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CNN "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" - Transcript

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CROWLEY: Most of the attention in this year's midterms has been on the new incoming lawmakers, most of them Republicans, who will shape policy over the next two years and maybe beyond.

CROWLEY: But we are also intrigued by the outgoing lawmakers, the ones voluntarily walking away. This year, 12 senators and 26 congressmen decided not to run for re-election. Two of them join me here, Wisconsin Congressman David Obey and Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

OBEY: Thank you.

CROWLEY: I want to talk a couple of issues with you here. Because it's very rare that you get politicians on that you know they can -- they are free to speak. So feel free to chime in on these -- on these issues, because you're short-timers, as we say.

The tax cuts: you all have a month and a half, not quite. What's going to happen?

OBEY: I don't know what's going to happen. I know what I think should happen. We have had the greatest surge upward of wealth on the income scale in the history of the universe. You've had a huge amount of money transferred from the middle class to the top dogs. You've had the biggest rip-offs of the middle class by the elite that I think I've ever seen.

And under those circumstances, I don't think we ought to be spending $750 billion in order to give people who make over 250,000 bucks another tax cut.

CROWLEY: Although it will be keeping their tax cut, but nonetheless, when you look at the current state of play, what do you think is going to happen?

DORGAN: Well, those tax cuts were put in place -- I didn't vote for them, but they were put in place in order to return 10 years of surplus that was expected but never -- never materialized. There were no surpluses, only deficits.

And my own view is that we should not have any permanent extensions. I would extend up to $250,000 for two years, only those folks, and then at two years, take a look at it and see what does the economy need now?

More important than the question of who gets tax cuts during wartime is what do we do to fix this federal budget deficit and put the country back in shape so that we have a better future? CROWLEY: But given the state of play -- I mean, I know you both would like to keep the tax cuts in place for the middle class, which is defined as $250,000 and under. The Republicans are pushing hard for everyone to keep their tax cuts in place, at least temporarily. They'd like them permanent.

What -- you -- you have sat in the Senate and you have sat in the House for a very long time. I just know you can look at this and know what's coming.

OBEY: But -- but the fact is, people over $250,000 in income would still get a tax cut. They would just be capped so the size of their tax cut stops after you -- after they get to $250,000 income.

CROWLEY: Right. DORGAN: What's likely to happen is there will be an extension of the tax cuts for everybody for a period of time. I don't know what that might be. But that's the wrong remedy for the country. I mean, to give someone who earns $1 million a year a $104,000 a year tax cut at a time when we have a $13 trillion debt, $1.3 trillion annual deficit and people at war, that's absurd. That makes no sense.

CROWLEY: Let me -- let me turn you to the debt commission. We have a brand new debt commission -- you've seen a couple of them in your time, I think -- that are saying, listen, we've got to look at the three things that cost us the most, the Defense Department, federally funded health care of Medicare, Medicaid, that CHIPS program, as well as Social Security. This is another throw-away report?

DORGAN: Well, I hope not. I mean, this...

CROWLEY: But what do you think?

DORGAN: I don't even know whether it will get out of the commission. It needs 14 of 18 votes to come out to the Congress, but this is serious stuff. I mean, we -- we are on an unsustainable path for the long-term, and we have to find a way to address it.

And that deals with spending. It deals with additional revenue and a whole series of things. But my hope is that the serious work that's done by this commission and others will result in this country finally finding its footing and putting itself on track for a better future. But at the moment, if we don't do that, we're in -- we're in long-term serious trouble.

CROWLEY: What do you make of the earmark movement? That is, no longer will congressmen or senators be able to put into legislation things that are earmarked specifically for a library or a bridge or whatever -- whatever it is. Republicans say, let's just get rid of that.

OBEY: Well, let me -- I find it interesting that the most conservative members of the Congress are those who want to have an absolute transfer of power to the executive branch of government. Having said that, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I don't care what happens to earmarks. I'll play that flat or round. You can keep them or -- or dump them.

The fact is, they are inconsequential in comparison to the other problems we face, at less than half a percent of the budget. And we have made substantial reforms in the way they are handled. You can no longer ask for an earmark anonymously under the table. You have to take full, public credit for it. The committee has to have time to review it, but if the Congress is hell-bent on turning over that power to the president, they'll have -- they'll have to live with it.

CROWLEY: And you agree with the same thing, right, that giving this up, sort of, cedes power to the president?

DORGAN: It's a complete charade. You can get rid of every single earmark. It's not going to change one cent in federal spending. So it's just -- it's a charade trying to direct attention over here, when the big issue is an unsustainable fiscal policy, put in place largely by the 2001 tax cuts. Most of that benefit went to the wealthiest Americans, and here is where we are.

