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Lawmakers this week reached an agreement to fund the federal government through the fall of 2015. The deal ends a cycle of high-stakes budget showdowns in recent years that threatened to destabilize the American economy and federal workforce. But it also puts in place permanent cuts and scales back pension plans for new federal workers. U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) joins Kojo to explore what’s at stake in the deal for both the Washington region and the entire country.
- Gerald Connolly Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-VA, 11th District);
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting our neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, where tip workers in restaurants fit into the escalating debates about the minimum wage. But, first, Congress seems to have averted another high-stakes showdown over the federal budget, House and Senate negotiators announcing an agreement yesterday to fund the federal government through the fall of 2015.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe deal essentially cancels half of the sweeping federal budget cuts enacted as part of the so-called sequester while at the same time putting in place permanent savings in other programs and scaling back government contributions to federal pensions. Joining us to explore how the deal is likely to affect the Washington region and the legions of federal workers who live here is Congressman Gerry Connolly.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's a Democrat from Virginia who represents the Commonwealth's 11th District. He's also a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Congressman Connolly joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us.
REP. GERALD CONNOLLYGood to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIA year ago, Congress narrowly avoided going off the so-called fiscal cliff a few months ago. Congress went off a cliff with the federal government shutdown. But this time, it appears lawmakers were able to avoid forcing a crisis on themselves by agreeing to a deal to fund the federal government through the fall of 2015. What do you think made this deal possible? And what do you make of the outcome?
CONNOLLYI think the overwhelming public disgust with the October shutdown really provided some clarity, especially for my friends on the other side of the aisle such that they didn't want to do it again.
NNAMDIThey didn't, I notice, bring up the words Affordable Care Act, it would appear, at all this time.
NNAMDIWhat do you make of the outcome of the deal?
CONNOLLYYou know, it's going to be a tradeoff. I've described this as potentially for me and others in the national capital region as a hold-your-nose-and-vote-yes vote. I say that because obviously we're not thrilled at all about the provisions involving federal employees who've already been put upon multiple times.
CONNOLLYAnd they're the only group of workers in the country who have been put upon multiple times -- frozen salaries, compensation changes -- to the tune of almost $100 billion so far in debt reduction, not including furloughs, of course -- not only furloughs during the shutdown but furloughs because of sequestration.
CONNOLLYNow, on the other side, this deal does address sequestration for the first time since 2011 in a positive way and increases federal investments in the discretionary side of the budget. Those are two positive signs of real compromise and some rationality finally, with respect to the budget, that will also benefit federal employees because, by replacing most of sequestration for the next fiscal year, we diminish the possibility of additional furloughs.
NNAMDIWell, clearly this was a negotiation, and compromise were made. But, looking at the big picture, if you will, what are your hopes that this deal is a sign that business might be done in a different way for the duration of this Congress? Or do you think we're likely to see more gridlock when lawmakers return to work in the New Year?
CONNOLLYWell, I do think it absolutely represents a compromise. The Republicans had to give something, and the Democrats had to give something. That's not a bad thing to remind ourselves of how a deal gets made. No one gets everything they want. And just digging in your heels and saying no way doesn't help with governance.
CONNOLLYSo moving forward we'll have this -- assuming it passes, we'll have this as a precedent, as a bit of a model. It doesn't solve all of the problems. It doesn't even substantially solve most of the problems. But it is a model going forward to avoid the kind of the shutdown politics, my way or the highway kind of ideology, that sadly have characterized much of the Republican philosophy of governance these last three years.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Congressman Gerry Connolly. He's a Democrat from Virginia, represents the Commonwealth's 11th District, and sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. We take your calls at 800-433-8850. Have your expectations for Congress changed now that it has appeared to have averted another crisis over funding the federal government?
NNAMDIWhy or why not? 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. Congressman Connolly, you represent a lot of federal workers. You were very clear throughout these negotiations that you wanted a deal that would protect federal employees. As you mentioned, this compromise would scale back pension plans offered to new federal workers. That's one of the unsavory aspects of this deal that you had to deal with. But do you ever think we're ever likely to get to a point where federal workers are not the first people asked to make sacrifices in situations like this?
CONNOLLYI certainly hope so, Kojo. You may recall that the original draft of this deal would have taken a $20 billion bite out of federal employees in terms of their pensions. It's now down to 6 billion, and also they were looking at averaging the five-year highs to the three-year high for determining the base for pensions.
CONNOLLYThat would have significantly diluted the value of federal pensions and interrupted the -- interrupting the existing contract between federal employees and the federal government. We were able to beat that back. We were able to get the total dollar amount way down from the original proposed 20 billion, and by addressing sequestration. I think we're really going to minimize the prospects of furloughs over the next fiscal year for federal employees.
CONNOLLYSo we have some significant victories. We didn't have 100 percent victory, and I wish we did. But I'm going to continue fighting, as are my colleagues, on behalf of federal employees until we get to the point where this Congress shows the respect that I think federal employees deserve and have earned.
