Sunday, September 19, 2010

Deja Vu all over again.

Just before the 2004 elections I interviewed Congressman George Miller (D-California, 7th Congressional District). Depressingly, the conversation we had then is as timely and relevant today as it was then.

Congressman George Miller: All right, all right. The battle never ends (sighs).
Dodsworth: No it doesn't. That's probably a great way to start. The battle never ends. Both on a state level and a national level our country is facing many crisises. What keeps you up at night? What makes it hard to sleep?
Congressman Miller: What keeps me up at night? Oh, hell. There's just… Nothing.

Dodsworth: Nothing?
Congressman Miller: What generally keeps me up at night is the anticipation of what has to be done. You know, just the volume of work and things that have to be accomplished. All of which are part of those things, whether it's trying to review and figure out what the hell is actually going on in Iraq. Or what's happening in my jurisdictions, and, and what's happening with people's unemployment benefits. Are they going to be cut off? Are they going to be given an extension or not. How do we re-think our manufacturing base. How do we re-think federal investments in advanced research and development …to obesity in school children to… you know.

I mean one of the good things about this job is that there's always something. (He chuckles ruefully.) You know this is not a job where today is like yesterday or tomorrow will be like today. But it weighs on you. It weighs on you. And right now, for a long time, we've seen a fairly sluggish economy, a lot of people unemployed.
You see young kids losing their life in Iraq. There's a lot of… things that… that you know that… Things that could have maybe been done differently that would have protected some of those kids. But the rush to war didn't allow that kind of planning because we were so driven to get in and get Saddam Hussein, without thinking. So we now see more and more… even the Pentagon reports… saying that a lot of these kid's injuries and fatalities could have been avoid if they'd have been properly equipped.
So you think… Jesus… How did that happen? So, it's a mixed bag. It's a very mixed bag. There's not a problem that beats down on you in this business.

I take this job very seriously. I think of this as … I've been given one of the great privileges in our country — to participate. But there's a constant sense of responsibility, if you're going to do this job right. So I'm a good sleeper (laughs) but I also keep a note pad by my bed because I do wake up and think, 'oh, geeze! (he laughs comfortably). So it's, it's also an energy source because you know that you've been given the chance to contribute. You've been given the chance to participate in the governing of the country and so… there are things you've just got to do because they've got to get done.

Dodsworth: The GAO announced, a couple of days ago, that between 1996 and 2000, 61 percent of all major American corporations paid no income taxes.
Congressman Miller: (excited) I didn't see that story but we know that we know that the percentage of total taxes that corporations are paying rapidly decreasing.

Dodsworth: In 1960, twenty percent of all taxes paid, were paid by corporations. Today I think it's around four percent.
Congressman Miller: Um-huh. I don't know if that's a good measure. I don't know if that was the right figure in 1960, or today.

But I think you are getting to a situation where more and more of the responsibility for paying for whatever level of government we have is falling simply on wage earners. Because of the substantial reductions in taxation on dividends, on capital gains, on corporate taxation, a greater and greater percentage is falling on the person who is getting a paycheck week or every two weeks or every month. But they're getting a paycheck and withholding. They're the wage earner.

But those people who have investment income, who have passive income are paying a smaller and smaller percentage.

So here you have this big run up, $200 billion for this war on terrorism, for this war on Iraq, but who's paying for it?

At the beginning of this process, before 9-11, before the war, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, before "Homeland Security," we gave a massive tax cut, essentially to the wealthiest people in this country. Now we have this huge challenge to America, but only the middle-class are paying the bills. There's something wrong with that.
So those figures that you site, I think raise very serious questions about equity, fairness and the people's confidence in our tax code.

You know we have self-compliance. April 15th we mail in our taxes, and everybody does that and there's a sense that… but if you start to lose confidence in that tax system you'll end up like other countries where people say, 'I'm not doing to do this. This is unfair and I'm not going to participate.'
Fairness is something we have to be very, very careful about, in the tax code. And I think that we've gone to the point now, with the recent tax cuts, where fairness is not exactly… (laughter)… how you'd describe the tax code today.

Dodsworth: How would you describe it?
Congressman Miller: Unfair. Unfair and it's one tax code for the wealthiest people in the country and another tax code for middle income and lower income people.

