Critics Already Holding Their Applause For Spending Freeze

In his first State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to propose a three-year spending freeze on discretionary spending. Host Michel Martin talks about the politics behind the president's planned move with two Beltway watchers who aren't feeling the hype — Vin Weber, former Republican Congressman from Minnesota, and a Republican strategist; and Glen Ford, executive editor of the weekly online publication Black Agenda Report.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, just what exactly is this Tea Party Movement all about? Is it all angry white senior citizens waving mean signs? Well talk to a reporter whos been covering the movement. Hell tell us what he found in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama delivers the State of the Union address tonight, and theres plenty to talk about: health care, unemployment, and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even before the speech, one of the presidents expected proposals is making headlines, namely a three-year overall freeze on discretionary spending except for matters related to national security.

Given tonights presidential speech, we thought it was a good time to check in with some critical voices who have been part of our ongoing series, A Loyal Opposition. Thats where weve been keeping tabs on the Obama administrations progress through the eyes of his more pointed critics on both the left and the right.

Were joined now by two Beltway watchers from different ends of the political spectrum. Glen Ford is executive editor of the progressive online publication Black Agenda Report. Hes with us from NPR member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. And Vin Weber is a former Minnesota Republican Congressman. Now, hes a Washington, D.C. lobbyist and strategist. Hes on the phone with us from his home office in Virginia. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for coming again.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Lobbyist; Strategist): Hi, Michel, nice to be with you.

Mr. GLEN FORD (Executive Editor, Black Agenda Report): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First, let me say that this freeze sounds big, but the actual impact is rather modest in overall terms, at least at first $10 billion out of half a trillion dollar budget, but there would have to be obviously some severe impacts on some programs.

Glen Ford, many liberals already swinging at this. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called it a betrayal of everything Obama supporters thought they were working for. Whats your reaction?

Mr. FORD: Well, if this is setting the tone, and clearly it is. If were talking about real money, were only discussing $450 billion out of $3.5 trillion. But obviously, this sets the tone for what will come in the rest of the year. And if its an attempt by the Obama administration to placate the Republicans, well, thats pointless just as it was with health care. And as a result, all of the real action is going to play out within the Democratic Party, between those lawmakers that represent minorities and urban voters, what we usually call the partys base, and the right wing, the more corporate wing of the party.

And so, there are indications just by virtue of this freeze that hes going to use the same kind of strategy that he did with health care and try to placate that right wing of his own party, certainly trying to placate the Republicans will be (unintelligible) at all.

MARTIN: And so, how are you covering this? And Im asking really your personal reaction at this point. How are you going to write about this?

Mr. FORD: Well, were looking at it as a continuation of the way Barack Obama began his administration. And, you know, verbally he leads with his left in terms of rhetoric, but immediately puts out proposals that are designed to appeal to the right. And so, by calling for a freeze on discretionary spending, hes opening the kind of discussion that progressives want to avoid at all costs.

MARTIN: So, Vin Weber, you were serving in the Congress during the Reagan years, and the spending freeze has now been compared by many progressives as a Reagan era or Reagan-like move, what do you say to that?

Mr. WEBER: Well, the magnitude of the numbers is so different that its hard to make a comparison. We did after - throughout the 1980s struggled with deficits, and we struggled with approaches to spending the included freezes, included the Gramm-Rudman Automatic Deficit Reduction Act and attempts to do something like this.

But this, Glen and I probably think we should go on opposite directions, but much of our analysis of what the president is doing is going to be sort of similar.

I mean he gave one set of numbers, let me give you another set of numbers. The CBO has projected that for the next decade we will add $6 trillion in debt. The administration says that this freeze over that same period of time will save a quarter of a trillion dollars. So, its really more symbolic than meaningful.

The real question is what is the economic philosophy of this administration? Because for the last year, the administration has basically said to us that their philosophy economically to get us out of recession and into recovery was sort of a Keynesian spending proposal. Thats what the initial stimulus package was.

Well, if thats your economic philosophy, I dont agree with it, but I know a lot of obviously liberal economists who believe that. Why are we freezing spending? Have they adopted the Republican philosophy, which is just the opposite, which says that federal borrowing is now the major threat to the economy? I dont know. Were left really wondering in the middle of this recession what the economic philosophy of this administration is.

MARTIN: And so, to your point, you and Glen pretty much agree on the analysis. Whats your reaction? Same follow up I asked him whats your reaction? Personally, do you think its a good idea or not?

Mr. WEBER: Well, because this one obviously Glen and I have different points of view. I believe that we should get on a road towards lower deficits and less spending. So, I welcome the presidents step. I think it does, as Glen said, probably set a tone for the year, but not much more than that.

