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Media Stakeout with Democratic Members of the House Following Their Caucus Meeting

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC


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REP. LARSON: Thank you very much, and good afternoon. I'm joined by several of our colleagues. And we hope by way of format that you're not always going to hear from the leadership of our caucus, but our members that are deeply involved in issues that are important to the Democratic Caucus.

We just broke up our caucus, where we focused on two important pieces of legislation that will be coming before the Congress on Friday as it relates to paycheck fairness and the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, as well as the ongoing concern in the caucus about, as (we brace ?) this morning, having conducted an incredible session with a number of economists talking about the need for stimulus as we go forward. I'm reminded of that great political sage John Wooden from UCLA, who said you have to be quick, but you shouldn't be in a hurry. You know, I think those are wise comments as we go forward in a very deliberative manner to address this issue.

Also of concern to us -- and you'll hear from Jim Cooper with regard to this -- is that the Congressional Budget Office estimated a recordbreaking 1.2 trillion (dollar) deficit for the federal government this fiscal year, further evidence of the terrible burden the Bush administration is leaving President-elect Obama. This stands in stark contrast to the $236 billion budget surplus that President Bush inherited in 2000.

But first let's hear from our vice chair of the caucus, Javier Becerra.

REP. BECERRA: Thanks, Chairman and the leadership in the Democratic Caucus, along with all the members, for the work that has been done to date to try to be ready on January 20th when President- elect Obama becomes President Obama and looks forward to receiving from this Congress an economic and job recovery package so that he can sign it and get this country moving again.

We have lost, in little more than one year, 2 million jobs. And we are now hemorrhaging, we are told by economists, 500,000 jobs a month.

President-elect Obama has said we can create 3 million jobs if we act quickly and if we act smartly. Right now is a time for bold thinking, bold leadership. This is not a time to have small thinkers apply for jobs. And so what we're looking at is an opportunity, through this new presidency and with this new Congress, to move an agenda that quickly but smartly moves forward with the creation of jobs that everyone expects.

We also understand that we cannot allow more and more Americans to continue to lose their homes. If you don't have a job, you're going to lose your home. And we are going to act as quickly and as smartly as we can to do what should have been done last year with the monies that were provided through the TARP, and that is to go directly to the homes and the homeowners to try to provide them the relief that they need.

All of this will be part of an economic recovery package that helps bring America to its feet and moving again. And we look forward to moving with the new president, Barack Obama, come January 20th, but until then with President-elect Barack Obama.

Thank you.

REP. LARSON: Before I call on the heads of our Steering and Policy Committee, who just happen to be the authors of the respective legislation that will be on the floor on Friday, let us hear first from Chris Van Hollen, the distinguished member of leadership who just again introduced our freshman members -- new freshman members who we're so proud of, and the extraordinary job that Chris Van Hollen did in shepherding them into the 111th Congress.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Well, thank you, John. I want to thank John Larson and Xavier Becerra for their early leadership right out of the box as the chairman and the vice chairman of our caucus -- we're off to a good start with this team -- and to our colleagues Rosa DeLauro and George Miller, who not only head Steering and Policy but just held this briefing that's been referred to, which is a wake-up call to those around the country who haven't woken up -- the American people are the ones who are hurting, but there are still apparently some in Washington who haven't gotten the message, and I think that hearing was part of a wake-up call to everybody -- and to Jim Cooper, who's been a long-time strong and steady voice in pursuit of fiscal discipline and so many other important issues in our country.

I think there are a couple messages that are coming out of these opening days. One is that change has come to Washington. You talked about the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Lilly Ledbetter legislation. We'll be taking up SCHIP legislation, twice vetoed by President Bush. We'll be taking up the legislation on the TARP, which will not only include the provisions that Xavier Becerra talked about, but, finally, the accountability and transparency measures that we hoped that this administration would put in place.

We gave them the authority to put in place those measures, we asked them to put in place those measures, but they didn't. So certainly, any next round there, we'll have those measures.

And then finally, when it comes to the economic recovery package, we have to exercise triage. I think everybody understands -- and you're going to hear from Jim Cooper -- the number-one priority has got to be to get our economy moving again. People are hurting badly out there. We need a big government investment and we need the tax relief, the middle-class tax relief that Barack Obama talked about.

We hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in that effort. At the same time, we have to make a commitment to, as we deal with the immediate and urgent issue before us, make it clear that we understand that the long-term issue is bringing our fiscal house in order. And we hope to move forward on all those fronts.

But I do think in the early days the American people are going to see very quickly, and they've already started to see, that a change is coming. We're going to pass these important measures out of the box, and then get on with the really important business of the economic recovery package.

Thank you.

