Kojo speaks with "Speak No Evil" novelist and D.C. native Uzodinma Iweala about his second novel and how his local upbringing affects his storytelling.
He’s a local member of Congress who’s had a seat at the table for the contentious talks over raising the federal debt limit. We chat with U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., about the politics at work behind the negotiations and what’s ultimately at stake.
- Chris Van Hollen U.S. House of Representatives (D-Maryland, 8th District)
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, "Beyond Blaming the Victim," we explore the dynamics of sexual harassment and assault in the modern workplace.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSBut first, budget battle and blame games on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are deadlocked in a dispute over whether to raise the nation's borrowing limit. Talks ended last night without much progress and a little over an hour ago, President Obama gave a press conference about the continued stalemate.
PRESIDENT OBAMAWe keep on talking about this stuff and, you know, we have these high-minded pronouncements about how we've got to get control of the deficit and how we owe to our children, our grandchildren. Well, let's step up, let's do it. I'm prepared to do it. I'm prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done. And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing if they mean what they say, that this is important.
ROBERTSThe president has put Congress on the clock demanding a solution on the debt limit within 10 days. Joining us to explore what the bargaining looks like from his party's side of negotiating table is Congressman Chris Van Hollen. He's a Democrat from Maryland and joins us now by phone. Congressman Van Hollen, welcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
U.S. REP CHRIS VAN HOLLENRebecca, great to be with you.
ROBERTSSo there's not a way that this deal can get through the House without democratic votes. You've gone so far as to say that the republican strategy in the House is essentially extortion. Where is your caucus prepared to meet them given that we've just heard the president say he's willing to anger members of his own party?
HOLLENWell, I agree with the president, that this is an opportunity to get something big done. Letting this window close would be a big missed opportunity. Compromise requires both sides to give some and as the president's indicated, we're willing to do that.
HOLLENWhat we're seeing on the republican side is that their priority, as it turns out, is not deficit reduction, but, in fact, protecting some of these tax breaks for corporate special interests, like the oil and gas industry, like corporate jets and refusing to ask the folks at the very high end to go back to the same rates that were in place during the Clinton administration, which was a period, by the way, that the economy grew very rapidly and we saw 20 million jobs added.
HOLLENSo that's the rub right here and they've taken the position that unless we do it 100 percent their way, they will put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk and default on the national debt, which would be an economic catastrophe.
ROBERTSIf there was some movement on the part of the republican caucus, what would you be willing to give on?
HOLLENWell, if you look at the package that's already on the table, we said we're willing to accept some very deep cuts. As the president mentioned in his press conference, on the discretionary side of the budget, we've talked about over a trillion dollars of cuts right there over a 10-year period. We still want to talk about how those are distributed between domestic spending and defense spending. We think that there needs to be some firewall. But those are some examples of cuts that have already been at least tentatively agreed to, but only as part of a balanced package.
ROBERTSHouse speaker John Boehner has been pulling back on the idea of this $4 billion cut package, which the president has been pushing for. That has now brought renewed attention to the $2, $2.5 billion package that was part of the Biden negotiated deal. You were at the table for the Biden talks. What's that package about and how different is it from the $4 billion package and is it worth not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, in terms of taking what you can get?
HOLLENWell, I agree with the president, that a larger deficit reduction package sends a much stronger signal about how we're enforcing fiscal discipline going forward. We can try and put together the $2 trillion package, but it broke down on many of the same issues that face the $4 trillion package. It's interesting to hear our republican colleagues say, let's go back to the Biden group.
HOLLENWhen, in fact, the republicans walked out of the Biden Group and the reason they walked out was that they were unwilling to take a balanced approach. They were unwilling to eliminate some of these tax breaks, rather, for corporate jets or the oil and gas companies.
HOLLENSo you face the same issue on a different scale. But if you want a balanced approach, which is what every bipartisan group that's looked at this challenge has recommended, then there has to be some give on the republican side. There has been substantial willingness and the president expressed this again today, to make tough decisions on the other side. But balanced is required, which is again why every group that's looked at this on a bipartisan basis has recommended that there be some revenue component.
HOLLENI mean, there's no justification for continued taxpayer subsidies for the oil and gas industry. They need to help reduce the deficit as part of strengthening our economy going forward.
ROBERTSWhy do you think they are holding firm on that?
HOLLENWell, what you see is within the republican caucus the incredible power of the Tea Party movement. And within that group, you find two things going on. One is some who are just in absolute denial about the impact of defaulting on the U.S. debt. There are some that want to play Russian roulette with the economy and the jobs when virtually every economist on the bipartisan basis has warned everybody what an economic catastrophe we could face if the United States defaults on its debt for the first time in its history.
