Monday, September 26, 2011

A Report from Congress and the White House

I spent September 22nd and 23rd in D.C., and I got a full dose of a city under attack from the Right and high humidity. On Thursday evening, we had a meeting with Congressional members from California, and I was able to speak to Nancy Pelosi. She stressed how things are so bad that Republicans are trying to make the Democrats come up with budget reductions to cover the costs of disaster relief. Likewise, at the White House, all of the President’s top advisors emphasized how difficult the other side is acting and how hard it is to get anything done.

I asked one of the architects of the President’s jobs bill, what the administration can do for recent college students and graduates who are facing the triple whammy of skyrocketing tuition costs, giant student loans, and poor employment prospects. I also questioned why the jobs bill did not simply propose a government works program that would directly hire millions of people. The President’s economic advisor responded that the jobs bill is the best they can accomplish with the Republicans in control of the House. He also said that he agrees with my assessment concerning the sorry plight of college students, but they wanted to put together a package that was responsible and achievable. I added that since the Republicans will block everything except for the tax cuts, why didn’t the President propose something clear and bold, and then let it get shot down. [We were told by White House officials not to directly quote anything from our meetings]

I posed similar questions to David Plouffe, the President’s main political advisor, and Bill Daley, the President’s Chief of Staff. Both of them stressed that the President is being responsible, and he is proposing things that the Republicans have supported in the past, and so if they reject them now, they are just being cynical. Several of the President’s senior advisors pointed out how the jobs bill will fund community college infrastructure and also help the states so they do not layoff more teachers. In response to one of my questions about the decreased funding for higher education, White House officials emphasized how hard the President and the Democrats in Congress had to fight to protect Pell grants.

I walked away thinking that the administration is underestimating the horrific nature of our employment situation. After all, as I told several top advisors, there are close to 25 million people who are unemployed or underemployed, and we were told that the jobs bill may create 1.5 to 2 million jobs. In one of my more aggressive moments, I asked how can we support the President, if we do not know what Democrats stand for anymore. After all, the President’s recent jobs bill and deficit reduction program rely on the classic right-wing themes of cutting taxes, reducing the deficit, and reforming entitlement programs. The President’s main political advisor got rather testy when I made this claim, and he went on to list everything the President has done. I really think they do not get it, and they refuse to present a clear and consistent set of progressive policies.

Several people in the audience thanked me for my questions and for holding the administration’s feet to the fire. I was later told by people working for the President that my questions were heard, and I should stay in touch. Later, during a meeting with the Department of Labor, I stressed how universities are using the current economic downturn to outsource work, casualize labor, and ignore basic labor laws. I was told that the Republicans are doing everything they can to tie the hands of this administration, and we must continue to highlight the positive things the President has done.

I actually do think that the President has done some very positive things, but we are in a crisis, and we need bold, clear action. While talking to members of Congress and White House Staff, I proposed a government works program that would hire 10 million people and would not rely on tax cuts, subsidies, or corporate hiring. I argued that the administration needs to show that government can work, and the only way we are going to reduce unemployment to the 3-4% range is if the government simply hires people. I suggested that the administration use TARP funds and money from mortgage fraud suits to fund a jobs program without the help of the Congress. I was told that this can’t be done, but they will look into some of my other suggestions.

To discuss how we can push the country in a more progressive direction, I am organizing a meeting in November at UCLA. For more information, you can read my article on an alternative jobs bill and the need to rethink our current political stalemate. Please let me know what you think.


  1. Damn fine thinking on your part, Bob. I hope the administration did hear and will consider your suggestion about a government works program. Hiring direct will change at least as many anti-gubmint minds as hands hired.

  2. I'm very glad that you brought up the futility of playing the right-wing game. (I'm posting as anonymous because I can't figure out the system, but this is your colleague Susan Griffin!)

  3. Bob - many thanks for this report and for speaking up. On the strategy issue, you got at a key issue. This passage seems to sum up a core mistake: "I added that since the Republicans will block everything except for the tax cuts, why didn’t the President propose something clear and bold, and then let it get shot down. . . . [Officials] stressed that the President is being responsible, and he is proposing things that the Republicans have supported in the past, and so if they reject them now, they are just being cynical." Either they actually want the quarter-way measures they are getting, which has become I think the dominant interpretation among progressive Democrats, or they are making the incredibly dumb political calculation that they will get points for being less cynical or hypocritical than the Republicans even as they deliver no goods or services. I don't understand how they could think that, unless the point is to stay in the incredibly lucrative game even if you lose (you still get 1/3 to 1/2 of total contributions for being the lesser of two parties), but that's so humiliating . .. Whatever they're up to, it looks like we're on our own.

  4. Good work, Bob! You've exposed them for what they are: pusillanimous purveyors of old Republican policies. What a damning admission on the part of the advisor! And they're trying to sell this as the President being responsible, when, in fact, it's just one more in a long line of instances of the President being spineless. And brainless: does he think that if he keeps giving Eric Cantor his lunch money, Cantor is going to buy him lunch????

  5. Bob: Thanks for this report and for having the guts to ask hard questions. I like your idea of holding a local "jobs summit."

    Since you evoke FDR and the Great Depression in the Huff Post article, allow me to do same. It's useful to recall that the most sweeping and long-lived elements of the New Deal (not to mention "progressive") came after 1934, which was a year of grassroots insurgency (general strikes in three cities, all sorts of proposals for new social programs for retirees, and Upton Sinclair nearly successful run for the CA governorship). This localized activism propelled a Democratic super-majority into the U.S. Congress which gave us the WPA, the Wagner Act, and Social Security.

    So I guess we'd better get moving on building that grassroots pressure for change.

  6. Bob - way to go. Thanks for all the hard work you do for us. It's about time that we speak plainly about what is happening in higher education and to the country as a whole.

    I truly wish we could jettison the crippling party labels and associated blame-game in favor of addressing issues squarely. We'll never solve anything unless we do that.

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