In order to really reduce that $6 trillion in additional debt that we talked about over the next 10 years, you have to do things far more far reaching than this, and you have a particular reform and title the program Social Security and Medicare, which make up the largest percentage of the spending that were going to undertake. And I dont see a lot of stomach for that frankly right now in either party.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with members of our loyal opposition panels. Republican Vin Weber, and I guess - Glen, I dont know if you are a Democrat or not. Do you consider yourself a Democrat or more of a progressive?

Mr. FORD: No, I dont consider myself a Democrat, although I wind up voting for them.

MARTIN: Okay, okay, then progressive, sometime Democrat Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report. Were talking about the presidents State of the Union address tonight. Were looking ahead. And were also talking about one of the proposals expected to be on the table, a plan to freeze discretionary spending for the next three years except for matters related to our national security.

Glen, can I talk to you about one other thing? The Senate rejected a plan yesterday to create a bipartisan panel that would have been responsible for proposing ways to balance the budget. The model for this, of course, is those base closing panels that is intended to kind of insulate lawmakers from the individual pressures of their districts in order to kind of create a big-picture approach to solving these big issues.

Now, the panel is backed by President Obama, a majority of Democrats support it, but only a minority of Republican Senators. Now I understand a lot of people think that this discretionary spending move is kind of a cynical P.R. move, but if people are really serious about getting a handle on the deficit, why didnt more Republicans support this move?

Mr. FORD: First of all, its a good question. I think most Republicans are fearful that the commission would lead to tax increases. The Republicans dont want to see tax increases. But beyond that, the concept of a base closing commission approach to federal spending unfortunately, I would say, probably is something that were going to have to do and Republicans, if it were constituted a little bit differently, might look at it somewhat differently.

I say unfortunately because, you know, I was a member of the House for 12 years. Congress shouldnt have to delegate its responsibilities to outside commissions, which really is a sign that our democracy is not working the way that it should.

Having said that, you know, we got a huge problem. And if theres no evidence that Congress is going to be able to do this on its own, so some kind of an outside commission may be necessary. But, again, Republicans I think are mainly fearful that theyre setting up a mechanism that would lead primarily to higher taxes as opposed to spending restraint.

MARTIN: Glen, a number of media organizations have released polls in recent days showing that the many voters surveyed feel that the president is spending more effort and energy on bailing out financial institutions than resolving the problems of the middle class. CNNs poll released yesterday, for example, found that 6 in 10 of those surveys felt that way. The president is also expected to propose a package of incentives to help out the middle class, particularly the so-called squeeze generation - increasing the child care tax credit, for example. Does that do anything for you?

Mr. FORD: Well, yeah. I mean, lets consider, you know, that public perception that the administration has been spending humongous amounts of the peoples money in bailing out the financial institutions is a correct perception. And if were looking at these proposed cuts, the freeze is in fact a cut. The money that could be saved by these freezes in discretionary pending out of the very small universe probably does not amount to the aid that was given to AIG alone.

And, you know, the public has gotten pretty conversant in economic matters over the past year and a disastrous half. And they know that to be the case, so the contradiction is quite clear. And also, let me add that even though these numbers out of the total discretionary universe of $450 million seemed rather small, the states and the cities are going through a profound crisis and any cuts in federal funds to states and localities will exacerbate that real crisis at that level and will undermine any attempt that modest economic stimulus.

MARTIN: So, Glen, when you listen to the speech tonight, and I assume that you will because youll be writing about it. I mean, I know that you live in a land of kind of deep emotional attachment to political leaders and what theyre doing and so forth, but what do you think your posture is going to be? Is it going to be one of, what, resignation, annoyance that the president isn't hearing more of the populist or progressive principles that you feel he campaigned on? Whats your attitude about this going to be?

Mr. FORD: I think Im going to experience deja vu. You know, President Barack Obama came in by proposing, in some very broad language, cuts, not just in discretionary spending but deep into the heart of entitlement.

And although what weve been discussing today involves discretionary spending, his proposal to set up the bipartisan commission that Mr. Weber was referring to to review the budget is yet another opening wide of the door to discussions involving entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. And I believe were going down the road to putting them on the block as well. I think Ill be having that feeling this evening.

MARTIN: And, Vin, Im sorry, I dont have time for the final word from you, but well be checking back in with you as we do throughout the year. We thank you both. Glen Ford is executive editor of the online publication Black Agenda Report. He joined us from member station WBGO in Newark. And Vin Weber is a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota. Hes now Republican strategist and lobbyist in the Washington, D.C. area. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WEBER: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. FORD: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, the race for the Senate seat held for decades by Ted Kennedy took an unexpected turn with the victory of the little known Republican Scott Brown. We look at the role of the Tea Party Movement.

Mr. BEN McGRATH (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): I think a lot of people in the Tea Party Movement saw a chance to work within the local conditions and had a national effect on hardly enough health care, and that all the stranger for the fact that they did it in a state where health care is already more inclusive than whats even being discussed in Washington.

MARTIN: Tea party activism, what it means with the future of local and national politics.

Thats coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.