Democratic U.S. representative from Ohio, serving his last week as member of Congress.
As President Obama meets with congressional leaders at the White House in a last-ditch effort to reach a budget deal, we speak to outgoing Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich about the so-called fiscal cliff. If an agreement is not reached in time, $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax increases will go into effect on January 1. But the tax increases would not necessarily be permanent — the new Congress could pass legislation to cancel them retroactively after it begins its work next year. "We’ve been going in the wrong direction," Kucinich says. "Why haven’t we been talking about stimulating the economy through the creation of jobs? We’ve seemed to accept a certain amount of unemployment as being necessary for the proper functioning of the economy, so that for corporations it will keep wages low. That is baloney. We’re creating our own economic vice here that is entrapping tens of millions of Americans." [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama is set to meet today with congressional leaders at the White House just three day before a year-end deadline to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. Obama and congressional Republicans remain at an impasse over the Republicans’ refusal to allow tax hikes, even for the wealthiest Americans. If an agreement is not reached in time, $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax increases will go into effect on January 1. But the tax increases would not necessarily be permanent. The new Congress could pass legislation to cancel them retroactively after it begins its work next year.
AMY GOODMAN: While the so-called fiscal cliff has dominated the news headlines, the Senate is also preparing to vote today to continue a controversial domestic surveillance program. In a blow to civil liberties advocates, the Senate rejected three attempts Thursday to add oversight and privacy safeguards to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Joining us from Washington is Democratic Congressmember Dennis Kucinich. This is his last week in Congress after serving eight terms. Since 1997, Kucinich has been a leading progressive voice on Capitol Hill, introduced articles of impeachment against George W. Bush for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He voted against the PATRIOT Act and advocated for ending the war on drugs. Dennis Kucinich ran for president in 2004 and 2008, vowing to create a Department of Peace. He’s also former mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.
Congressmember Kucinich, welcome back to Democracy Now!
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Your term would be over, except you’ve been called back on Sunday, is that right, the House, to deal with the so-called fiscal cliff?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I’ve been in Washington waiting to see if Congress would be called back into session, as it should be. And there really is no reason, no legitimate reason, why the country should be facing serious tax increases for middle class and also spending cuts that will further slow down the economy. You know, Amy, all the—we’ve made all the wrong choices. We should be talking about jobs, having more people involved in paying taxes. We should be talking about rebuilding America’s infrastructure. China has gone ahead with high-speed trains and massive investment in their infrastructure. Instead, we’re back to the same old arguments about taxes and spending without really looking at what we’re spending. We just passed the National Defense Authorization Act the other day, another $560 billion just for one year for the war machine. And so, we’re focused on whether or not we’re going to cut domestic programs now? Are you kidding me?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Congressman, the recent election was seen by many as a mandate from the electorate to finally begin to tax the wealthiest Americans to deal with some of the deficit. Your sense of whether President Obama and your fellow Democrats in the Senate and the House will stay the course on this or will eventually compromise in a way that many progressives would regret?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, first of all, we have a divided government. President Obama’s election sends one message; the election of a Republican House of Representatives sends another. The—actually, you know, working at odds here. You have Republicans who will not raise taxes for anyone who’s making more than a quarter million a year, and they’re looking at entitlement cuts. You have Democrats who say, let’s have any tax cuts that come up for those who make under $250,000 and no cuts to entitlements. You have a force here that isn’t movable right now.
Again, I want to say that we’ve been going in the wrong direction here. Why haven’t we been talking about stimulating the economy through the creation of jobs? We’ve seemed to accept a certain amount of unemployment as being necessary for the proper functioning of the economy, so that for corporations it will keep wages low. That is baloney. We’re creating our own economic vice here that is entrapping tens of millions of Americans, and I just find it unacceptable. It’s like this whole fiscal cliff thing is a creation of people who are unimaginative and locked in by special interests.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Kucinich, the issue of Medicare and Social Security, what it means for President Obama to so-called compromise on these issues, can you talk about this?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, there’s no reason whatsoever to bring Social Security into this discussion. And the fact that the White House has done it on numerous occasions should give everyone pause for concern. If Social Security has a problem down the road—we’ve already talked about this—you raise the caps on the income that’s accessible to Social Security. But you don’t talk about cutting benefits. You don’t talk about cutting cost-of-living increases through this chained CPI, which is just a way to force seniors into a lower standard of living over the long haul. We need the White House to stand up for Social Security and Medicare. And, you know, unfortunately, we’re looking at a situation where, because Republicans want entitlements, you know, as they like to call it, in the mix on any budget discussions, the White House has yielded. Now, that may not happen in these negotiations in the next couple days, but you have to watch what’s happening in the 113th Congress.
So, you know, this is—we really have to decide who we are as a nation. We’re spending more and more money for wars. We’re spending more and more money for interventions abroad. We’re spending more and more money for military buildups. And we seem to be prepared to spend less and less on domestic programs and on job creation. This whole idea of a debt-based economic system is linked to a war machine. And it’s linked to Wall Street’s concerns rather than Main Street’s concerns. We need to shift that. We need to get government—give government back the ability to create jobs. Private sector is not doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Dean Baker, the economist’s comments, we had on a few weeks ago. He said this whole fiscal cliff issue is way overblown, that come January 1st, yes, we’ll be subject to higher tax withholding rates, but not a lot of people are paid on January 1st. "If there’s a deal worked out somewhere in the first, second week of January," he said, "we’ll probably never [see anything] extra deducted from our paycheck, and even if we do, [we’ll] get it back in the second paycheck." What’s your response to that, Congressmember Kucinich?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, Dean Baker is right, as he often is about these things, you know, but let’s be clear about one thing. You know, if the White House understands one thing, it’s behavioral economics. They’ve basically cut their teeth on behavioral economics in coming in and trying to induce people to believe that things are better than they are when they’re not. Well, this whole fiscal cliff discussion, as—while it might have its imaginary dimensions, does have a real effect. You’re already seeing a decline in consumer confidence, in investor confidence, that there is going to be a slowdown in the economy. Now, it is true that we can—that the country can cobble together a deal in the new year, but in the meantime, there will be a lag in which you’ll see an economy that’s already weak further weaken.
