics Hour. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Our guest is Mark Warner. He's a member of the United States Senate, a Democrat from Virginia where he has also served as governor. Several callers would like to talk to you. We'll take them one at a time, starting with Chris in Fairfax, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYes. Good afternoon, everyone. Senator, I have a question. I worked both in Department of Defense and also for Federal Civilian Agencies, both as a contractor and as an employee. And, particularly, when I -- early on, when I was with the Department of Defense, you know, it was about the time the BRAC process started, and I was -- I want to get your opinion, whether a BRAC-like process would make sense for the non-defense portion of the federal government, the federal civilians' side.
CHRISAt least my experience, I mean, there's a lot to be said for, you know, consolidating, like, Department of Interior and the -- and Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service into, say, Department of Natural Resources because there seems to be a lot of redundancy and, my experience, a lot of waste. And I'd just like to get your opinion on that, and I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIThanks for your call, Chris.
WARNERChris, good question, and I do support that approach. There's -- I'm going to give you two or three specifics. One is there isn't a BRAC approach that would say, let's go ahead and start with something. It should be low-hanging fruit, existing federal properties. You know, I think we -- I've seen numbers -- and my number may be wrong -- but we could say about $20 billion if we actually sold off some of our surplus property.
WARNERNobody wants to do that on an individual basis. But if you had a straight up or down vote on it, makes some sense. Number two, I tried to, actually, just on this program consolidation -- took the list of programs that both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, had put on their eliminate lists. I tried to get those eliminated. It was only a billion dollars, but a billion dollars is a billion dollars. You know, it was amazing.
WARNEREverybody talked big until you actually came down to a vote. And I got it through the Budget Committee, couldn't get it to the floor, but -- so a bigger BRAC process around program consolidation, and whether you would give it government-wide or whether you take it by area, I mean, you've got to think the number is 38 separate workforce training programs.
WARNERWe all talk about the trend, you know, the move towards this global economy, and we've got a total mismatch around training. We need to do some of it, what needs to be consolidated. Export, you know, if you're a small to medium-size business, you know, trying to sort through where you get support to -- and that's where 95 percent of the new customers for business are going to be. It's a total mismatch.
WARNERSo the conceptual idea of how do you put these into kind of straight BRAC-like votes, I would be very supportive of. And that's when I also come back to why we can't, Tom's point earlier, about how, you know, conventional wisdom is. The super committee is not going to get anything done. Well, we got to, at some point, break conventional wisdom.
WARNERThe best thing the super committee has got going for it, it is a BRAC-like approach that if they come up with a proposal and it can be bigger than their mandate, you know, at the end of the day, we in Congress will have to vote straight up or straight down. No ands, ifs, buts. Oh, this is pretty good, but not good enough. You know, we've got to shake things up here a little bit, and I'd love to say the regular order always works.
WARNERIt -- as the new guy, it doesn't seem to. So let's try some of these BRAC-type approaches and -- on consolidation, on real properties, one of the lowest, and that's one of the opportunities (unintelligible).
NNAMDISpeaking of basic math, here is Peggy in Olney, Md. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEGGYHi, Senator. Thanks for taking my call.
PEGGYMy father and I argue constantly about politics, he's all, we've got to stop the spending, conservative, Tea Party-esque person. And my question to him is one I'll put to you. He retired from the federal government. I think he was 53. He had 20-some-odd years in the federal government service, and he contributed to his federal retirement in that way. Now he is 84. He has been retired for longer than he ever worked. He receives Medicare.
PEGGYAnd I asked him, well, gee, Dad, where should we start to stop the spending? You know, which part of your income would you like to give up? Why do I have to give up my retirement to finance yours? How are these -- who is on the job? Didn't you guys have actuaries figuring this out? Isn't this the source of our problems now, is that the money's already spent or it never was there?
NNAMDIMark Warner, resolve this family dispute, please.
WARNERNo, no. Listen, I -- Peggy, I got the same circumstance with my dad who's 86 and a World War II Marine. He says, you know, don't you touch my Social Security. I paid in, that's my money. Let me just -- Peggy, and if -- Kojo, if we can go beyond 12:30, I'm more than happy to, but...
