New Members Of Congress Weigh In On Budget

In a week when much of the talk in Washington has centered on the release of President Obama's budget, some are asking whether Congress will be able to find a compromise on which cuts to make. Host Michel Martin speaks with freshman Reps. Allen West, a Florida Republican, and Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

It's time for our Friday features. Later in our Faith Matters conversation, we'll hear from a leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood about their plans for Egypt's future. Also, our Barbershop guys will take on the news of the week.

But first, we take a closer look at the negotiations over the 2012 budget. President Obama delivered his budget on Monday. Although all sides are admitting that some difficult cuts will have to be made, few are pleased with the plans as they've been delivered now.

We wanted to check in on two people who will actually have to vote for the budget, or at least get to vote for the budget. They are Allen West, a Republican representing parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida. Also with us, Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who also represents parts of Broward County, as well as parts of the Miami-Dade County area. They are both freshmen and we checked in with both of them on the day they were sworn in and they're back with us now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Representative FREDERICA WILSON (Democrat, Florida): Oh, thank you. How are you, Michel?

MARTIN: Very well, thank you.

Representative ALLEN WEST (Republican, Florida): Thank you for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Congresswoman Wilson, why don't I start with you and just ask your initial impressions of the budget?

Rep. WILSON: Well, Michel, I think that the president's budget is tough and that budget ensures that we live within our means so that we can invest in the future. I think it's a responsible budget. It cuts wasteful spending and makes tough choices. But it maintains investments in education, innovation and infrastructure. I think that it's a good budget even though it cuts deep. And I always think about budget items, if they reduce the deficit, create jobs, helps the working class or supports our children, that's my litmus test.

MARTIN: All right. Congressman West, what about you? What are your initial impressions?

Rep. WEST: Well, I think that I don't believe that the president really did learn the lesson of the 2nd of November of 2010. When you look at this budget, you come out with $3.8 trillion of spending. Over a 10-year period you're talking about $8.7 trillion of new spending and you're talking about, overall, $46 trillion of spending. We're going to have to borrow more money to meet this deficit, which means that the debt will continue to grow. And over the next 10 years, according to this budget, our debt will double up to close to $26 trillion, which is unsustainable.

More new taxes on people and I think that is not a way that we're going to be able to turn this economy around. Capital gains tax goes up, dividends taxes, estate taxes. Overall, this budget is just too big. And I think that when you listen to the words investment and the words ingenuity, innovation, those words really do belong to the private sector.

MARTIN: Well, hold that thought for a minute, congressman, if you don't mind. I'm going to just play a short clip from the speech that you had at the Conservative Political Action conference last week. It's one of the largest, if not the largest gathering of conservative activists, political activists. And I just want to play a short clip from your speech there and here it is.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. WEST: As I sat at the State of the Union address and I heard the president use these words, investment and innovation, those words are not part of the public sector lexicon. Those words are part of the private sector. They are part of our free market. They are part of our free enterprise, which promotes ingenuity.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. WEST: Through the private sectors is where we will have long-term sustainable economic growth, job growth, financial surety, predictability and viability, not from President Obama's version of investment.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask Congresswoman Wilson to give her perspective on that. And then Congressman West, I'm going to ask you to respond to a comment from someone on the other side of the aisle.

So, what about that, Congresswoman Wilson? Congressman West is saying that the president says the government is going to make these investments which will spur economic growth, but that's not really the government's job.

Rep. WILSON: It's the government's job to spur economic growth. We look to government to help our local communities. And what we have to keep in mind, Michel, is that it took us almost 10 years to get into this predicament. We were on the brink of a recession and the president got us out of it. So as we are - 10 years to get into this Draconian position, it's going to take us longer to dig ourselves out.

I think the president has been responsible. I think he has cut all non-security spending for five years. I think he's invested in health research and infrastructure. I think he's done a good job. We can't just cut to the bone and hurt people. We've got to be responsible about these cuts.

MARTIN: Congressman West, let me play you a clip from your colleague, Representative Emanuel Cleaver, who's the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which you joined. We talked to him earlier in the week about the budget, as well. He was one of the first people we spoke to. This is what he had to say.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): We absolutely, given the choice, are going to embrace the president's budget. But we have a responsibility, I think, to push back in order to push forward the benefits that our constituents will receive. And they're not just African-Americans. They are minorities, but they are men and women around this country who are vulnerable because of the economy.

MARTIN: Congressman West, what about that perspective? I mean, the point that some are making is that, yes, the official unemployment rate is about 10 percent. But among many communities, it's far higher than that. And this is not the time to be pulling resources out of these communities. What do you say to that?

Rep. WEST: Well, let me tell you what I say to it. And everyone keeps going back to the Bush years. Well, George Bush was not truly a conservative, but over the period of eight years, he had a $1.85 trillion deficit over the period of eight years.