But, you know, it is -- it is not honest to take a look at earmarks and say this is part of the fiscal policy. The problem -- it is not. It just isn't. There are plenty of problems that we have to confront, but that is not it.

And let me just mention as well, there's no preordained destiny for this country to always do well, to grow and to succeed. This country needs, it seems, some really good decisions these days on tough issues. And trying to direct attention to things that don't matter is not going to be helpful to this country.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you both to stick with me. We're going to talk about your -- your swan songs to Congress. We'll be back in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CROWLEY: We are back with Democratic Congressman David Obey and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan.

I want to take a quick trip down memory lane and have you listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ALAN GRAYSON, D-FLA.: Die quickly. That's right, the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ANTHONY WEINER, D-N.Y.: It's Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans rather than doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes. It is a shame, a shame!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN A. BOEHNER, R-OHIO, HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Hell, no, you can't! Have you read the bill? Have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager's amendment? Hell, no, you haven't!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Going to miss it?

OBEY: Not that.

(LAUGHTER) CROWLEY: This is -- that's pretty remarkable. I mean, has it -- listen, you've been in Congress since Richard Nixon. Is it truly worse now than at any other time you can remember, in terms of the two parties?

OBEY: I don't think so, because when I first became politically conscious, it was the era of Joe McCarthy, and nothing was as bad as the spate of McCarthyism that this country went through.

CROWLEY: I ask because you seem so...

OBEY: Nonetheless, it's...

CROWLEY: ... discouraged about it in some of the things you've said.

OBEY: Well, I am discouraged about it because I think that money is rapidly taking over politics. When I got elected the first time in 1969, I spent $45,000. My opponent spent $65,000, and I won.

Today you've got House seats that cost $4 million. That means instead of members being able to spend time learning these issues, learning to know about each other, they spend their time dialing for dollars. That's not a constructive change. And the Supreme Court has made it abominably worse.

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, Senator, sort of along the same lines. This is -- I want to play you something that Congressman Obey said during his retirement press conference, and have you take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBEY: All I do know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate...

(LAUGHTER)

OBEY: ... to confused and angry and frustrated constituents.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: Senator, I think he's talking about you.

(LAUGHTER)

DORGAN: Yes, well, Congressman...

CROWLEY: Are you...

DORGAN: Congressman Obey has always been one of the more colorful members of Congress, actually.

No, listen, we heard him loud and clear over on the Senate side. It's just that we didn't have enough votes to get things done. Because in the Senate, as Congressman Obey knows, regrettably everything these days takes a supermajority or 60 votes. But I fully understood the frustration and have heard it from him and others in the U.S. House.

Look, I think all of us should want, and the American people should expect and deserve better from the Congress.

CROWLEY: There's so much left undone, as you just talked about, Senator, and as you know in the economy, in sort of long-term debt reduction, that kind of thing. Why did you decide, each of you, not to stay and fight?

DORGAN: Well, I have served in Congress 30 years. I've served in the state capital in elected position 10 years before that. I've been in statewide elective office continually since age 26. And I just -- I want to have another chapter in my life.

You know, I'm not leaving because I'm upset, because I don't like the Congress. I have great respect for the Congress. It has been a gift to me to be able to serve, given to me by the people of North Dakota.

An old guy called me, he was in the hospital after I announced, and he could barely talk, but he said, Dorgan what in the hell are you doing? Well, I said, you know, I'm just -- I want to do some other things in life. And having served 30 years, I just think for me it's time to move on.

I want the Congress to succeed, however. This country needs the Congress to work well.

CROWLEY: Congressmen Obey, you were a little more frustrated than Senator Dorgan is copping to, anyway.

OBEY: Well, I've been here 42 years, and before that six years in state legislature. I think almost 50 years is quite enough, number one.

Number two, as I said earlier, I detest what money is doing to politics. And I am frankly fed up with trying to convince people that we should do something to deal with the fact that we have the greatest maldistribution of income in the history of this country.

People attack the Democratic Party for being redistributionist. In fact, you have had the largest redistribution of income up the income scale in the history of the country the last 30 years. And I think we simply -- it's time for new blood and fresh legs to take on that fight anew, because until we do that, we are not going to build the kind of country that can continue to lead the world.

CROWLEY: And if you could fill in this short sentence for me, after I leave Congress, I am most looking forward to? OBEY: Playing more music and perhaps increasing my allotment of gin and tonics from time to time.

CROWLEY: Sounds good, we'll come see you.

DORGAN: I'll stay away from the gin and tonics.

(LAUGHTER)

DORGAN: I'm interested in a lot of things. But more time, more time to do interesting things.

CROWLEY: Senator Dorgan, Congressmen Obey, thank you so much for being with us. Good luck.

OBEY: Thank you.

DORGAN: Thank you.

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