WARNER...a couple of quick points. The reason we got into this problem is not, you know, Obama's stimulus or even the Bush wars. There's a lot of things. It is the fact that we -- you know, when Social Security was set up, retirement age was set at 65 'cause average life expectancy was 62, you know? The good news is we're living a lot longer.
WARNERThe bad news is the programs and the actuarial tables that were set up, you know, didn't assume we were going to live that much longer. An average person on Social Security has gotten all their money back, plus interest, after about, roughly, 10 years. So once you're living past 75, you're basically taking from your kids and your grandkids. It's not the money you paid in.
WARNERAnd, you know, when I was a kid, there were 17 workers paying in for every one person on Social Security. Today, there are three. So some of this just is math, and one of the challenges we have is -- and I don't think we've done a good job at all of -- is explaining some of this math to people, and not scaring them, not saying, hey, you know, Peggy, your dad or my dad -- nobody should change the benefits they're getting.
WARNERBut starting to explain now that if we don't make some changes for folks and give them warning below 50, below 45 -- pick your number, whether it's Medicare or Social Security -- that they're not going to have these programs 30, 40 years from now. If -- and it's not anybody's fault. It's just plain math. Maybe you ought to blame the medical profession 'cause we're living longer.
WARNERAnd I think if we can frame some of this where it's less kind of the us against them or class warfare, whatever you want to -- where everybody feels they're going to have some skin in the game. You know, I think the American public is so far ahead of where the elected kind of sound bite political leadership is, they will do their part if the feel it's fair, you know.
WARNERAnd that's where we've not done a very good job of laying out a comprehensive approach that says, yes, we're going to take on entitlements, yes, we're going to take on revenues, yes, we're going to cut back defense, and everybody's going to have some skin in the game.
NNAMDIPeggy, thank you for a great question.
NNAMDIHere's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODIt's a great question. As somebody who's very close to getting that Social Security payment, I do want that number to drop down below in the low 50s or something. No. But I look at every young person as a potential contributor to my Social Security, so I do appreciate it. But I'm just -- going forward, Jack Welch was on, former GE chairman, was on CNBC this morning.
SHERWOODAnd he tried mildly to say despite all the gloom and doom that profits or businesses are making more money, he thinks there's going to be a good third quarter. But I'm just asking you again, what is the good news -- before you leave and we talk about other matters -- what is the good news for Americans who are worried about their pensions, worried about the economy, can't find a job? Where is the silver lining? Is there one?
WARNERThere is, Tom. Corporate profits, particularly for larger companies -- small businesses are still having a hard time to accessing credit. But for large businesses, they're sitting on $2 trillion in cash on domestic balance sheets and, you know, another trillion or so offshore on balance sheets, much better position than they were in 2007 and '08 when the financial crisis first hit.
WARNERAmerican families who are way, way too much in debt have cut back, and they are less in debt today than they were in 2007. What we've got to do -- and a lot of this is plain, old psychic confidence. We've got to, you know, catch a break. Part of that break is the political leadership in the country needs to stop shooting at each other and actually work together.
WARNERAnd the conventional wisdom, which says, well, let's -- we're going to punt on all the hard problems till after the presidential election is just plain unacceptable. We don't have the luxury of saying we're going to get back to you in the spring of 2013 to try to fix these problems. So they need to demand.
WARNERI mean, the thing I would ask listeners to do is -- you know, and this gets a little heresy, but, you know, if you're a Democrat, support a Republican who's willing to look at revenues. If you're a Republican, support a Democrat who's willing to look at entitlement programs. You know, mostly politicians only hear from people on either end of the extreme.
WARNERWe need to hear from the folks who want us to get things fixed. And there are good economic pieces of news out there. And the last thing I would make is that this is not the first time our country has faced this crisis. We went through this almost exact same conversation or debate 20 years ago. You know, we had this declining manufacturing base. We had deficits not as high as now, but deficits rolling up.
WARNERWe had this emerging Asian nation that was going to eat our lunch. It was Japan then instead of China. But, you know, we made some harder choices in the early '90s. We basically unleashed what America's best at, innovation around the Internet, telecommunications. A lot of that came from this region. And we had a pretty good run.