HOLLENSo that's one problem. And the other problem is you have some who absolutely refuse to close his corporate tax polls, even for the purpose of reducing the deficit, even as a part of a plan to put our economy on a stronger, long-term footing. And as long as you have an absolute unwillingness to give, it's hard to put together a balanced package.
ROBERTSNow, what I didn't hear you say is that they're worried they'll lose their seats if they give on the taxes.
HOLLENWell, that's the -- sure, that's the political dynamic within the Republican primary process. But this is a time when all sides have to make tough decisions. As the president has said, there are going to be some things in this package that are really tough for democrats in their primary races.
HOLLENSo if you're going to do something big for the good of the country, then you've got to be willing to make these compromises. And we have two goals here. One is to try and stabilize the economy and, in fact, accelerate economic growth. We have a very fragile economy and the first principal should be do no harm. We should be doing nothing that will slow down economic growth.
HOLLENIn fact, we should be doing things right now to try and speed up economic growth. Second, you want to put together a plan that reduces the deficit in a steady, predictable way over the longer term, which will help with long-term economic growth. Those are the twin imperatives here and the proposal the president has put on the table balances those two needs.
ROBERTSYou used to be head of the DCCC, you know how to do the political math. What sort of fallout might members of your party face in the elections if Social Security and Medicare are on the table?
HOLLENWell, let's be clear about what the democrats have said. We have absolutely rejected and will fight the republican budget plan to end the Medicare guarantee. That would require seniors to go into the private insurance market. Independent congressional budget offices said that would force them to eat much higher costs or face significant cuts in benefits. That's unacceptable.
HOLLENWe have said we're willing to strengthen Social Security, to build upon some of the reforms in the Affordable Care Act, to change some of the incentives within Medicare so that we incentivize the quality of care and the value of care over volume and quantity and there are changes you can make in the Medicare incentive structure to do that.
HOLLENWe've also said we should give Medicare the same right to bargain for drug prices that the Veteran's Administration has and they do it very successfully. You can get a much better deal for Medicare and save money for the program. So those are some specific items you can take to strengthen Medicare.
HOLLENWith respect to Social Security, what we've said is we're not going to balance the budget deficit on the backs of Social Security beneficiaries. Social Security is not what's causing these deficits, as the president said in his press conference. What we are willing to do is look for ways to extend the solvency of Social Security beyond the year 2037 and it's fully solvent through then.
HOLLENAfter that, if you do nothing, then you only would be paid $.75 on the dollar. So adjustments should be made and they should be made now to deal with that and there are a number of ways to do that. But our point is that any savings in Social Security should be plowed back into Social Security, not used to provide tax breaks for billionaires or fund corporate tax loopholes.
ROBERTSIf, as you characterize it, the republicans want things -- you said 100 percent their way. So that's not negotiating, right? That's not discussing? Where does this go from here? What do you talk about? How does anything move?
HOLLENWell, that's why this is probably the most difficult, political and policy puzzle that I've ever seen is, how do we get from where we are today to resolving this problem in the next couple weeks so that we do not have the United States default on its debt for the first time in its history? And it's going to require leadership and I do think that the president is exhibiting strong leadership.
HOLLENHe's made clear that he wants to do a big deal. And after all, it was just a few months ago that, you know, our republican friends were saying, Mr. President, where are you? How come you don't have a bold, proposal on the table to reduce our long-term deficits and make sure we have stable economic growth in the future? And now that the president's come forward and done it, we see them running the opposite way. So this is a moment that leadership's required on all sides.
ROBERTSNo one seems to realistically be talking about blowing this deadline, at least not yet. So is this just an elaborate game of chicken?
HOLLENI don't think it's just an elaborate game of chicken in this sense. I do believe that the leaders on both sides, the republican side, the democratic side, recognize what an economic catastrophe it would be to default on the debt. I mean, that's the United States paying bills for costs it's already incurred. That's, like, you know, an individual stopping their mortgage payments or stopping payments on, you know, a credit card after they've gone a, you know, purchasing goods. It would send a terrible signal. Unfortunately, there are a good number of members in the republican caucus, in the House and the Senate, especially in the House, who either don't understand that economic reality or, for some reason, are prepared to roll the dice on the American economy and put people's jobs at risk.
HOLLENBecause virtually every economist on the bipartisan basis has said that it would be hugely damaging for that to happen, again, in the first time in our history. So, again, this is why it's going to be really important that the republican leadership ask its members to really look at the reality of the situation and say, this is a time when everybody's got to give a little bit for the greater good and for the good of the country.
ROBERTSCongressman Chris Van Hollen, democrat of Maryland. Thank you so much for joining us.
HOLLENThanks for having me.
ROBERTSAnd listen to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" later in the week for a vision of the debt ceiling limit talks from the other side of the aisle. I'm Rebecca Roberts. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, moving "Beyond the Blame the Victim" mentality in sexual harassment and assault cases. Stay tuned.
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