REP. LARSON: The author of the pay fairness act, Rosa DeLauro.

REP. DELAURO: Thank you very much, Chairman. I really am delighted to be here today, and proud that, together with the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Fair Act (sic), that the Paycheck Fairness Act is among the first legislative proposals that this Congress has chosen to consider.

And you know that both of the bills are under the jurisdiction of Chairman George Miller. And I just might add that, with regard to the Paycheck Fairness Act, it's a bill I introduced 12 years ago -- 12 years ago, and only until we had George Miller as chair of the subcommittee -- of the committee -- that we were able to get a hearing, we were able to get a markup, and we were able to get the bill to the floor and, last July 31st, were able to pass this bill overwhelmingly in the House, 247 to 178, with every Democrat voting for the bill and a crossover by 14 Republicans. And it is, you know, my hope that we are going to do that again this year.

The fact of the matter is, about this bill -- is that the economy is in crisis and the economy -- with the kind of crisis that we have, the issue of economic insecurity falls more heavily on women.

And I'll just give you a couple of examples.

Incomes for women-headed households are down by 3 percent since 2000. Unmarried women -- that is single, widowed, divorced or separated women -- have an average household income almost $12,000 lower than unmarried men. Half of women are in jobs without retirement plans. Women are one-third more likely to be in subprime mortgages. One-fifth of women are without health care in this country.

Some of these facts are unknown in terms of that economic security. And undergirding all of that is the fact that women are making between 77 and 78 cents on the dollar. And that's lower for African-American women and lower for Latinas. And what the bill does is, because the current system is so rife with loopholes, it has allowed employers to avoid responsibility for discriminatory pay scales.

So what we do is to try to make this a more effective tool. We strengthen the Pay Equity Bill and we make it a more effective tool to combat gender-based pay discrimination. The bill closes loopholes in the 45-year-old Equal Pay Act, which has allowed for employers to evade liability.

It stiffens penalties for employers who discriminate based on gender. You must improve -- you must prove intent to discriminate. It is not frivolous. It is very, very serious. It would protect employees from retaliation, from sharing employee information with their co-workers, with some exceptions. And it establishes a grant initiative to provide negotiation skills and training programs for girls and women. So it -- what it tries to do is address a real problem with concrete solutions.

The fact is that you all know the story about Lilly Ledbetter. Congressman Miller will talk to you about the Pay Fair Act. But the combination of these two bills, which we believe is critical for economic security for women, rights an injustice that the Supreme Court engaged in and also moves women in a forward direction, in terms of being able to -- those who are holding the same jobs as men in the same workplace.

We come to this body as men and women. We come from all parts of the country. We come with different skills, different professions. We are paid the same amount of money.

That is not true for the bulk of women in this country, in the same job.

We have an opportunity, and we will take that opportunity to turn this around on Friday.

REP. LARSON: George?

REP. MILLER: Thank you.

As was mentioned, Rosa and I, at the direction of the speaker, chaired the economic forum in Steering and Policy this morning with a cross-section of economists and scientists. That turned out to be a rather remarkable hearing, in terms of their agreement about the need for a very substantial recovery act that would be enacted very quickly, because, in the words of Mark Zandi, this economy is shutting down. And it's -- only the government can prevent this from continuing and accelerating, and that action must be taken as soon as possible.

On -- with respect to the Friday floor schedule, Mr. Hoyer announced that we would -- we would take up both the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Lilly Ledbetter legislation. I share the offer and coauthorship with Rosa DeLauro. She's outlined what the issue is.

At the same time those economists were warning us about how dire the economy is, included in that also is the -- is there's a rapid deterioration of household income and assets. At a time when every dollar matters to every family in America, we cannot have women being discriminated -- in the -- in the workplace based upon their gender. And this 78 cents that they earn compared to men in the same -- in the same occupation turns out to be very expensive down the road with respect to the contributions to their pensions, to Social Security and to their health-care plans.

And it's very important that we make sure that there is no incentive in the law to provide for the discrimination on the basis upon gender. And today, with the weak penalties that Rosa's bill corrects, there is in fact very little cost to that discrimination.

In the case of Lilly Ledbetter, discriminated against for many, many years -- the Goodyear Tire Company; discovered it after she retired, discovered it only because she had an anonymous note left in her mailbox that she had been discriminated against. She filed immediately and she won a jury -- she won the jury trial. She won 3- 1/2 million (dollars) -- a little more money than that -- because of the discrimination. Where she -- while she was, in some cases, better qualified, where she had the exact same duties, the responsibilities of other supervisors, she was paid differently than all of the -- all of the others, based upon gender. That was the finding of the court.

And she -- of course, the Supreme Court reversed that finding.