WARNERWe've got to do the same right now, and we just got to get that spark of confidence. And all those of us as political leaders, we can do our part if we actually put, I think, this debt and deficit reduction plan in place, give the confidence that the federal government is not going to go belly up, and that we're going to be a little bit more restrained. And I think people will start spending, and this wheel will start moving again.
NNAMDIMark Warner, thank you so much for joining us.
WARNERThank you, Kojo. And, you know, Kojo, I was interested, you know, I thought you gave Tom Sherwood top billing? He's the star of the show.
SHERWOODDon't be questioning the way this show is laid out.
NNAMDIHe insisted, Sen. Warner because, frankly, we pay him practically nothing, so we decided to give him the title in place of that. But, Senator, I want to thank you so much for joining us.
WARNERThank you, gentlemen.
NNAMDIMark Warner is a member of the United States Senate. He's a Democrat from Virginia, where he also served as governor. Tom Sherwood, speaking of titles, when I turn on my television set, I don't expect to see reporters interviewing reporters. When I read my newspaper, I don't expect to see reporters quoting reporters. Yet when I watched TV this morning, I saw Sam Ford interviewing Mark Segraves.
NNAMDIAnd then when I picked up The Washington Post, I saw Tim Craig in an article quoting you. What happened? How did you and Mark Segraves became -- become the subject of stories having to do with the D.C. Council?
SHERWOODWell, you know, we're a member...
NNAMDIAnd I should mention that joining us in studio is Muriel Bowser...
NNAMDI...who's a member of the D.C. Council. She's a Democrat who represents Ward 4. She's chair of the council's committee on government operations. So she was at least peripherally involved in this also. Councilmember Bowser, thank you.
SHERWOODBut, no, she wasn't there.
MS. MURIEL BOWSERGood to see you, Kojo.
SHERWOODShe was actually working.
NNAMDII said, as a member of the council, she was peripherally involved.
SHERWOODThat's true. Did you want me to answer it? Did you -- or shall I yield to the council?
NNAMDII'd like you to answer first. Why were you the subject of the news rather than reporting the news?
SHERWOODWell, because the chairman had sent the word out to the council members, Chairman Kwame Brown, who was our guest last week on this show, still not over that. And he sent out a message to have -- they were going to have a private meeting to discuss the cursing and the incivility of the council members to one another. And they were going to have this meeting Thursday at 1:30.
SHERWOODAnd then he, it looks to me, concocted an official agenda that was just to talk about financial matters and other things, and then they voted to throw us, the reporters, out of the meeting. We refused to go until the police came because we thought the whole thing was concocted. And, sure enough, the chairman mistakenly left his agenda out, and I reached over with my cell phone and took a picture of it.
SHERWOODAnd it clearly showed the very first thing on the agenda was the behavior of the council members at the breakfast meetings and on the dais and the use of profanity.
NNAMDIWhy weren't they no member -- why were there no members of the public at the meeting? And how did you reporters find out about the meeting?
SHERWOODWell, you know, I can't say that I was the first reporter to hear about it, but I was told that the meeting was occurring. We showed up there. And then, sure enough, they brought in the cookies and the punch bowl and all that stuff for the meeting.
NNAMDIIdeally, this meeting should have been opened to members of the public.
SHERWOODWell, we thought so because they were discussing not private personnel matters. They were just talking about behavior like our -- you stop being rude. Stop saying cuss words. Stop undermining the already sorry reputation of this council. And so that's why we stood there. We did not leave until the police came. And I said, if we'll be arrested, would it be a misdemeanor or a felony?
SHERWOOD'Cause if it's a felony, I'm going to leave right away, if it's a misdemeanor, I might want to risk it to stay a bit longer. It was a serious issue that private meetings are not the way to do the public's business.
NNAMDICouncilmember Bowser, do you think...
SHERWOODShe wasn't there.
NNAMDI...I know. I was about to ask...
BOWSERI missed you. But I was there for a portion of the meeting after my Metro meeting concluded.
NNAMDII'd like to ask, do you think that the council should be allowed to have private meetings from time to time?
BOWSERWell, I think, you know, Kojo, and everybody should know that I'm a big advocate for open meetings and, in fact, introduced at the council the Open Government is Good Government Act, which transformed into our updated Open Meetings Law. Our Open Meetings Law had been the worst in the nation. And we, actually, last year, or maybe a year-and-a-half ago, made it much stronger.
