Exclusive interview with Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) on lame duck cuts: "There will be colossal war...if they try to do that." by @DavidOAtkins

Exclusive interview with Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) on lame duck cuts: "There will be colossal war...if they try to do that."

by David Atkins

My brother Dante and I got a chance to conduct a brief interview with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island during his visit to the independent media building at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Wednesday. The three subjects covered were filibuster reform, tax cuts for the wealthy, and potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare during the lame duck session. First up, Social Security:

David Atkins: At Hullabaloo, we've been covering a lot the of Simpson-Bowles issue and what's going on with Social Security. Clinton gave a speech last night and the only part that didn't resonate with the audience was that whole discussion of cuts to Medicare and Social Security. There's a lot of fear out there--obviously, a lot of people are paying attention to the election, but a lot of us are looking ahead of the election. Assuming Obama wins, which is a big assumption, but even if he doesn't, what happens during the lame duck session? There's a lot of fear that that would be used to sort of ram through unnecessary cuts to Social Security on the Simpson-Bowles template, and I was wondering what your plans were, and are we going to fight back on this? What is going to happen?

Senator Whitehouse: I think that as a very general expression of a bipartisan and compromising way to deal with the debt and deficit problem that we have in this country, the Simpson-Bowles outline represents a pretty fair starting point. It has a fatal flaw in my estimation which that it rolls Social Security into the equation. Social Security has a $2 trillion surplus. It contributes virtually not at all to our national debt and deficit. It has long been kind of a bogeyman to the Republican Party that we have Social Security. They want to get rid of it, they want to privatize it, they never liked it. We cannot use this debt and deficit discussion as an excuse or vehicle to go after Social Security which is a separate discussion. It's sound until 2027, I think, at this point. It has got a huge surplus, and we need to make sure there is airspace between our debt and deficit discussion and Social Security. That's one of the reasons I helped found the Defending Social Security Caucus, and one of the things I think has happened in the Senate, not invisibly perhaps as it might have, but visibly to those of us who are there, setting Simpson-Bowles aside, the discussion about using Social Security to solve the deficit, has really gone away. And I think in part it's because I believe we're up to thirty Senators who have signed on and said, "No way. No way. Not going to happen." And we make a blocking minority that makes that very difficult for the White House. They've backed off, everybody has backed off. And I think that's an important line. We have a success so far. But when you look at $2 trillion that Wall Street would love to get its hands on, and privatizing Social Security that Wall Street would love to do, this is a fight that's not going to go away. We're in a good position on it now, we should not give in, and we need to be alert really for the rest of our lives to protect against those efforts to encroach on it.

David Atkins: So you would expect that that would probably not be successful if they try to roll that through during the lame duck session?

Senator Whitehouse: They would have a colossal war with the vast majority of the Democratic caucus.

David Atkins: Thank you.
Those are very strong words. It would appear that Social Security remains the third rail of American politics, and that very significant efforts are being made to prevent a backslide of toward any sort of Catfood Commission attempts to make cuts to those earned benefits. One doesn't use the phrase "colossal war" lightly.

Before moving on to questions about Medicare, Dante asked about filibuster reform:

Dante Atkins: What are your thoughts on filibuster reform in the upcoming session? Obviously we're going to have a very very tight Senate, maybe 51-49, maybe 50-50 with a couple of independents. How do you expect that to go regarding potential rules changes in the upcoming term?

Senator Whitehouse: I support filibuster reform. I'd be cautious about turning us into another House of Representatives and removing the filibuster entirely. But what has happened is that the filibuster has morphed from the old Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster, where you stand out on the floor, and your hair goes awry, you quote from the Bible, you quote from the Constitution, the wily old codger press guy is up in the gallery saying, "Down on the Senate floor, great expression of American democracy, one Senator alone having their say." There was some excitement to it. Now the signal of a filibuster is the droning quorum call with nothing going on on the floor. And Republicans have moved from filibustering things that they hate and want to stop, to filibustering anything and everything, because each filibuster that they threaten requires the Majority Leader to knock out 30 hours of floor time for a cloture vote, and like bricks, you stack up those 30 hour bricks, and pretty soon you've taken away all the free time of the Senate to do any work. You do that 200 times as they did recently, 6,000 hours of Senate time gone, that's some pretty serious blockading. So that needs to be taken away, and I think you can do it by forcing--first of all limiting the filibuster to, if you're going to filibuster the motion to proceed to the bill, you shouldn't have a second right to filibuster again on the bill itself. So I think we can restrict that. But the key thing is that whoever is filibustering, the minority party is filibustering, they should have to control the floor. They should have to be out there making their case. If I'm going to have to filibuster to defend Social Security, if I'm going to have to filibuster on climate change, I don't mind getting out there on the Senate floor and making that case, and doing it the way it should be done. These filibusters in hiding, in which they don't come out on the floor, they don't defend anything, they just block for obstruction's sake, that is not a productive parliamentary vehicle. It's simply a timewaster and makes life difficult. They should change it.

David Atkins: Do you think that you would support that reform even if Democrats find themselves in the minority?

Senator Whitehouse: Yes, I think we should. Because I think the institution of the Senate has been degraded by this new Republican filibuster strategy. I think we should reject it. And what it will require us to do if we need the filibuster, is we need to get ourselves out onto the floor. We need to stand on our desks, we need to take the time, we need to make the speeches, and think we're going to. And I think they should do that. They should be willing to when it's their turn. I'm comfortable with that, whichever way the Senate control falls.

The idea of forcing the opposition to stand on the Senate floor with an old-school filibuster has been something of a progressive consensus for some time now, so it's good to see the Senator embrace it as well even if Democrats are in the minority. But what was shocking to me was the 30 hours needed for every cloture vote. I suppose it makes sense from a certain context, but explains why nothing can get done legislatively. It's not just the gridlock. It's also the basic time constraints. The Senate is messed up beyond belief.