Dodsworth: There seem to be enormous benefits accruing to the wealthiest people and the benefits are being cut at the lowest levels, and at the middle class.
This President came into office with program called, "Leave No Child Behind," and our state governor came into office with his education program, which he promised to stand behind. Yet our governor has cut the guaranteed funds to education, and from what I see, education doesn't seem to be getting funded on a national level, either.

Congressman Miller: Well, the President broke his promise. I was one of the authors of "Leave No Child Behind" and I think it's a very important piece of legislation but it hinges upon states and local school districts having sufficient money to bring about the reforms that are called for in the act, in terms of high standards, of assessments, of a qualified teacher in every classroom. We had long discussions with the President about the real cost of those reforms. We told him the kind of money we thought needed to be spent to bring that about. And he assured us that if we were able to pass those reforms, which I think everybody considered the most significant reforms in 35 years, in the federal role in education, that he would provide the resources. It's a five year bill, he provided the resources for one year and he hasn't provided the resources in the last couple of years. And that's had a serious impact in terms of the opportunities for real reform and for children doing better in their schools.

Dodsworth: Did he lie?
Congressman Miller: Well, when somebody breaks their promise to you, that's what I'd say.

Dodsworth: I'm 53, in my life I've near seen such adversity between the two parties that run this country. Republicans and Democrats. Do you concur with that?
Congressman Miller: Well, I think that most of the evidence suggests the country is fairly polarized. You had a presidential election that was 50-50. The popular vote went to Al Gore, the Supreme Court went for George Bush.

Dodsworth: The U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court did not. And it was on a straight party line vote [for The U.S. Supreme Court].
Congressman Miller: Yes. Most of the data you see today suggests that it's 50-50. Kerry and Bush are essentially tied. And there's a lot of reasons for that. It's clear that the President is a very, very fundamental, bedrock conservative, who really doesn't believe in most governmental services, from protecting the environment to protecting social security or Medicare. He's made it very clear. But there's a like number of people in the country that strongly believe there's a role for government in promoting well-being within our society. That's the struggle you see being played out in the campaign and in the Congress. The President wants to load up the courts with right-wing ideologue judges. And there's a lot of us who feel there should be some balance on the court. And so you have a serious split in the United States Senate. You have a serious split in the House on education, on the environment, on the war in Iraq. On a whole range of issues.

Dodsworth: What can be done? What is that like to work with?
Congressman Miller: Well, that's the nature of democracy. In another system of government I guess you'd just come in and impose your views but that's the struggle of… that's what democracy is about.
This November, either the people will be concerned enough to go out an vote or they won't. We really don't get much voter participation in this country compared to so many other countries. Whether that's because people feel it doesn't make a difference or people feel the country is basically going OK or not remains to be seen but… in democracy you don't get to just end the debate. The debate continues so the struggle continues.

This is now… this polarization has been happening over the last several years. It's very hard to try to… you know, I passed one of the few bi-partisan bills, or two of the biggest bi-partisan bills. One in the area of environmental protection, one in the area of education. But there hasn't been much of that in the Congress.

It's rare. It's harder and harder. Tom Delay really doesn't want… the Republican leader in the House really doesn't want to work with Democrats. He wants to do it his way and he waits until he can get enough Republican votes, and then (he) passes it. And he doesn't want debate. He doesn't allow debate. He doesn't allow amendments. He doesn't allow public hearings on those efforts. And so there really is a desire… he said he really is looking for one-party government! He'd like to crush the Democrats so he could just do it his way with even less public input or debate or what have you. But that's really not the tradition or history of our country.

It's supposed to be a public process … how you make the laws and govern this country. You're supposed to have the debates and protect the rights of the minority in the government so they can put forth a view that may be different than the majority. But then you vote and that's fine. You don't get to win every vote or lose every vote. Whatever. But that's not what's happening here. They're really trying to take over the government, for one party, from the White House to the Senate to the Congress.

It's not me who is saying this. People who are Congressional scholars or Presidential scholars are looking at what's going on here and it's pretty clear. But again, that's why we'll have an election in November. That's why you see probably the highest level of energy turning out for the Democratic party, and people opposed to George Bush, that I've seen in decades. That's the process. That's the process.


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