BOWSERAnd the council, by our rules, we agreed to follow the Open Meetings Law that we imposed upon all public bodies in the District of Columbia. There are always exceptions to Open Meetings Laws. And there always should be exceptions to Open Meeting Laws. Sometimes public bodies have to conduct business -- whether it's about personnel or hiring or discipline or whether it's about contracts or proprietary information -- that is not appropriate to be discussed in the public. And I think this is one such meeting.
BOWSERSo while I wasn't at meeting for the -- what our law requires is that we meet in public to state what the meeting will be about, and all the members present, the quorum present, has to vote to say whether the meeting should be closed or not. And had I been there for the vote, I would have voted to close the meeting. And having been...
BOWSERBecause I do think that there were personnel matters that involved members of the council that may have involved our staff that needed to be discussed. And that was what the meeting was about. And I think I may even offer to the chairman a way that we can make this process even more clear for the press. That's the way we do it at Metro.
BOWSERWe notice what a closed session will be about. We have the closed session, and then we affirm after the meeting that we only discussed the items that were noticed.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this discussion, which started about transparency in the D.C. Council. 800-433-8850. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet @kojoshow. Our guest is Muriel Bowser, a member of the council who represents Ward 4 and is chair of the council's Committee on Government Operation.
SHERWOODAnd at the risk of saying something nice, I completely agree with you.
SHERWOODThere are times when you should have private meetings to discuss the hiring of employees, the financial matters and all of those things. But the chairman in this case -- I don't -- did you see the printed agenda? I don't think the council members ever saw the printed agenda. But did you see it? The first thing was it...
BOWSERWell, I participated in a good portion of the meeting.
SHERWOODYes. You came later when they actually did discuss the finance issues. But there was, in fact, a discussion about whether you -- the council members are treating each other properly and doing the council justice by their behavior. That is not a reason to close the public meeting.
BOWSERWell, let me tell you. I will -- I can give you...
SHERWOODOr do you agree or disagree?
BOWSERWell, I'll tell you why I think it's important to have open meetings. For example, when we're talking about how the government will spend $11 billion, how we're going to -- what policies and what agenda the council will set, what's going to happen in terms of the hearings that we hold and the important positions that we hold?
BOWSERI think that everybody will recognize that members of the council need be able to have candid and frank discussions about matters that concern the council.
SHERWOODIncluding them. And this week, well, why not announce this meeting? The chairman didn't announce this meeting. We found out about it. Not me, it was another reporter who found out about it. And I just found out. I mean, if you're going to have meetings, say you're going to have meetings that you just said the Metro does, I mean...
BOWSERAnd that may be that we need to tighten up the role related to how we announce the necessity for a closed session.
SHERWOODThe chairman called a private meeting, announced an agenda that was not what was reflected on the written agenda that was sitting to his left of his arm that he had, and he turned it over once he realized I took a picture of it. And he wouldn't show it to anybody. That's not open government. That's not open and transparent. That's not anything but small-mindedness.
BOWSERWell, certainly, we -- listen, we all want to convey -- and, certainly, I do -- that we want to conduct the business of the people in the sunshine and let the sun shine in on all of those important processes. We will, however, have times when we need to have a closed session, and so I agree with you. Let's just examine...
SHERWOODBe upfront about it.
NNAMDIWell, my concern is that the council was supposed to be doing the business of the District of Columbia, the people of the District of Columbia, and what emerges is this fight between the council and the media, which is not what the council is supposed to be involved in at all. Be that as it may, what -- people asking, what the heck -- we have to say on public radio -- is going on?
NNAMDIBecause Tim Craig in his article said that some of the council members have difficulty seeing each other as friends. I, frankly, don't care if you are friends or not, but I do care if you are civil to one another because you have to be in order to properly conduct the people's business. What is the source of the incivility? What's going on?
BOWSERWell, I think, that -- I think, largely, council members are quite civil with one another, even when they disagree. I think, and everybody should recognize that, well, you know, a lot -- they are some stressful period of time in the District. There's a lot of scrutiny on the whole government. The mayor and the council and the electorate is very upset about some things that they see, and I think that type of pressure is kind of revealing itself.
