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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Congresswoman Gwen Moore on Taxes, the War on the Poor and High-Speed Rail

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Congresswoman Gwen Moore won a big victory last week when one of her signature bills, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. But that high was short-lived, since the Milwaukee Democrat had to confront a bitter choice: deciding whether she would support President Obama’s just-announced tax cut compromise, which includes an extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as an extension of unemployment benefits. While the compromise is moving forward in the Senate, members of the House—including Democrats like Moore—aren’t sold on the package.

Between votes on the floor of the House, Moore spoke to the Shepherd about her concerns with the compromise, why Wisconsin would lose out on high-speed rail funds (her prediction was confirmed by the news on Thursday that Gov.-elect Scott Walker's refusal to support the line caused the federal government to withdraw their $810 million offer) and how changes in Washington and Wisconsin affect her work. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Shepherd:
Now that you’ve had a day to digest the tax cut package, what are your thoughts?

Moore
: I can tell you that I’m not a fan of the tax package. For one thing, I thought that the plight of the unemployed was something that could stand on its own. That package costs about $18 billion. Certainly all of the data that we hear from economists is that it’s very stimulative. When you’re unemployed, you spend it on rent and food and utilities and gas for your cars, and [unemployment compensation] would be a boon to the economy. Certainly I would think that people who are unemployed are very, very vulnerable.

It’s particularly egregious when unemployment compensation is held hostage to tax cuts for higher-income people and for the estate tax that’s going to cost us about $25 billion and benefit only 39,000 people in the country. It’s going to cost us far more money for 39,000 people as opposed to the 2 million people who will be unemployed. This is absolutely outrageous.

Shepherd:
How does this tax compromise affect the work of governing going forward?

Moore
: Here we are in a situation where we hear the detractors talk all the time about the terrible deficit and how we can’t afford anything. And yet they’re proposing to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years. I don’t have any reason to believe that they won’t just kick the can down the road and that two years from now it will be just as hard for them to face the fact that we cannot afford these Bush-era tax cuts. If there’s an idea of shared sacrifice and shared pain, then it needs to start here. We need to get over George W. Bush and move on.

In reality we are so stretched in terms of our budgeting. Republicans have convinced me that there’s a problem. They campaigned on it in this election cycle. And now they don’t believe it anymore? Their opening bid is going to be tax breaks for millionaires or bust? I don’t get it.

My fear is that the Bush-era tax cuts are going to become permanent, putting us in a position where the deficit is going to be much higher. That will put us in the position to start cutting programs. Low-income heating and energy assistance is going to be on the chopping block. Food stamps will be on the chopping block. Child-care programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, emergency funding—on the chopping block. Even Medicaid and Medicare, the two programs for the most vulnerable groups for people who don’t even have tax liabilities—they will be trying to balance the budget on their backs. Starting out on insisting on tax breaks in an environment when you have $13 trillion worth of debt, you’re creating a formula for throwing the most vulnerable people under the bus. That’s what I’m concerned about.

Shepherd:
Who’s responsible for this compromise?

Moore
: I think the Republicans haven’t given the president and the current majority a lot of options. They have a very unified, disciplined party. They’re willing to engage in brinkmanship: “Give us money for the rich or we’re going to send the unemployed over the cliff.”

We’re absolutely holding the unemployed hostage. That means that there are no good choices. No good choices here. No good votes here for Democrats.

I think that one of the reasons why Republicans were defeated in 2006 and 2008 was because among their supporters they were not the party of fiscal responsibility. And this is part of their lack of fiscal responsibility. They’re going to become the majority party. They’re going to convince people that they’re fiscally responsible because they’re going to start cutting programs that serve the most vulnerable.

Shepherd:
Do you know how you’re going to vote on this package?

Moore
: I can tell you that I have been working vigorously all day with other members who are knowledgeable about budget matters to come up with an alternative. My druthers are to, No. 1, decouple unemployment compensation from the tax extension and have it stand on its own merit. If [unemployment compensation] was coupled with anything, I think it should be coupled with tax breaks like the Enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit, perhaps the payroll deductions for certain workers and the tax credit for parents to pay for their kids’ tuition—things like that.

