Week In Politics: Sequester, Voting Rights Act

Audie Cornish talks to regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the sequester and the Supreme Court's consideration of a Voting Rights Act case.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Well, to borrow President Obama's phrase, it's time for a Jedi mind meld with our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Hey, guys.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: May the force be with you. So let's start with that performance we just heard from President Obama and start with you, David. What did you think?

BROOKS: Well, you know, it's just stupidity all around. I'm not sure it's equally to blame, but the American people have a right to be angry. Listen, we've got a situation where we've got a slow economy, where we've got a lot of troubles in the country and we've got a budget that's about to hit us, where entitlement spending, which is about 14 percent of the budget - I mean, excuse me, discretionary spending, which is 14 percent of the budget, is about to take 44 percent of the hits.

Whether you're Republican or Democrat, nobody would design this. And so it's - everyone's doing everything against their own self-interest here.

CORNISH: Well, someone did design it, right, last summer? I mean, they signed up for this. E.J., what did you think of the way the president dealt with this today?

DIONNE: Well, I think he's right when he says he's not a dictator. I mean, right now, our government looks like the bar scene in "Star Wars." I mean, this is a crazy situation we are in. And where the president is stuck is that there are Republicans who control one-half of one-third of the federal government are saying they won't yield unless they get 100 percent of what they want.

Obama did put out a reasonable proposal and they weren't willing to negotiate on it. Speaker Boehner says the Republicans passed two alternatives to the sequester. They passed them in the last Congress. They passed nothing that was alive in this Congress and I doubt Boehner could re-pass those bills. And I think what it turns out is, Democrats didn't overplay their hand, they underplayed it.

Obama tried to be reasonable and accept only half of the tax increase he said was necessary in the deal, you know, the January 1st deal just to get us by the debt ceiling. Now, the Republicans who once offered more in tax increases than we got in that deal are saying, no more tax increases. So I don't know how we get out of this mess.

CORNISH: And you talked about Democrats underplaying their hand. On the Republican side, is this evidence of a shift in the party, deficit hawks beating out defense hawks, David?

BROOKS: First, let me say the idea that this is all one party's fault strikes me as absurd. I think the Republicans have a large share of the blame. The idea that the Democrats who haven't passed a budget out of the Senate in four years are sort of models of fiscal sanity strikes me as bizarre.

DIONNE: The president had a deal on the table, David, that made perfectly good sense. You could debate it. You could negotiate it. They just didn't deal with it at all.

BROOKS: Well, and second, I would say the idea that we can continue to raise taxes on the top 2 percent without having perverse negative effects, the Republicans are absolutely right to raise that issue. And the final thing I'd say is that it is certainly true that if we want to get out of this budget mess, the Republican - the president can't just have a small entitlement reform that he mentions to a few people in Washington.

He has to go out in the country and say we're going to do this. He has to persuade the American people that we're going to reform entitlements. And that's the way to prevent the serious cuts we're going to see in discretionary spending.

CORNISH: But at what point do these rolling crises and a failure to get a kind of grand bargain actually really damage the economy? You had Fitch Ratings looking at us saying that, you know, looking ahead to the next debt ceiling crisis, we're threatening another downgrade.

DIONNE: You know, this is a very bad time for the Hill. I just want to point out to David, the president did have entitlement cuts in this budget and the Republicans wouldn't even bite. So we can't begin a discussion when he puts them on the table and they won't bite. But this is very bad for the economy. We took, already, some significant buying power out of the economy when we didn't extend the payroll tax cut for another year, which I wish we had.

Now, we're taking another 85 billion out of the economy at a very moment when all of the data show that growth is getting pretty sluggish again. This is a very bad choice we're making - or not - or making because we're failing to make choices.

CORNISH: I want to move on, actually, just because we're going to get a chance to relitigate this question many times over the next...

DIONNE: I'm afraid so.

CORNISH: ...months. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the challenge to the Voting Rights Act. David, one moment that caught my ear, Justice Antonin Scalia referring to the Voting Rights Act as a racial entitlement. Is this a common concept or, I mean, what do you make of this?

BROOKS: I don't think voting is a racial entitlement. I do say, I do think the critics of the law have more of a case than I would have thought before reading up on this. In the first case, if you actually look at where the voting rights assaults are happening, it's no longer just in those states in the South that are subject to this provision of the law. It's pretty much nationwide.

Secondly, if you look at measures where turnout is high and low, again, the situation is different than it was in 1965. Mississippi happens to have a state where you have African-American turnout is much higher than white turnout. If you look at the states where the African-American turnout is lower, it's states like Massachusetts.

So the general argument that we are no longer in 1965 and that this is more of a nationalized problem and less of a localized problem to those states subject to the law, that seems to me an argument that's not dismissible.

CORNISH: And E.J., what did you glean from what the justices had to say?

DIONNE: Well, I just thought first of all - by the way, the secretary of state in Massachusetts, where I happen to be, today vigorously disputed that statement by Justice Roberts. But, you know, that Scalia statement on racial entitlement was really astonishing because you're here in a country where many states denied the vote to African-Americans for many years. To say that an effort to guarantee their basic constitutional rights is an entitlement, that belongs on Rush Limbaugh's show.

He also said at one point this is not the kind of question you can leave to Congress. I mean, this is judicial activism on steroids. And the fact is that other parts of the country have been rolled into the Voting Rights Act when issues arose. I agree with David that this is a nationwide problem, but you don't solve a nationwide problem by eviscerating the law altogether, which is what you would do if the court should throw out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

CORNISH: I want to throw in one more thing related to the court. President Obama, the White House filing its brief in the gay marriage case last night. Any surprises to either of you about the stance they took?

DIONNE: I was surprised that the - I wasn't surprised. I think this is where the president was going. I think there was a debate over whether the courts are the best way to do this. But you're really seeing a trend in this direction. Even more striking was the brief filed by, I believe it was, 75 prominent Republicans. That really tells you where the wind is blowing. A lot of important Republicans say they don't want to be on the wrong side of this when - the wrong side now being to oppose gay marriage.

CORNISH: David?

BROOKS: It's funny how history shifts. You see the slow erosion, slow erosion, slow erosion and then suddenly hit - I guess we've got to call it a tipping point, this moment where you - the entire belief system sort of collapses. I think we're at that point on gay marriage. And so I think it's going to become reasonably bipartisan, with some obvious and significant exceptions, within - before too long.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thank you both for talking with me.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Very good to be with you.

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