BOWSERAnd I think when you have this kind of uncertainty in the system, from the mayor's office to several members of the council, you're going to see a lot of jockeying as -- and such among members of the council.
BOWSERBut I think everybody should know. And I think you're not unlike many Washingtonians, Kojo, when you don't like to read in The Washington Post that there is incivility or there is bad language or that the rules of decorum aren't being followed on the dais. And I think all of those things are important, and I can certainly say that I won't be a part of any of that. And I think that I've gotten that assurance from other members of the council.
NNAMDIIs that what came out of yesterday's meeting, that there is -- has been some agreement that you will, A, treat each other more civilly and, B, proceed about the people's business in a more maybe transparent and organized manner?
BOWSERWell, I've certainly have had that conversation many times over the last several weeks with the members, and I think we all have a role to play in that in encouraging each other.
SHERWOODWell, this is important, and I accept what you're saying that -- I mean, the council members have said privately they do not think the chairman is running the council very well in these issues. But I'm not going to ask you to say that because you're -- in part of you're being professional, you're not going to talk about the chairman's role. But I will ask you this.
SHERWOODGoing forward, there are at least nine bills that have been introduced to change the city's ethics laws, nine bills of various kinds. You're the chairman of the government operations committee that is going to have to put this ethics law in place, so that people will have confidence that there are enough standards and that the standards are followed and that there are punishments afterwards if people violate the standards.
SHERWOODDo you think you can get that done by -- and if so, how quickly do you think you can get that?
BOWSERWell, let me say this first. There are nine bills. There are a lot of bills. There's a lot of activity. There's a lot of attention. And what I'm committed to is to makings sure that we are actually filling gaps in our law and not recreating the will. We have a lot of ethics rules and regulations on the books.
BOWSERA lot of the things that people are concerned about, whether it's these allegations of election fraud or campaign finance irregularities or if somebody misused money, these are things that are against the law. We don't need a transformation of the laws to address these things. What we need is enforcement of the law.
BOWSERSo last week, I pulled together all of the enforcement agencies in the District of Columbia and asked them, what do you think the problem is? Why do we keep punting on these issues and not dealing with them right in the District government? So you have the attorney general. You have the inspector general. You have the D.C. auditor. You have the Board of Elections and Ethics, and you have the Council of the District of Columbia.
BOWSERNow, you notice I didn't mention the U.S. attorney because we don't have a lot to say about what the U.S. attorney does. But those people really had some good ideas about what we need to do to fix enforcement of our existing laws.
NNAMDIThere are bunches of people who want to talk to you, so allow me to ask about a very few specifics because when you have this grab bag of proposals, nine bills, it can lead to a degree of confusion. So let me ask you to address some specific issues, earmarks. It's my understand thing that earmarks ended last year when Vincent Gray was chairman.
NNAMDIHow, despite the ending of earmarks, was Councilmember Thomas able to get his hands on what appears to be $300,000?
BOWSERThat happened before...
NNAMDIAnd can it happen again?
BOWSERIt shouldn't happen again. But, as I understand it, that earmark was even approved in 2007 before I was on the City Council. So it happened in the very first budget that councilmember Thomas voted on, as I understand.
NNAMDISo that can happen again. Constituent funds.
NNAMDIThe allegations are that there has been abuse of constituent funds. Of course, nobody has been really essentially found guilty of abuse of constituents' funds, but there is a concern. What can be done about that?
BOWSERWell, I've introduced a bill that would curb the use of constituent funds. It would cut what a member or the mayor could raise in a year from $80,000 to $40,000...
SHERWOODWhich is what it used to be.
BOWSER...which is what is used to be. It also puts in place a definition that, you know, may not seem, on its surface, that distinct, but it really is. It says that the constituent funds, that the use of it has to accrue to the general benefit of the public, to the general benefit of the resident, which is similar to how our ANC laws are written.
BOWSERAnd it puts in place a few more rules to make it very specific and easier for the Office of Campaign Finance to judge what is being used for the primary benefit of the resident.
NNAMDICampaign contributions from contractors, people doing business with the government to people running for the council.
