Congressman Engel (D-NY) has been a member of the U.S House of Representatives for 22 years. He serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, including the Subcommittee on Health, and on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
He continues to be a committed champion of real health care reform. The day after the President's State of the Union address, I spoke with him and found him to still be inspired by the speech.
Kathleen Wells: Give us your thoughts about President Obama's State of the Union address?
Congressman Engel: I thought it was a great speech. I thought it was one of the best I've heard a President deliver. It was lengthy, comprehensive - touched on many different bases. I think he stood his ground, spoke from his heart, and he spoke the truth.
I really enjoyed listening to him. I think that he laid out, very clearly, that he inherited a fiscal mess when he came into office. The country was mired in a deep recession and slipping down a slippery path to a depression. Action that he engineered -- and the Congress went along with -- to prevent the country from slipping into a depression will take more than a year to get us out of the terrible situation we were in. And so we are still going to have to work, but we are on the right path.
And he laid the blame clearly where it was -- with the previous Bush administration. There were, as he called it, two unpaid-for wars.
When Bill Clinton left office, we had the largest surpluses in American history. And when Bush left eight years later, we have the largest deficits in American history.
This is what Obama inherited when he became President, and I think it was important to set the record straight.
I think that he talked about his priorities, which, of course, right now are jobs, the economy and unemployment. He made it clear to the American people that he heard the voters -- he hears the middle class with its frustration -- and he is acting accordingly. At the same time, though, he is not going to abandon his goal on health care, which is important, and education and all the other things that he campaigned on.
So, all in all, I thought it was a masterful speech; I thought he stood his ground; I thought he struck just the right tone.
He came across as a forceful leader, who is willing to compromise, willing to work with everyone, but is basically not going to step down from the things in which he believes and the issues that got him elected in the first place.
Kathleen Wells: The President mentioned that one in 10 Americans can't find work. I know that the House has passed a jobs bill. What are your thoughts about the Senate actually passing a jobs bill?
Congressman Engel: I think the President hit the nail on the head when he said that if we are now going to say that every important piece of legislation that comes out of the Senate needs to get 60 votes, it is problematic.
The Republicans have an obligation to explain to the American people why they essentially have become the party of no by saying no to everything and blocking every piece of legislation.
He cited two or three instances where the House has passed bills -- one of them was the jobs bill -- and where the Senate has not acted. He called upon the Senate to follow the House. And I think that was the right thing.
The Republican leadership likes to point a finger and say nothing is getting done. Well, it's not getting done because they've been obstructionists, and to a large degree they've succeeded, because as long as you need 60 votes to get anything through the Senate, they can block it.
Kathleen Wells: One of the overarching messages I got from the President's speech was when he said that he wouldn't quit. The President stated that Americans are asking why Washington is unable to solve any problems. Given this speech, do you anticipate anything changing with your colleagues on the other side of the aisle?
Congressman Engel: They have been emboldened, in my estimation, by their win in Massachusetts. They are going to attempt to make it tough for the President to get any of his initiatives through the Senate, for sure.
Kathleen Wells: So you think they are going to continue?
Congressman Engel: I think they will continue. Perhaps there are a handful of Republican moderates in the Senate -- less than a handful, but a few -- but the White House is going to have to bypass the leadership and talk to them directly.
And I think that [with] people like perhaps Olympia Snowe some agreement can be reached -- and a handful of others. The Republicans have pretty much decided that they want to block everything that Obama has wanted to get through.
Now, health care is another issue because the Senate has already passed their version of the health care bill with 60 votes. And we in the House, by and large, don't like their version. There has been some talk about having a new bill emanate in the House (which all financial bills have to start in the House) and pass the bill in the House, modifying/changing the Senate bill and having the Senate pass that House bill by a process called reconciliation, where you only need 51 or a majority to pass it.
If they were to do that, then ostensibly the House could then potentially pass the Senate bill with those changes. That is one thing that is being considered. It has not yet been decided whether that will be the vehicle. However, the President did say that he is not backing off on health care, and he should not back off on health care. There have been so many lies and distortions and mistruths about the health care bill, and what it really does, by the Republicans that people are confused. The average person is scared and doesn't know what he/she is really buying.
Kathleen Wells: What is the likelihood that using the process of reconciliation to pass the health care bill will actually happen?
Congressman Engel: I think the likelihood is quite good.
The vast majority of people on the Democratic side feel that health care needs to be passed and we can't delay. We can't push it back a year or six months. We need to pass it now.
What's probably changed, though, is that we need to also be sensitive to the fact that people out there are hurting, and if it appeared that we were doing health care to the detriment [of] everything else, then I think that was an unfortunate image that we may have projected. We need to make it clear that the economy, jobs, unemployment - those issues are our number one priority. And that health care comes along, but the pain that people are feeling out there -- middle America, middle class -- is really our first priority.
We can chew gum and walk at the same time - we can do both. Not do it either/ or - putting one on hold until we finish the other. We can do both, and we should do both.
Kathleen Wells: Do you think that's what the voters in Massachusetts were indicating with the victory of Scott Brown?
Congressman Engel: It is like any other election: there are multiple factors; it's not just one thing. But clearly that was part of it. I think that voters were confused and worried about health care reform, which is ironic because in Massachusetts they already have it and it wouldn't really have affected them. But I think that people just felt -- being aided and abetted with fire fanned by the Republican's misinformation... -- worried about what this would do with their future in terms of health care.