As far as the tax cuts for the wealthy go, the answer from the Senator was quite interesting:

Dante Atkins: If the Senate remains Democratic, do you expect Senate Democrats to hold the line on refusing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the upper income earners?

Senator Whitehouse: I very much hope that we do, and I expect that we will. I think there is a relationship between how and whether we do that, and how and whether the crisis does that. If the President draws a strong line, I think he'll have the backing of enough Democratic Senators that he won't be able to have a veto overridden. That puts him in a very strong negotiating position. And I think that he should take advantage of that, and call and ask for our support. I think if it becomes questionable whether or not the President will stick to his guns, then there are a considerable number of my colleagues, including those who might be up in 2014, who may have to take a more practical and defensive position so they're not out on this, and then undercut by a White House move later on. So I think that the support is there, but I would just have as my caveat that it has to be really clear from the White House that they're there with us, and they're not going to walk back and leave a lot of Senators exposed on a position they're not willing to hold themselves.
This is incredibly important, and one of the most overlooked problems with the Administration's near obsession with "compromise" and being the "adult in the room." Fair or not, the President will always be labeled by the opposition as its most partisan heavyweight. Think how often Democrats would excoriate Republicans in Congress who were to right of even President Bush on issues ranging from immigration to AIDS policy. No matter how far to the middle Obama hews, the Republicans will always accuse him of being a Communist.

That in turn means whenever the Administration caves and waffles, members of Congress who stood alongside the President prior to the compromised retreat are automatically marginalized as "even more liberal than Obama." Uninformed voters in midterm elections will naturally assume that they're extremists when the attack ads start rolling in. It may be that tax cuts for the wealthy are so unpopular at this point that a Senator threatened in 2014 could stand on their own two feet on it regardless of the President's position, but it certainly makes it much harder.

Finally, on Medicare and the lame duck session again:

David Atkins: Got it. One last thing. Thrilled about your answer on Social Security and thank you for all your activism on that. In terms of the other major issue which is, of course, Medicare, I guess a lot of plans have come out and I'm surprised there hasn't been more of a push for raising the caps as opposed to making earned benefit cuts. What is going on there, and what do you expect to see happen during the lame duck session?

Senator Whitehouse: Well, either in the lame duck session or assuming we do a continuing resolution in March when we have the sort of big budget discussion, I think those are issues that are going to be on the table. I'd love to raise the cap on Social Security, so that someone who is making $100 million isn't paying the same amount into Social Security as someone making $100,000. That just doesn't make to me any logical sense. If Social Security could use the support in way out years, why not get started now when it's an easier foundation to build?

I think the Medicare discussion is one that we need to grab a hold of and win. And we need to do two things: one is to point out that there's a difference between savings in the Medicare system that come from making a better healthcare system for people, and cutting people's benefits and giving them less access to the healthcare system. And there's a clear distinction between those two strategies, and the Republicans have worked very hard to blur those two, and to say that the $716 billion in savings in the Affordable Healthcare Act is actually a cut. It's not. Unless you're a big insurance company or a provider. Then maybe it's a cut to you, but it's a signal to get more efficient and deliver the care better. And to kind of get that morphed into the plan for the Republicans to take Medicare and get it turned into a voucher program is something we've got to be really, really clear on. And the last point I would make, even though this gets a little bit techy and geeky, is that there really is a huge savings potential not in Medicare per se but in our healthcare system from better healthcare delivery, more primary care, more prevention, less administrative overhead, electronic health records, paying doctors for results and keeping patients healthy rather than procedures and treating them when they're sick, that whole arena of activity is estimated to saving between $700 billion a year and $1 trillion a year in American healthcare, and that needs to be a Democratic issue. That is how you bring down the cost of Medicare and veterans' care, and TriCare, and Blue Cross and United and all of it, in a way that people in the country can see difference in their lives in better care that costs less because you're not getting sick, you're not taking drugs that react badly with each other because nobody kept track that they do react badly with each other and you prescribe both of them. I mean, that's an arena we need to put light into and we need to own. It's good policy, it's innovation, it's high tech, it's all the things that we're for.

David and Dante Atkins: Thank you.
There wasn't time to press for a follow-up on this issue or on Medicaid, but this answer was something of a dodge. Almost all the admirable provisions for healthcare efficiency that the Senator mentioned are already in the Affordable Care Act. Nor did he seem confident that cuts to Medicare would be avoided, which is almost crazy given the easy political distinction to be made with Paul Ryan and his plan for voucherizing Medicare. While the transcript doesn't reflect it, his tone seemed to indicate that he would want to avoid cuts, but that he wasn't so sure others would do the same.

Healthcare advocates know that the only way to truly keep Medicare solvent in the long run is to achieve a universal single-payer system, so that Medicare isn't constantly covering only the sickest portion of a graying population. But even without that, Medicare is solvent well beyond the next decade--and even if nothing were done at all, it's "insolvency" wouldn't collapse the program, but simply reduce benefits. So why reduce them in advance? It makes no sense except to give into conservative demands.

Ultimately, the conversation with Senator Whitehouse gave me confidence that he and other Democratic Senators would fight and win the battle over Social Security regardless of the President's wishes, and that real filibuster reform might well be in the works. But the ground is much shakier on Medicare, Medicaid and repeal of the tax cuts for the wealthy.

On Medicare and Medicaid it will take direct lobbying of Congress to prevent a Simpson-Bowles fiasco, along with an assist from intransigent Tea Partiers. On tax cuts, it seems that the most effective lobbying effort by progressive grassroots groups would be with the President to keep in him firm, so that Congress can stay firm as well.