Congressman Explains Vote Switch On Stimulus

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Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon initially voted for the House stimulus bill. However, he reversed his decision and last week voted against the package. DeFazio tells Steve Inskeep he opposed the $300 billion in tax cuts and wanted more spending on things such as education and infrastructure.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As we've heard in recent days, nearly all Republicans opposed the economic plan the president signs today. The White House hoped for more support, though presidential adviser David Axelrod downplayed the disappointment in that NPR interview last night.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Presidential Adviser): Old habits die hard. We understand that. But we think we made progress here and opened up a dialogue that will be productive for the future.

INSKEEP: Democrats did win a few votes on the right by making changes that were too much for a lawmaker on the left. Congressman Peter DeFazio became one of the few House Democrats to vote no. We found him in his congressional district in Eugene, Oregon. What went wrong in the final version of this bill?

Representative PETER DeFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): Well, remember, every penny is borrowed. We're going to be paying this back over 30 years. So we've got to be very careful how the money's spent, and what I favor are things that are going to provide benefits to future generations.

The bill went from about a third tax cuts to almost 45 percent tax cuts between the House and the Senate. A lot of spending on education, spending on infrastructure was cut to make room for tax cuts.

Now, we tried tax cuts, you know, in the Bush plan last spring, and economists say we got a one-quarter percent bounce for one quarter out of that. So what are we going to get out of $325 billion in tax cuts in this bill? What's different?

INSKEEP: What made that compromise, if we call it that, not worth it? Because the Obama administration was trying to include some Republican ideas and trying at least to get some Republican votes?

Rep. DeFAZIO: Well, the president pretty dramatically said toward the end there, when he got frustrated after the House vote with no Republican votes, you know, we're not going to go back to the failed policies of the past. Well, the failed policies of the past are tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

You know, with $325 billion invested in rebuilding our transportation infrastructure, for instance, we can have a vision of moving toward a 21st century transportation infrastructure, more efficient, more in time, more competitive in the world economy.

The Chinese are going to spend nearly $600 billion over the next two years on their transportation infrastructure. We're getting about 29 billion for roads, bridges, highways, and a little bit for rail except something that was thrown in at the last minute without any thought, eight billion for high-speed rail.

INSKEEP: Although that is billions and billions of dollars for various kinds of transportation. Why not grab that and go for more later if you can?

Rep. DeFAZIO: I worry about the later. I'm really concerned that, you know, everyone's going to kind of sober up here from the spending binge, and I think we're about reaching our limits on borrowing.

People might be more willing to lend us money to build things rather than for tax cuts. I mean, the big tax-cut provision here, I've got people in my district who can really use $8 a week. That's for sure.

INSKEEP: Eight dollars a week; that's one estimate of how much the average person might get from this.

Rep. DeFAZIO: The individual tax cuts are about $8 a week, 16 or so for a couple. But a lot of them say to me, Congressman, I'd give up that $8 a week if I thought we were going to invest it better and build things and rebuild our economy and our productivity and provide job opportunities for my neighbors, my friends, my kids and everybody else. They don't see the eight bucks a week getting us there.

INSKEEP: Congressman DeFazio, if you had a chance to go to President Obama, sit down in the White House and give him your views - I don't know, perhaps you do have that opportunity - would you tell him, look, this effort to be bipartisan, to change the politics in Washington, was not worth the price? It failed. You didn't even get very many votes in the end.

Rep. DeFAZIO: Well, I think it's good he made the effort. I hope it's also a learning experience. Don't give the Republicans everything they want at the outset. A little later in negotiations they wanted more. In fact, ultimately those three Republican senators did get more in tax cuts and get reductions in spending.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you another question, and before I do, I want to mention that there were only, I believe, seven Democrats in the House who voted against this bill. So it's not like there's a huge revolt of Democrats at the moment.

But when I look at those votes, we see you voting no because you feel, among other things, that there was not enough spending on much-needed programs, and there are also some Democrats who are more conservative who voted no because they feel already there was far too much spending, and their constituents just can't put up with up, can't stand it. Do you see some tensions coming for the Democratic Party as more bills come down and as more proposals for spending come up?

Rep. DeFAZIO: Well, the Blue Dogs are going to say, look, no more borrowing. The case I want to make is there are things which you can justify borrowing money for that enhance the nation in the future: education, infrastructure investment.

I went to school in an elementary school that was brand new after World War II, built by the federal government for the World-War-II baby boom. I represent a district up in the mountains here that has a water system built by the WPA. It's serving now…

INSKEEP: Built during the Depression, yeah.

Rep. DeFAZIO: Yeah, fourth generation, and we borrowed money to do those things. Just imagine a grandkid 20 years from now says, Hey, Grandpa, I'm paying a high tax bill for that huge borrowing you guys did back then. What'd you spend the $8 a week on? Grandpa probably won't quite remember what he spent it on.

INSKEEP: Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon, thanks very much.

Rep. DeFAZIO: Thank you.

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