BOWSERYes. We have a couple of bills in the committee now addressing fundraising, including my own. And so we will -- we'll have a hearing on it.
NNAMDIAs somebody who runs for office, do you need campaign contributions from people who are doing business with the government?
BOWSERWe seek campaign contributions from people who are interested in seeing a vision -- and I speak for myself -- for the city moving forward and for our ward moving forward. And so what is most important to me and what has worked for me in the campaigns that I run is to make sure you disclose all this information.
BOWSERI think what's important for the public is they need to know who's involved with campaigns, and it needs to be on the table. The last thing we want to do is put rules in place that drive activity underground.
NNAMDIOne more, lobbyists who are also attorneys for members of the council, what can you do about that?
BOWSERWell, I have introduced a bill. Part of my bill is, for the first time, defining how we do legal defense funds or committees and legal advice. So what -- we need to treat legal advice like we treat other contributions. They need to be disclosed. And so people need to know who's involved in a legal defense bond or giving members of the council or the mayor advice.
SHERWOODAnd disclosure is the key word. If there's all -- for example, go back to the chairman again. He'll think I'm picking on him, but these are the facts. He promised that he would disclose all moneys that he's -- that he raised and spent on his transition and inaugural. He has not done so. He says he has let out some information. I've asked for it. He's refused to give it to me.
BOWSERWell, let me tell you what I think about transition committees. I don't think we need transition committees, and my bill will address that. The government can make available -- transition functions are public functions, if you ask me. So our government and like we, the council, made available to the mayor and the chairman money to help their transition efforts. They both declined to accept the public money and, instead, raised outside money.
BOWSERWell, I think that the government should say, this is an important function of government, and we're going to make public dollars available for transitions. If we're not able to, then we need to have transition committees set up like political committees, put limits on them and require disclosure. The same is true for inaugural committees.
SHERWOODLet me ask very quickly about auditors. I know the Office of Campaign Finance And Ethics -- I think someone told me -- and it may be wrong -- that it has four auditors. For all of the campaign finance issues -- the campaign documents for the constituent service funds, for -- I think there are the disclosures, the annual disclosures of conflicts of interest forms that people -- senior officials have to fill out, it seems to me that it's understaffed.
SHERWOODIn fact, Togo West, when he was the chairman of the Board of Election and Ethics, he said -- he almost slammed the table, give me some auditors.
NNAMDIYou don't have to slam the table.
SHERWOODI was trying to be dramatic. I'm in commercial television. I'm not in this National Public Radio style stuff.
NNAMDIMuriel Bowser, please, go ahead.
BOWSERYes. And he repeated the same to me.
SHERWOODYou may slam the table if you like. No problem.
BOWSERYes. But I think you're right. And we have to figure out why this agency has been underfunded for not just now, but for several years. And if we're going to ask them to do more, which we are going to ask them to do more, we're going to have to find a way to give them more resources.
SHERWOODA new bill by the end of the year, you hope?
BOWSERI hope, yes. We've actually reserved some times, and I'm -- this week, we'll decide what bills will come up in October. But on Oct. 12 and Oct. 26, I expect to start having public hearings.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Henry in Silver Spring, Md. Henry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HENRYWell, thank you. Since councilwoman is talking about campaign contributions and disclosure, and she says, "We need real enforcement," Loose Lips says Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser's campaign record show her taking $1,500 in money orders from three cab companies owned by one of the main conspirators in the Cash Cab investigation. And then she talks about punting.
HENRYAnd even Tom Sherwood wrote on Aug. 3 -- he referenced her rhetorical positions regarding Harry Thomas but her failure along with others to take immediate action to stem the problem. So what is she doing? Is she just talking, or is she doing?
BOWSERWell, certainly, I'm glad the caller noted that any contributions to our campaign have been properly disclosed, and I think that's what that article demonstrated. With regard to Harry Thomas, it's certainly a difficult situation that we're all very angry about. But it should be noted that the way that Harry Thomas leaves office is by his own decision, by the decision of the people of Ward 5 or by any action of the U.S. attorney.
NNAMDISo you are not going to advocate his resignation?