It was people who worried about the health care bill; it was people who were frustrated with the state of the economy and feeling that Washington wasn't listening to them. I think it was the fact that the Democrats had a terrible candidate, who was tone deaf until the very end and said all the wrong things and antagonized the people. I think it was the perfect storm; it all came together.
However, we are kidding ourselves if we dismiss the fact that in very blue Massachusetts, in Ted Kennedy's old seat, we now have a Republican sitting there. It's just unthinkable. And to think that was the 60th vote for health care reform and that was Ted Kennedy's whole life's work! He must be rolling in his grave. It's just unbelievable that Massachusetts would vote that way, but instead of talking about how terrible it was, we've got to learn from it.
The President is attempting to do that.
Kathleen Wells: The President stated that he is proposing specific steps to address the one trillion-dollar costs that his administration has added to the deficit. Give us your thoughts on the spending freeze that will start in 2012?
Congressman Engel: I have mixed feelings about it to tell you the truth. We have got to get our fiscal house in order. But we have been dealt such a bad deal from the previous administrations (and I've already mentioned what the President said -- that there were two unpaid-for wars that were just going on and on - Iraq and Afghanistan - never paid for).
Everything we spent, in each of those wars, is adding to our deficit. We had tax cuts for the wealthy -- that's less revenue coming in -- so that contributed to the deficit. There was Medicare Part D, which was put in -- also an unfunded entitlement program - that certainly contributed to the deficit.
There were a whole bunch of spending priorities that were out of whack that the Republicans, who tried to portray themselves as people who were fiscally responsible, showed that they were anything but.
We really have to rein in spending and also do what we can to try and raise revenue. I know no one wants to talk about that.
The truth is we are not going to move towards a balanced budget by just raising taxes, and we are not going to move to a balanced budget by just cutting spending. There probably is going to have to be a combination of the two.
Cutting spending, of course, has to come first. Tax raising should not in any way, shape, or form be done to the middle class or working people. I believe those who are doing well in the society should pay a little more of their fair share. That's what the Democrats tried to do in the health care House bill, where we put a surtax on families making a million dollars or more a year to help pay for that bill.
We have to be careful not to raise taxes on the middle class - the ones bearing the burden.
When the President talks about a freeze on discretionary spending -- it's really a small portion -- it exempts military spending, it exempts Veteran spending - there are other things too - Medicare and Medicaid and health spending.
Looking at [the President's proposal], it freezes a small -- not insignificant, but somewhat small -- portion of the budget. And there are many programs in that portion of the budget that people like myself think are important. What we are doing, in essence, is isolating those projects, and we are saying we are going to freeze those but everything else is exempt. And I'm not so sure that that is fair and equitable.
On the other hand, we've got to start somewhere, and the President said it right and is making a good attempt to show fiscal restraint.
The Republicans still talk about cutting taxes for the rich, and I just don't understand how -- if we are in a terrible deficit now -- how cutting taxes for wealthy people, which means less revenue coming into the Federal government, helps you with the budget deficit.
I know they will say that will help to grow the economy and if the economy grows, then we can grow ourselves out of it.
Well, I think the President put it right when he said that these are the same failed ideas of the past eight years. They failed, and we wound up with almost a depression and red ink as far as the eye can see.
The Republicans are saying this is the solution to get out of this mess. Well, this was the solution that got us in the mess, so it's hardly the answer to cleaning up the mess.
The President said it last night, and he is absolutely right.
Kathleen Wells: Compare and contrast the Bush administration with the Obama administration.
Congressman Engel: As I said before, the Bush administration talked a good game about fiscal conservatism and minding the store, and their actions were the exact opposite. They spent more money than they took in; they never attempted to balance the budget or to fund what they were doing. They rushed us into two wars, without having the mechanism to pay for them, which meant that we were further in the hole in terms of balancing our budget. They put up Medicare Part D, which had some good aspects, but again, it wasn't paid for and therefore further eroded the balancing of the budget.
They gave tax cuts for the wealthy and, as I said before, [had] less money coming in, so we went deeper into debt.
It was that kind of nonsense, while talking about fiscal conservatism and fiscal restraint, yet they didn't practice what they preached. They ran this country into the ground. They ran the economy of this country into the ground.
Now we have Obama coming in and having to pick up the pieces. As he said, if he had come in at a normal time, then one of his priorities would have been decreasing the deficit. But he didn't come in at a normal time; he came in at a time when the country was going into depression and the economy was sputtering terribly. In order to fix the economy, he had to do innovative programs, which meant borrowing more money, which means going deeper into debt. But this wasn't of his choosing; this was what all the economists were saying: you need a jolt in the arm to get the economy moving again. He had to borrow and do stimulus packages and talk bailouts for the banks - which, by the way, the first one was done under Bush. You listen to the Republicans now, they make it sound as if it was an Obama program, but this is what Bush did/started.
The difference is that this President wants to start cutting back and moving towards balancing our budget. But he couldn't do it initially because [what] we had as the first priority was to get us out of the economic mess that we found [ourselves] in [because of] the policies of the Bush administration.
Kathleen Wells: I noticed that you spoke with the President after his speech. What did you say? And what was his response?
Congressman Engel: I told him that I thought it was the best State of the Union speech that I heard a President give in my 22 years in Congress, and he said to me: "Thank you, Elliott. I really appreciate that. That means a lot to me that you said that. Thank you."