When that -- when that decision came down, it overturned a long- standing law about when you could recover and how long you had to recover in the case of a discriminatory act. The court said that she came too late because she didn't come 180 days after the executive committee made the decision to discriminate against her. She didn't find out about it for years later, in her retirement.

The law had been that every paycheck is a continuation of that initial discriminatory act. The court overturned that. What we're doing is restoring that back to the law, that you have 180 days from the time of -- from the time that you discover the discriminatory act against you or from the last discriminatory act, your last paycheck if you retire, your last paycheck if you leave the job, what have you, and that you can -- where you can recover up to two years back pay. That is existing law. We leave that -- we leave that the same.

It's very important we take these actions. When the Supreme Court acted in 2007, we immediately took in the committee the hearings on the legislation, the passage of the legislation out to the floor and the passage on the bipartisan basis to the -- off the floor of the House. And so both of these pieces of legislation will be taken up Friday morning. And we look for a good passage, bipartisan passage of this -- of this legislation.

REP. LARSON: Thank you, George.

Jim Cooper.

REP. COOPER: Thank you. My name is Jim Cooper. I'm not a member of leadership; I'm a Blue Dog.

I'm here to talk about Barack Obama inheriting the worst mess, economically, in American history. Herbert Hoover didn't leave Franklin Roosevelt a mess this bad. This is so bad that, as was revealed today by CBO, the deficit is at least $1.2 trillion, $1.2 trillion. That's 12 zeros.

We knew this, really, last month. The administration itself released a document on the Internet, but with no press release, that revealed a similar number. They are guilty of a cover-up, in my opinion, because they have refused to even print that document. It's called the Financial Report of the United States Government. It is signed by Henry Paulson. It revealed a trillion dollar-plus deficit back in December.

So the truth is out. This deficit is at least three times larger than the previous U.S. record holder established under Ronald Reagan. This is also the largest deficit in American history as a percentage of GDP.

So no matter how you measure it, we're in record deficit territory. And that's before President-elect Obama is even sworn in. So it's important to establish a baseline, in the minds of the American people, of the gravity of our situation.

If you read the financial report of the U.S. government, again signed by Henry Paulson but which he has never had a press conference on and which he will probably refuse to answer your questions about, and they won't even print the document, the fiscal situation of America deteriorated last year to the tune of $3 trillion. That's if you count programs that we know and love, programs called Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid.

It's high time that the truth comes out because again before Inauguration Day, this is the depth of our situation. We heard from excellent economists today. Two of the three of them are Republicans: Martin Feldstein, Mark Zandi.

I think Blue Dogs are committed to supporting a stimulus package like President Obama -- President-elect Obama has recommended. Personally we hope it won't be much larger than that. And it's very important, the components, because as Speaker Pelosi said in the caucus today, the committees of jurisdiction will be writing the language, to make sure that the projects are in fact shovel-ready, to make sure that the money is appropriately spent.

But this is time for change in America. We are seeing it with the incoming Obama administration. But it's vitally important to understand how grave the situation already is.

REP. LARSON: I think the speaker would add that the projects should also, especially after the gathering at Princeton that, I know, Mr. Miller attended as well, that they not only be shovel-ready but be science-ready; that these are not just simply WPA projects of the '30s vintage but shovel-ready and science-ready, in terms of innovation and what we need to do to help turn this economy around.

I think in short, we need short-term help and long-term solutions. And that's what this 111th Congress, under Democratic leadership, is going to be about. With that, let us take questions.

Q You mentioned direct help for homeowners and mortgageholders but in the context of TARP and also in the context of economic recovery package. And I wonder if the plan is to have a program like that both in the new TARP legislation and in the stimulus. Or is it one or the other; how that plans to move out of here?

REP. LARSON: It's actually in the old TARP language, in the existing TARP language.

Q Updating exactly -- clarifying what you meant them --

REP. LARSON: We're hoping that we'll have an executer -- an executive who will execute what is in the legislative language that became law.

I know that Chairman Frank is working on language that will try to make it as clear as possible, so that the executive branch understands exactly what the intent of Congress is and the requirements of Congress are, when it comes to providing direct assistance to homeowners who are trying to act responsibly in retaining their homes.

And we believe that there already exists language to do that, but we'll do whatever is necessary in the language that will come forward in any new TARP legislation -- or perhaps in the economic stimulus legislation -- to make sure that we do provide that direct assistance to homeowners who want to be responsible and stay in their homes.

Q (Off mike) -- in both of those vehicles?

REP. LUJAN: I think if you talk to Chairman Frank, he'll probably give you the best sense of where that will go, but the conversation -- and the speaker mentioned it today in the caucus meeting -- is that there will be every effort made to make sure that there's no doubt of what our intent is and what our instructions are in mandatory language in the legislation on what we hope will happen, through the executive, in making sure that homeowners who wish to be responsible get some help.

