Indiana Becomes Face Of Wounded Workforce Elkhart, Ind., took center stage this week as the backdrop for President Barack Obama's pitch at winning over Congress with his economic stimulus package. The Indiana town has the nation's highest jobless rate, a whopping 15 percent.
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Indiana Becomes Face Of Wounded Workforce

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Indiana Becomes Face Of Wounded Workforce

Indiana Becomes Face Of Wounded Workforce

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, two religious leaders discuss how they're trying to help couples in their congregations improve their intimate relationships. It's our Faith Matters conversation, just in time for Valentine's Day, and it's in just a few minutes. But first, our weekly political chat: House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement earlier this week on a massive economic stimulus plan. The final price tag: $789 billion. The president had hoped to win broad, bipartisan support for the plan, but wound up with the votes of only three Republican senators and no House Republicans on the original bills. But what the president lacks in Republican support may be more than made up for by public support. The president has been back out on the campaign trail touting his plans, and one of the places he visited was Elkhart, Indiana, where the unemployment rate is about twice the national average. Congressman Mark Souder represents part of that area. He is a Republican who represents Indiana's 3rd district. He's here with me in the Washington studio. Welcome. Thank you for stopping in.

Representative MARK E. SOUDER (Republican, Fort Wayne, Indiana): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that the place that the president visited is actually three blocks outside of your district and - but nevertheless, he did choose to visit your area for a reason. So, why don't you just tell me how things are going there. What are your constituents telling you about the economy there?

Rep. SOUDER: Well, Elkhart County is the highest unemployed county in the United States. Its official number is 15, probably closer to 18 or 20 when the next report comes out. We had a couple more plant closings this week. So, it produces - 70 percent of the recreational vehicles in America come from Elkhart County, and a big percentage of the rest of them from the counties around it. So, my district is the number-one manufacturing district, both in number of jobs and percent of people who still work in manufacturing. For example, in Elkhart County, just to draw a contrast with a lot of our major cities and states, 57 percent of the people still work in a factory making things, whereas the national average is more like 14 percent.

MARTIN: What is the critical factor in the situation there in your area?

Rep. SOUDER: Well...

MARTIN: Is it energy prices? Is it the global slowdown?

Rep. SOUDER: Yes.

MARTIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All of the above to you.

Rep. SOUDER: In other words, the $4 gas was one of the things that kind of brought everything to a head, because people didn't have that much reserve as it took more money to get to work. As your energy costs went up and your home heating and cooling, that kind of put us over the top, which then, just like the dot-com bubble occurred, savings and loan occurred, when the economy runs into some problems, then those who cheated get exposed. And in this case, the so-called toxic mortgages, where people took mortgages greater than the value, then they were sold and resold and resold in the markets, and when that started to collapse, then the credit collapsed.

And our number-one challenge in the manufacturing area is how we reopen the credit market for both dealers of recreational vehicles - I also have the biggest pick-up plant in United States. It does the Silverado and the Sierra for GM, 2,700 employees at that plant. My district has 50 percent of the GM suppliers in our state. So, we have multiple windshield plants, axle plants, piston plants, and that if you can't get the credit to have the dealer have it on their lot, then you can't do it. And then with the credit scores of 700 or higher, that rules out 60 percent of American people right off the bat, can't afford to buy things. So, if we didn't get the credit market established, no stimulus package will work.

MARTIN: So, why did you vote against the stimulus plan? You earlier voted for the bank bailout plan under President Bush, which was very controversial, lot of disagreement on - bipartisan opposition to that bill. You voted for that bill; you voted against the stimulus plan that the president originally presented. Why?

Rep. SOUDER: Well, I don't...

MARTIN: President Obama presented...

Rep. SOUDER: Well, I voted - was one of only four Republicans to vote for the second part of the $350 billion under President Obama because my district needs the credit market re-established. Unless somebody can - giving somebody $400 where they spend $400, quite frankly, isn't going to do a whole lot for the economy. If you have $400 where you can, say, include it in a down payment, either for something for $3,000 or for a car or for a house, then it gets leveraged in the economy, and that - I believe the credit markets are getting near established. But if we run up the debt and the interest rate goes up to 15 percent, people still aren't going to be able to get cars or houses and that - so they got $400, if interest rates go up, then they'll just consume it; it won't really grow the economy.

MARTIN: Is your primary objection to the president's approach ideological, in a sense? You just don't believe in spending on things, like spending on infrastructure and things of that sort, or education or training. Is that effective, or was it that you don't like what he's spending the money on?

Rep. SOUDER: Well, I have several. One is that, it's too soon. We - the first $350 billion only took effect in January when the weaker banks were consolidated. The second $350, the tentative guidelines were put out Tuesday. None of that money has been released. It'll months 'til that money goes. So, we don't even know what part of the economy the credit market will establish. So, one, it's too fast that - secondly, it's too big. It's a trillion dollars, as much as the annual discretionary. It'll be roughly $3 trillion coming into the credit markets this year. So, I would have favored something more in the range of $300, $250 to $300. If you take all of the construction money, plus the extension in unemployment and COBRA, plus the housing credit, you get about $90 billion. Most of the other is more - good policies, quite frankly, things that I support, medical records and so on, but they aren't stimulus. And they're masquerading as stimulus, and they're policies that you might favor coming down, but our challenge here is to get people back to work.