In the first three years of the Obama administration, we've seen $1.42 trillion, $1.29 trillion and now $1.65 trillion in deficit spending. That's going in the wrong direction.

And when you talk about the ability of reinvesting into our communities, when I talk to people who are, through their philanthropic measures, who are helping things like the Boys and Girls Clubs, if you continue to raise the taxation burden and the regulatory burden on our small businesses, that money is not going to get reinvested into our communities.

Look, it comes down to this one simple thing. If we believe the Keynesian economic theory, the tax and spend theory, is the way to go in the United States, if we believe that a bureaucratic managed state is what built the United States of America 234 years, I think there are some people out there that just don't understand our history and what built this great nation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Congressman Allen West. He's a Republican from Florida. That's who you just heard. Also with us, Frederica Wilson, congresswoman from Florida, a Democrat. We're talking about their reactions to President Obama's budget and what they see as the way forward.

So, to that end, do you see any common ground here?

Rep. WILSON: Well, Michel, we've got to compromise. In fact, the Bipartisan Budget Commission supports President Obama's budget. John McCain advisers support President Obama's budget. So, with all of that Republican support, we just have to come to a compromise. Otherwise, the government is going to stall. And we cannot afford that. So we have to listen to each other, take what common ground we have and build on that infrastructure and create a budget for our people.

We have to remember that we cannot cost jobs. We've got to create jobs and we cannot hurt the economy. People are suffering now. So we have to be very careful and tread very lightly in what we're doing.

MARTIN: Congressman West, treading lightly is exactly what you said you were not here to do. So, do you see any sign of bridging of differences over these issues which you both agree are urgent?

Rep. WEST: Well, I would hope that people will agree to things that have been proven to be correct. And, you know, they are part of sound economic policy. So, if people don't want to agree with sound economic policy, Michel, I just don't know what to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. And, finally, I asked you both this when we first met on the day that you were both sworn in - the tone. What are you finding as you are starting your careers on the Hill? Are you finding the atmosphere there conducive to civil discourse and the kind that actually leads to people finding their way forward? What do you think, Congressman West? I'll ask you. What do you think?

Rep. WEST: I think there's the possibility of that occurring. I think that there are some rigid ideologues that exist on the other side. But I think that if we just make it objective and we just deal with principles and facts, we have to come to a realization that certain things work and certain things don't work.

MARTIN: And, Congresswoman Wilson, what are you finding in terms of the atmosphere there? Is it that you think it's conducive to working together across party lines or not, to this point?

Rep. WILSON: Well, Michel, it's rough. But we've got to find a way to get rid of all of that and get to the business for which we were elected. And this is what I use as a litmus test - if it creates jobs, if it reduces the deficit, if it helps the working class, if it supports our children.

Every elected official, we all have different philosophical views and we can talk forever and there are some things that we will never agree on. But we've got to agree on the principles that brought us here. And that is, number one, to create jobs. And we can't go cutting a budget to the bone with Draconian cuts and hurting people who have no jobs, who are looking for jobs, who are hungry, who are broke, who are looking to survive. We've got to be very responsible in what we do. And that's what I'm concerned about with this 112th Congress.

Rep. WEST: And I think the responsibility starts up here in Washington, D.C. to recognize that it is not about us growing here in Washington, D.C. It's not about growing a larger federal government, but it is about how we can make sure that we're good stewards of the American taxpayer dollar.

MARTIN: Well, you know what? One vote that a number of commentators looked at to sort of assess whether there is a common agreement was a vote over that new engine.

Rep. WEST: Oh, that's a no-brainer, Michel.

MARTIN: For the fighter jet. Yeah.

Rep. WEST: That was a no-brainer.

MARTIN: And your vote on that was?

Rep. WEST: Yeah, well, I haven't been in the military for 22 years. I can tell you this - if you have two different major component systems like that out in the fighting force, then you're going to have two different major logistical support chains that have to go with it. You're going to have to have two different training bases for, you know, for the mechanics who have to deal with that.

So, you know, over the course of time, you're just going to incur more and more and more cost. So, you know, there's only one engine that goes in an M1 tank. There's only type of engine that goes in an A64 helicopter. There should be only one engine that goes into the Joint Strike Fighter, the F35. So that's why I voted against having the alternate engine.

MARTIN: So you voted against it. What about you, Congresswoman Wilson?

Rep. WILSON: The same. I voted the same way that he did.

Rep. WEST: See? There we go.

MARTIN: So there you go.

Rep. WEST: We agreed.

MARTIN: All right.

Rep. WILSON: So we agree on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Allen West represents Florida's 22nd District. He's a Republican. His district includes Boca Raton, as well as parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. We were able to catch up with him in his office. Also, Frederica Wilson. She's a Democrat. She represents Florida's 17th District, includes parts of Miami-Dade and Broward as well. And we were able to catch up with her in her office as well. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Rep. WEST: Thanks for having me.

Rep. WILSON: Oh, thank you so much Michel.

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