BOWSERI think that the agreement that Councilmember Thomas entered into put all of us on the council in a very difficult situation because, while we all support due process and everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt, entering into that agreement and paying $50,000 already and agreeing to pay another $250,000 kind of bites into the benefit of the doubt that people would expect to give.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Hillcrest. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULGood afternoon, Kojo, Councilwoman Bowser and Tom Sherwood. I would just preface my remark by saying that those of us who work hard to maintain some stability in this city are very disappointed and embarrassed about the conduct of our city government. And, parenthetically, I personally do not believe that members -- most members of the D.C. City Council are capable of legislating anything that would correct the situation that we have.
PAULBasically, we have 13 members of City Council who are in a self-preservation mode. I'd like to know, when would the City Council and this D.C. government start, you know, representing the people who sent them down there? Quite frankly, sometimes...
NNAMDIYou think they are representing only themselves?
PAULWell, that's exactly what I'm saying.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, allow me to have Muriel Bowser respond because we're running out of time, and she, thankfully, is not long-winded.
BOWSERWell, certainly, you know, I know the residents of Ward 4 sent me down there to make sure that we're bringing the resources that we need back to our ward. I spend just about every night at the week out in the community, listening to what the people want for our ward. So I feel very confident that I'm going down there to do their business. And I spend every day working on their business, and my first obligation is to serve with integrity.
SHERWOODThis is kind of an ethics issue with the Internet gaming issue. Councilmember Jack Evans is going to hold yet another hearing on it. Councilmember Wells would like for the Internet gaming law to be started over, go back to ground zero. There have been no public hearings. It slipped through the council at the end of December last year. There's been one public hearing since then after a lot of outcry.
SHERWOODAdvisory Neighborhood Commissioners are worried about gaming hotspots showing up in their neighborhoods. It just seems to be quite a mess, and it seems to be almost unethical that it's done so quickly without public input. I just wonder what your own thoughts about the iGaming mess is.
BOWSERWell, my -- I think the mess started before iGaming, frankly. I think it started with the whole procurement of the lottery contract. I think there are a lot of irregularities around it. I'm very pleased that the inspector general is investigating the procurement, the first procurement of the lottery contract, and the iGaming issue will be a part of it.
SHERWOODDo you think we should go forward with the -- I mean, there's already some -- apparently, some machines already set out for people to look at, and there's going to be some online games where you can gamble, but not with real money. So there'd just be like a freeze until it's cleared up. Or should we just keep...
BOWSERWell, that's my understanding...
BOWSER...that Councilmember Evans, who chairs the Committee on Finance and Revenue on which I sit, has indicated that there would be no iGaming until the public meetings occurred. And he has indicated that he is going to have a public hearing on the matter. I am looking forward to hearing what else he has to say about Mr. Wells' legislation as well, and if he intends to hold a hearing about that.
NNAMDIYour committee is in charge of reviewing the mayor's appointees, and this week he nominated Robert Mallett to the city's Board of Elections and Ethics. One problem: The appointment may violate the city's residency requirement because he had not been living in the city for three years prior to this appointment. You have said you are not inclined to grant Mallett a waiver. Why?
BOWSERWhy should we? This is the position that is responsible. We talked about ethics reform. You heard how agitated the callers are in their ability to think that the government is capable of policing itself. And the person, the most pivotable (sic) person in enforcing ethics, especially around elections and campaign finance, is the chairman of the Board of Elections and Ethics.
BOWSERIn my view, which I have conveyed to the mayor through his two chiefs of staff and other staff, that this is the most pivotal person in this whole ethics discussion. In my view, there should be no controversy around the appointment of the chairman of the Board of Elections and Ethics. This is a basic requirement that the person live in the District of Columbia for the three years preceding his appointment.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. Bob, if you're listening, it doesn't look good. Tom Sherwood?
SHERWOODWell, are you okay with the other two nominees at this point? I know you have to look at them.
BOWSERWell, actually, they haven't been sent over officially from the mayor's office.
SHERWOODRight. Let's get a move on. Time's up.
NNAMDIAnd can you pass a bill to limit the long-windedness of your colleagues?
NNAMDIDavid Catania, are you listening? Tom Sherwood is our...
SHERWOODOh, my goodness.
NNAMDIHe's an NBC4 reporter.
SHERWOODI hope he calls you.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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