NNAMDIWell, here is Chris in Rockville, Md. to address another part of this deal that I don't think the Congressman particularly liked. But, Chris, it's your turn.
CHRISOh, thanks very much. I appreciate the opportunity. I -- real understand that this budget deal will cut off long-term unemployment benefits as of the end of the year, which is not a very nice Christmas gift for about a million people. And the -- it's just bad economics because all those dollars that got into the hands of the unemployed for -- would be spent immediately, and it would be re-spent by the people who got them. So they're going to cut economic growth. And I don't think that's a very good thing. So Congress shouldn't pat itself on the back too much about this deal.
NNAMDIWell, I'm not sure that Congressman Connolly is patting himself on the back about anything. And that's a part of the deal that he himself did not like. But if that money is not going to be spent in the national economy, Congressman Connolly, what are your expectations for what this deal will mean for the national economy as a whole and the regional economy in the Washington area?
CONNOLLYAgain, in a category of tradeoff, Kojo, and I think your caller is absolutely right. It's really, I think, a very sad commentary and a little heartless, frankly, especially at this time of year that the negotiators, especially led by Paul Ryan on the House side, didn't even really seriously consider long-term unemployment insurance extension. You know, one of the changes in the economy is that there's a number of people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, involved in sort of structural unemployment because of the changes going on in the economy.
CONNOLLYMaking sure that they're protected is good for the economy and buys them some time to make the proper adjustments for training or moving on to other kinds of opportunities. It's very shortsighted not to do that. It's morally heartless. But from an economic point of view, I think it also takes one piece of stimulus that's 100 percent. Every dollar we provide unemployment insurance extension is, in fact, injected directly into the economy and has a multiplier effect. So that's more investment in the domestic economy that we'll be missing and sadly was not addressed in this deal.
NNAMDISome Democrats have pledged to keep fighting for the extension of insurance for the long-term unemployed. Are you among them? How do you plan to do that?
CONNOLLYI certainly count myself among them. There is still hope that the -- legislatively, that can be addressed. I don't hold out a lot of hope that it's going to be addressed this week. But it's definitely an issue Democrats are going to continue to highlight because the need hasn't gone away, and the benefits of addressing this are fairly clear from an economic end and a human resource point of view.
NNAMDIHere is Stephanie in Washington, D.C. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEYes. Good afternoon. Not that most people in Congress care what I say 'cause I live in Washington, D.C., and, of course, my representative has no vote, but two questions to you. They're probably more rhetorical than not, but nonetheless. I should also say that I'm luckily a retired federal employee, so my pension is, at least for the moment, safe. But my first question is whether or not this applies to future Congress people and future employees that...
NNAMDIWhen you say this, you mean the government reduction in its contributions to pensions?
STEPHANIEYes. Of course, yes.
STEPHANIEApplies to future Congressman 'cause I know it's new in women -- hopefully, more women. I know it refers only to new federal employees. But whether it would refer also to new staff of Congress people.
NNAMDIDoes it indeed apply to new staff of members of Congress, Congressman Connolly?
CONNOLLYI would assume it would because this applies to all of (word?), so I don't know that Congress is exempted from it or its staff. I'll have to look at the fine print, but I have no reason to believe that Congress has exempted itself.
NNAMDIYour next question, Stephanie?
STEPHANIEYes. So I'll leave it at that and let another caller go. But if you could find out the answer to that, and perhaps, Kojo, you could just let people...
NNAMDIIf we do find out the answer to it, you will hear it more than likely on The Politics Hour this Friday because a lot of government workers obviously live in this area and are looking at this very closely. Thank you very much for your call.
CONNOLLYThank you, Stephanie.
NNAMDICongressman Connolly, what do you feel are the most important things Congress can do in the months ahead to make sure the economy maintains a steady recovery and doesn't suffer any dramatic setbacks?
CONNOLLYWell, you know, one of the things that's been holding back the economy is the uncertainty that's entirely artificially manufactured by Congress. And so kind of restore some sense of planning, predictability, and certainty with respect both to the funding of the government and to the whole issue of the sovereign debt credit of the United States, I think it's critical, moving forward, to unleash business investment decisions and to remove that big barrier to their long-term planning.
CONNOLLYAnd I think that's going to undo everything we do. We need long-term transportation plans, long-term agricultural policy, long-term comprehensive immigration reform, and certainly, you know, some predictability to making sure the government is up and running and no more threats of shutdown. That alone -- you know, sort of changing that English from what has characterized this and the previous Congress, I think, would make a huge difference to the economy.
CONNOLLYWe know the fundamentals are there for robust growth going forward. But what's been holding us back is frankly this -- the behavior and philosophy and uncertainty generated by this Congress.
NNAMDIGerald Connolly is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's a Democrat from Virginia. He represents the Commonwealth's 11th District. He sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Congressman Connolly, thank you for joining us.
CONNOLLYThank you so much, Kojo. And I look forward to coming, someday, back into the studio with you as well.
NNAMDIWe look forward to having you here also. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, where tip workers and restaurants fit into the escalating debates about the minimum wage. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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