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No Breaks for Poor Bastards

David Obey

David Obey’s interview with The Fiscal Times’ Washington editor Eric Pianin last Tuesday got well-deserved attention when it appeared on Friday. Obey, the third most senior member of the House, having represented a district in northwest Wisconsin since 1969 (when he succeeded Melvin Laird after Laird became Nixon’s Secretary of Defense), announced in May that he will not run for re-election. He is the outgoing chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Obey is not happy with some decisions of the Obama administration. On the size of the economic stimulus package:

The problem for Obama, he wasn’t as lucky as Roosevelt, because when Obama took over we were still in the middle of a free fall. So his Treasury people came in and his other economic people came in and said “Hey, we need a package of $1.4 trillion.” We started sending suggestions down to OMB waiting for a call back. After two and a half weeks, we started getting feedback. We put together a package that by then the target had been trimmed to $1.2 trillion. And then [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel said to me, “Geez, do you really think we can afford to come in with a package that big, isn’t it going to scare people?” I said, “Rahm, you will need that shock value so that people understand just how serious this problem is.” They wanted to hold it to less than $1 trillion. Then [Pennsylvania Senator Arlen] Specter and the two crown princesses from Maine [Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins] took it down to less than $800 billion. Spread over two and a half years, that’s a hell of a lot of money, but spread over two and a half years in an economy this large, it doesn’t have a lot of fiscal power.

We’re in danger of [throttling back on government spending too soon, as Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression].

And on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

The secretary of Education is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted .… So, when we needed money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal. We were giving them over $10 billion in money to help keep teachers on the job, plus another $5 billion for Pell, so he was getting $15 billion for the programs he says he cares about, and it was costing him $500 million [in reductions to the Race to the Top program]. Now that’s a pretty damn good deal.

So as far as I’m concerned, the secretary of Education should have been happy as hell. He should have taken that deal and smiled like a Cheshire cat. He’s got more walking around money than every other cabinet secretary put together.

It blows my mind that the White House would even notice the fight [over Race to the Top]. I would have expected the president to say to the secretary, “look, you’re getting a good deal, for God’s sake, what this really does is guarantee that the rest of the money isn’t going to be touched.”

We gave [Duncan] $4.3 billion in the stimulus package, no questions asked. He could spend it any way he wants. … I trusted the secretary, so I gave him a hell of a lot more money than I should have.

My point is that I have been working for school reform long before I ever heard of the secretary of education, and long before I ever heard of Obama. And I’m happy to welcome them on the reform road, but I’ll be damned if I think the only road to reform lies in the head of the Secretary of Education.

We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.

This is in the context of the supplemental budget for war funding. As emptywheel summarizes, “we were, as a country, really considering cutting the food allowance to those suffering in this recession in order to keep some teachers on the job, all while we appropriate $33 billion to fight around 350 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” (The 350 figure is a reference to the remarks a couple of weeks ago of CIA director Leon Panetta.)

Obama a socialist, not supportive of America’s continuing wars abroad, favoring too much domestic spending? Why are those who make such statements taken seriously? How can an entire party’s candidates run on such arguments? In reality, the financial, health care, and defense industries have much to be happy about. But let’s not help the unemployed or those whose houses are being foreclosed. We don’t want to increase the deficit! At least not for them. We’d rather increase the deficit for our wars.

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