MARTIN: To this point, we talked to a young man named Damond Smart, who lives in Elkhart, Indiana. Earlier this week, we just pulled together group of voters to get their reaction to, you know, the president's visit, his first prime-time press conference and so forth. And Damond Smart is a young father supporting a family. This is what he had to say about the situation back home. Here it is.

(Soundbite of NPR's Tell Me More, February 10, 2009)

Mr. DAMOND SMART (Resident, Elkhart, Indiana): A lot of people are losing jobs right now, and a lot of people don't have anything to fall back on. I think it was, like, an everyday-go-to-work-come-home thing, and when you take that away from people who just work hard just for their family and - without a check every week when they get paid, it's going to be hard. I mean, what do you do? I mean, what do you do when you don't have a check coming in from week to week, when you're used to having a big check? I mean, where do you run to?

MARTIN: And Congressman, not to put words in the young man's mouth, I think he's scared. I think he's very afraid. I think he's concerned about his ability to - he still has a job but he's concerned, he sees friends, family members losing their jobs. What do you say to a young man like that when he says, gee, what are you doing to help me out? What's your answer?

Rep. SOUDER: That spending $200 million on sexual transmitted diseases is not the way you address getting him his job; that I agree, we need to work to get people jobs. I think that we need to acknowledge that we're going to have $38 billion in this package for unemployment and health to help people who don't have a job. That's not really stimulus; that's basically, people can't lose their homes, not be able to get health care or starve, and that we're going to have a certain amount of support things in here, and we shouldn't masquerade that as stimulus. It's a moral obligation that we're not going to let people do that. And that's going to be a continuous - I broke from the Republicans twice last year to vote for extension on unemployment benefits. We have to have that part.

But the number-one thing he needs is to get a job. And if you get the manufacturing sector - of which about 25 percent is auto, truck, housing and construction - moving again, then the service sector - the schools, the health care - because now, what's starting to happen is, our schools are contracting. The people - the hospitals can't because the United Ways aren't getting as much money and the question, the fundamental economic difference - I have a business degree, a master's degree, in management from Notre Dame - and that is, you have to get the credit established. In every recession, the number-one goal is how you get it kicked up again, and then you kick it with some stimulus. But if you overdo it, you can, as they did during the Great Depression, go into a deeper depression because you went more in debt.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana about the stimulus package, the president's visit to his area this week, to Elkhart, Indiana. It's the scene of the nation's highest rate of unemployment. It's around 15 percent. One of the other news issues this week is Republican Senator Judd Gregg withdrew his nomination to be Commerce secretary just yesterday. What - he said that he just didn't think he was in sync with the president. How concerned are you? First of all, do you think he did the right thing? And secondly, are you concerned that having a vacancy in a position which is sort of critical to talking about economic policy, is still vacant?

Rep. SOUDER: Commerce isn't the main area and clearly, he wasn't going to be - he was a very ideological, budget-tight conservative, and he was going to be at the table to discuss. President Obama is a big believer in "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, and pulling everybody in, but he wouldn't have been one of the top spokesmen. He would have been, like when Lincoln pulled in one of the Southern Democrats to try to put together a coalition. But he would have been an influential voice. A lot of the battle here was over the census in that was pulled out from under him. It was embarrassing to get named to a position and then have the president's people say, we don't trust you. And that - he was also very uncomfortable. He's always been a New Hampshire tightwad and so, I've known for him a long time, and he was proud of that. And it just was too hard, and he told the president he was struggling. President Obama, who is very committed to trying to work together, has been very impressed. But sometimes, you just disagree.

MARTIN: And to that point, though, this - the president's quest for this kind of bipartisan agreement around these issues, do you think that that's possible still? You were one of the few Republicans who had a face-to-face meeting with the president in the days before the House took up the stimulus measure, but it didn't seem to make a difference in attracting your vote. Do you think that this kind of bipartisanship consensus is possible? You think it's desirable?

Rep. SOUDER: I think that on lots of issues - in Congress, there's this impression that we don't get along - about 80 percent of things are near unanimous, and you work things out. There are some things - there are fundamental differences between the parties, and we have fundamental differences on size, scale, and how to deal with certain economic policy. We're going to have some differences in social-issue policy, but there are things that I believe we'll be able to work together on. I'm co-chairman of the National Parks Caucus with Brian Baird of Washington state. That will be pretty bipartisan; I think there'll be some differences. Elijah Cummings and I head the Drug Policy Caucus and have worked together. I was chairman and he was ranking, and then vice versa, working, and those are some difficult issues.

But we managed to get a unanimous bill through on setting the drug czar's office policy and working the national ad campaign and very difficult issues in the minority community as well as the majority community. Somewhat different, but we got a unanimous bill through that - I think it's possible on many issues, but it won't be on every. And he came to our conference to talk to us about this bill, and he was very articulate. We were all impressed that he came. He fielded questions and follow-up questions very skillfully. But what he was selling wasn't something we believe in. There's actually a reason many people are Republicans and many people are Democrats, and there are substantively fundamental differences in economic philosophy.

MARTIN: Very, very briefly, do you think you'll vote for the bill that came out of the House and Senate conference?

Rep. SOUDER: No, I think it's actually worse than no bill, but I wish it was smaller.

MARTIN: All right. Congressman Mark Souder...

Rep. SOUDER: Then I would have.

MARTIN: Congressman Mark Souder represents Indiana's 3rd district. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studio. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. SOUDER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Still to come, religious leaders who are preaching about the benefits of a healthy sex life; that's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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