But I just want to go back to something, Amy. We have to start creating jobs. This debt-based economic system, where we’re having the—the next discussion is, we’re at $16.4 trillion, and so are we going to go not only over the cliff, but are we going to go into default? Wrong discussion. Why aren’t we creating jobs using the government’s inherent power under Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, so that we spend money to rebuild the infrastructure, put millions of people back to work. You create new taxpayers. You don’t have to worry so much then about unemployment benefits, which are due to expire, that we have to worry about if you’re not creating jobs. It’s the wrong discussion we’re having.
And so, I think that as we look into the new year, we’ve got a couple things going here. There’s a decreasing confidence in government. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans anymore. It’s about the failure of the government to respond to the practical aspirations of people for jobs, for housing, for healthcare, for retirement security, and for the education of their children. And we’re still there. Yet we still are pursuing wars abroad. We still are doing military buildups. And this is the direction America is going in, and it’s the wrong direction.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Congressman, I want to ask you, your colleagues, your Republican colleagues in the House, obviously have a different perspective. Speaking on Fox News, Republican Congressmember Mike Mulvaney of South Carolina blamed the Democratic-led Senate for the impasse in the negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff. This is what he had to say.
REP. MICHAEL MULVANEY: The House has actually extended these tax rates for everybody in the entire country, which is exactly the correct policy, as we see it. We sent it to the Senate; the Senate has simply refused to take it up. The Senate could fix this today, if they wanted to. I understand that while Harry Reid is in the well today in the Senate complaining about Mr. Boehner, he has not scheduled a debate today on the fiscal cliff, which is just absurd. So, if there’s one message to go out there, it’s that the House has actually done its job, and the Senate could fix this today if they wanted to.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mike Mulvaney of South Carolina. Your response, Congressman Kucinich?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, it has to be translated. You know, what the Republicans want to advocate is a continuation of the Bush tax cuts, which, as everyone knows, added a trillion dollars to the deficit by helping to accelerate—and helped to accelerate the wealth of America upwards. We can’t do that anymore, although we’re seeing that some elements of the Bush tax cuts are remaining, you know, depending on the income distribution, for those who are in the middle class. But, you know, how is it we can be talking about tax cuts at the same time we have this massive deficit? You know, we’re getting the American people to believe that we can cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the budget. That’s kind of what they talked about during the Reagan administration and ended up with a huge hidden deficits, beginning to balloon once new administrations came in.
We have to change our economy here. We have to emphasize job creation, and then investors can come back in, and then you can start to see consumer confidence building. But right now we’re limping as a nation. And, you know, our politics are being translated into some kind of Punch and Judy show between Democrats and Republicans. We don’t need that; it’s irrelevant. We’ve got to solve the real problems of people. We’ve got to help keep people in their homes. We have to do everything we can to get not only the unemployment benefits passed, but get the people back to work. Why aren’t we emphasizing that? And, you know, this is why this whole debate about a fiscal cliff, as Dean Baker said, has elements of it that are chimerical.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman, in your prior response, you linked the whole issue of the continuation of the war machine to the battles at home over domestic spending. You—could you talk about your efforts, together with Congressman Ron Paul, to demand an inquiry into the justification for drone attacks?
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, absolutely. You know, this whole idea of drone wars being proliferated across the world, without Congress having anything to say about it, without any accountability whatsoever, is against the Constitution of the United States, and it’s against international law. If any other nation sent a drone over the United States, they would have hell to pay, because we’d see it as an act of war. Yet we’re increasingly committing acts of war against other nations—Yemen most recently—and we are—we’re not seeing any accountability at all. And Congress does have a role to play here, both on the budget side and constitutionally. So we’re just trying to get the administration involved in giving information to Congress so we can see the extent of the exposure that the American people have to this proliferation of war.
And as news articles have written, and Glenn Greenwald wrote about this yesterday, we’re actually strengthening al-Qaeda’s hand with these attacks. We’re making it more difficult to meet the challenge of terrorism by creating more terrorists. I mean, what is this about? We’re increasingly dysfunctional as a nation because of our unwillingness to challenge the military-industrial complex, which Dwight Eisenhower warned about generations ago. And so, we really have to look at America’s role in the world. We have a right to defend ourselves, but we have no right to aggress. And we’re continuing to aggress. And that’s coming at a cost to our domestic priorities here, this idea of guns and butter. We are now thoroughly mired in an economy that’s based on guns. We are not providing for the practical needs of the American people. And this budget and this fiscal cliff does in no way get into that debate.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to ask you about another bill, the FISA bill, but we’re going to go to break and then come back to Democratic Congressmember Dennis Kucinich, who served eight terms in Congress. This is his last week as a member of Congress. This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.