REP. LARSON: Let me say that there is unanimity in our caucus about the outrage of what's happened with the existing TARP. We heard from members from Tennessee, from Ohio, from Rhode Island today, about the lack of accountability; the banks holding onto money, not lending that money out, and not doing what so many members who in good faith voted for this legislation thought would happen.

This administration in so many respects is frozen in their indifference to the people of Ohio and Tennessee and Connecticut and Rhode Island, and all those members who got up to address this issue. I think, as Chris Van Hollen said, change is here. And change will happen starting next week, when we bring legislation to the floor, from SCHIP, to the very important legislation that we're going to be taking up on Friday of this week, and also with regard to accountability in the TARP.

Q And with regards to the deficit, this record 1.2 trillion (dollars), which the CBO says is probably going to be 1.7 trillion (dollars) after you've passed the stimulus package, there's been a lot of talk about we need to have long-term fiscal responsibility. Is there anything coming along the line that would actually do that? PAYGO rules are essentially out the window, probably for the next six months. And there doesn't seem to be any sort of mechanism, Gramm- Rudman from the '80s, something where -- is there something on the books where you guys would say, "Hey, we've got to come together and have a commission or --"

(Cross talk.)

REP. LARSON: (Inaudible) -- PAYGO is out the window. And I think that very thoughtful members of the Blue Dogs have sat down -- and I'll let Jim comment, as well -- who, as he pointed out, you know, are in agreement with what President-elect Obama is trying to do.

Understanding that there are emergencies, and given the depth of where we are, given the problems that we face currently, I think every member of Congress understands that. But by no stretch of the imagination -- we have a speaker and we have a Congress that's unified in terms of focusing on the responsibility of paygo and future generations.

I'll let Jim Cooper respond, or anyone else who --

REP. COOPER: I'm not in leadership, so I can't -- that -- government can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can stimulate the economy and address our long-term problems at the same time. President-elect Obama has called for that repeatedly. We haven't worked out the specifics yet, but I'm confident this government under his leadership will be able to to address both the short-term and the longer-term problems in legislation.

REP. DELAURO: Let me just -- I just would like to add one point, because I think we should reference the economic forum that was held this morning about the recovery package. It was a very, very interesting mix of people.

And for some of you who may have been there -- some of you may have -- you couldn't be there -- but I think if you take a look at the specter of -- the spectrum of economists, whether they are on the liberal, progressive or to the very conservative -- and Martin Feldstein described himself as a conservative this morning, and very, very much for a strong, solid, robust stimulus package.

And the fact is, and I think Jim Cooper said it right, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. The president-elect is under no illusions, none of us are under any illusions about what the deficit is about, but we are in a very serious economic meltdown. I mean, if you listened to Mark Zandi today, it's shutting down. So that's why you have unanimity among people who have not come together around some of these economic principles in the past.

But they get it, and so they are giving us the benefit of advice. This was a listening session, essentially, for members of Congress to get some sense of the depth of the difficulty and how we can begin to build ourselves onto the road for economic recovery.

REP. LARSON: (Off mike) -- yeah, go ahead.

REP. VAN HOLLEN: Thank you, sir.

I mean, when you have a situation of negative growth, when you're in a recession, the number one thing you can do is obviously try and get the economy going to get people back to work.

But the other obvious benefit of that is you begin to provide some revenues to the federal Treasury. If you don't turn it around, you're going to continue to see even deeper and deeper deficits. That's why you have to have the principle of triage, as when you go into an emergency room, you deal with the first order of business, out of the box. And as Jim said, then we can begin to look at the other issues in this incoming Obama administration, as the current Congress is committed to doing.

Then I would make one other point, which is, some of the investments we're talking about making will also help us address some of the entitlement issues. For example, investment in health IT right now will help us, I think, not only improve health quality but save costs down the road. And we're also talking about investing in more research into comparative health outcomes so that we get a better sense of what works and doesn't work, so that when we look at changes in Medicare, we'll have that information.

So some of those investments that we're making today will also help address some of these long-term budget issues.

Q Congressman Cooper, you had talked about you were confident that the Obama administration would come up with something. Do you expect that to be more in the form of their budget submission rather than combined with the stimulus? And do you expect that to be more in the way of a panel versus (statutory ?) PAYGO versus spending caps?

REP. COOPER: We don't know that yet. But I would urge a real package to be put together promptly by this Congress with the president's support. He's been quite outspoken on this issue, quite clear. And I'm confident that Congress will follow his leadership.

REP. LARSON: Thank you very much.


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