I think the estate tax stuff should go back to current law, past law, with million-dollar estates, not put it up to $5 million for a single person and $10 million for couples. The estate tax stuff came in at the last minute. They threw that as an extra sweetener. And certainly the outrageous proposal to extend [the tax breaks] for people who make over $250,000 a year, that should not be part of it.

I would certainly like the opportunity to vote on critical pieces of this. It’s not like we’re bound and determined to provide tax breaks and there’s some magic drop-dead date, like today or tomorrow, that won’t enable us to consider it next year. I am hopeful that I will have the opportunity to take some separate votes, at a minimum.

Shepherd:
We keep reading about this supposed rift between President Obama and congressional Democrats. Is that true?

Moore
: I’m a congressional Democrat and I don’t have any rift with President Obama at all. I think that he is operating in an entirely different arena than I’m dealing in. I represent my constituents in the Fourth Congressional District. I’m looking out admittedly for much more narrow interests. I represent the fourth-poorest district [in the nation].

President Obama hasn’t walked on water yet. I think that many people are expecting him to walk on water. But I am very proud of him. He’s doing what he has to do and I’m doing what I have to do.

Shepherd:
What are your observations of the next speaker of the House, John Boehner?

Moore
: I don’t envy John Boehner at all. All new freshmen come in ready to change the world, change Washington. He’s coming in with a group of people who are very ideological. The way that this place works is that you have to get to some practical solutions in order to govern. If they’re anticipating that being “the party of no” and screaming and yelling and holding up picket signs is governing…

John Boehner is an establishment Republican. He voted for TARP. He was very unwelcome at tea party rallies. He’s going to have to figure out how to corral the energy of folk who are unwilling to compromise at all. Maybe that’s all that they want to do. Maybe they want to pass bills just to be knocked down in the Senate. Perhaps that’s his strategy. But it’s very hard to see what they’ll accomplish with that modus operandi.

Shepherd:
Wisconsin’s political landscape changed on Nov. 2 and Republicans will be in charge of the governorship and both houses of the state Legislature. Does this change your work at all?

Moore
: Certainly. One of the things I’ve tried to do is to keep a connection with the state Legislature. I’m very familiar with that institution. I served with the governor-elect [Scott Walker] as well. I’m very concerned. Some of the issues he’s raising are things that I fought him on. You know, even before they announced it, I predicted that Assembly Bill 1 or Senate Bill 1 would be to require voter ID. It’s an effort to disenfranchise low-income, minority voters so that they can keep Republican power. I’m very concerned about that.

The governor-elect has continued his [dislike] of public transportation and high-speed rail. And at its pinnacle there will be 4,700 jobs that we won’t get.

We’re about to build a fence around Wisconsin. It’s part of a very sad history of our doing this. This governor-elect has a history as Milwaukee County executive of being totally anathema to public transportation. There has been a sustained and continued assault on public transportation, something that has kept the unemployment rate in Milwaukee high. And it isolates our state economically. There hasn’t been any serious job growth within the city of Milwaukee since the ’70s. The growth has occurred in the suburban ring where there is no public transportation. Vehicle ownership for people living in poverty is, of course, low. A critical element of the job creation strategy has got to be opening up the transportation routes for the urban workers.

Shepherd:
Will we get high-speed rail?

Moore
: No. [Editor’s note: The federal government revoked the funds the following day.] It’s a missed opportunity, but we’ve missed this opportunity before. States are lining up to take this money. Congressmen Ryan and Sensenbrenner and Petri, I guess in order to cover for Scott Walker, have introduced legislation that would allow them to return the money to the U.S. Treasury partly so as to reduce the deficit. The criticism that Scott Walker has earned is that he’s not trying to reduce the deficit; he just wants the money to create more inefficient road projects and further pollute. He wants to stay in the 20th century. He doesn’t want to modernize the transportation system.