KQED’s Scott Shafer talked with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein this morning about the politics of automatic federal budget cuts taking effect today–“the sequester,” in Beltway speak–and the impact those reductions will have in California.
“California, overwhelmingly, is affected the most,” Feinstein said. “We’re almost double anyone else.” She then went through the litany of impacts the sequester cuts will have here, including furloughs for 64,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department and the loss of as many as 2,000 regular and special-education positions in the state’s public schools.
“I’m very concerned about the education cuts,” she said–citing an $87.6 million loss in federal support for schools with a high proportion of low-income students.
The Feinstein interview–and a full report on how the sequester may affect the lives of the state’s 38 million people–is featured on The California Report Magazine this afternoon.
Here’s Scott Shafer’s interview with Sen. Feinstein, followed by a full transcript:
Scott Shafer: “So, the sequester, this thing as you well know, it was meant to be kind of a poison pill; built to fail, force negotiations, no one would ever settle for this in the end. So what happened, how did we get to this point?”
Dianne Feinstein: “Well, I think if you appoint people to this kind of committee who won’t compromise, you don’t get compromise. Because compromise really means that you’ve got to give on certain things to get on other things. That just didn’t happen. I wasn’t there, I don’t know the details, but I think that’s a fair comment. I think people didn’t realize it, and that sequester was put in there to kind of urge them on to settlement. But clearly it didn’t, and I think it’s a demonstration of the hard edge of polarization and partisanship in the Senate.”
Shafer: “Some feel that, here we are it’s at the last minute and just today the leaders are sitting down with the President. Do you feel that there was enough of a sense of urgency leading up to this day? Shouldn’t there have been more discussions, more meetings? Why wait until the last minute; was that a mistake?”
Feinstein: “I think because there was no signal, no sign, no indication that anyone was going to compromise, I think it’s the same thing. Now, we had a bill, it cut back the amount of sequestration, it took the cuts from the ag bill that the house wouldn’t pass, which are twenty-nine billion dollars, and use those as an offset, and it invoked the Buffett rule: that people who earned over a million dollars would be required to pay at least thirty percent income tax, which is not unreasonable.”
Shafer: “It must be incredibly difficult to work in an environment where people just don’t trust each other.”
Feinstein: “Yeah it is. And see, what happens is, we don’t have an everyday working relationship with the House. So what you get back and forth are sound bites, and the sound bites that get the press are all the negative ones. There are very few sound bites that come through, that bounce across the capital that have positive suggestions in them. Having said that, I know there are people that want to work out a compromise. I believe that a compromise depends on some long term, and I stress that word, entitlement reform. In return for the closure, at the very least, of certain tax loopholes.”
Shafer: “There are some people that suggest that maybe the Democratic Party, really at least enough on the left, they’ve wanted big cuts in the defense budget, and then on the right, they’ve wanted these big budget cuts. Will there be enough in the middle to get something done, as opposed to letting things…”
Feinstein: “I can’t say. I know I feel that way. I know there are others in my party that feel that way, in the Senate, and I know that there are some in the Republican party who feel that way.”
Shafer: “That way being…”
Feinstein: “I’ve talked to some, and I intend to pursue it. I didn’t want to do it until we get through the two measures that were voted on yesterday. As usual, we had two members that voted for the Republican proposal, and the other proposal, and somebody correct me if I’m wrong, the Republican proposal just got thirty-eight votes.”
Shafer: “Let’s look at California. In this sequester, as these cuts begin to get phased in, how does California stand to be affected as compared to other states?”
Feinstein: “California, overwhelmingly, is affected the most. We’re almost double anybody else, and that’s because we have a big defense sector. So for us it’s immediately sixty-four thousand civilian DOD employees that would be furloughed. Now that’s gross pay, because I have it in front of me, of three-hundred and ninety-nine point four, or four hundred million dollars. It’s a cut in our base operations by fifty-four million, that’s the Army, Air Force that’s fifteen, Navy maintenance of five ships in San Diego, and then it goes on. I’m very concerned about the education cuts. It’s eighty-seven point six million from Title One. Title One is the part of the elementary and secondary education act that goes to poor schools, and it supports teachers, and it supports material for curriculum as well as other things. That’s a cut of services and now, this is vague, but it’s what comes out of the White House: one hundred and eight seven thousand students affected, leaving three hundred and twenty schools unfunded, and putting one thousand two hundred and ten and the wording is ‘teachers at risk.’ It’s eight-thousand two hundred children losing Head Start and eight hundred thirty thousand Californians losing unemployment training.”
Shafer: “There are a lot of people who feel, well we’ve been all through this before, it’s a game of chicken, it isn’t really going to happen, this is just atmospherics, it’s politics, they’ll figure it out. Is that wrong?”
Feinstein: “Well, let me say, on the impact on California, do you have the White House-released state by state report document?”
Shafer: “I do. I don’t have it right in front of me, but I have it on my desk.”
Feinstein: “OK, so you’ve got these California cuts?”
Feinstein: “OK, because if you go into that document you will see things. I don’t know whether you know this; we have two-hundred and fifty thousand homeless children in this state. San Bernardino has like, almost thirty-thousand. You have kids, now some of them are in motels, some of them are in some housing, but as I understand it you’ve got thirty-thousand that are sleeping in cars in parking lots. It’s unbelievable, and what happens on the border, food safety, FAA, plane delays, border crossing delays, customs delays, law enforcement cuts.”
Shafer: “But those who say ‘Well that’s what they’re saying,’ because you know…”
Feinstein: “That’s true, that’s what they’re saying but I would go back to the days when I was mayor. You could do, maybe across the board, up to one percent, then you begin to really impact payroll over that. You just can’t find enough. So if you go five percent, you are cutting deeply into payroll. I’m going out at noon to talk to the head, what we call the Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, to talk about very serious cuts in intelligence that are going to take place. Now the cuts aren’t going to be public information because it’s all classified, but it’s serious. So it’s across the board and you have no flexibility.”
Shafer: “It’s the worst way to budget.”
Feinstein: “It’s the worst way. I’ll give you an exact indication. We have long-lead three year financing on three big, Navy mobile platforms being built in the NASSCO shipyard in San Diego. I was there late last year, and I saw the materials on the dock, the first ship was being completed, for the second and third ship. Well, they cut the hose, you lose the long lease financing, NASSCO gets stuck with the materials already purchased, and the shipyard lays off people.”
Shafer: “There are other issues. Of course now everyone is focused on this, but you obviously care deeply about things like gun control, immigration reform is being discussed at the same time. What impact does all of this have on those other big issues?”
Feinstein: “Well, if I were to be successful, which is a long stretch with the assault– I intend to fight it to the bitter end, but if I were to be successful I don’t really think it would have that much of an immediate impact because it’s a different kind of bill. But anything that has money in it would be affected, there’s just no question. Everything would stop. Any authorization or appropriation for anything new would be non-existant.”
Shafer: “Including immigration reform?”
Shafer: “Well, how optimistic are you that everyone is going to come to their senses?”
Feinstein: “I am hopeful that there will be an effort, emanating from the White House, if not in week one which is next week, week two, when people begin to see what’s happening, for a compromise. The White House, as you know, the President has put forward some entitlement changes and I would support; see there are changes you can do outside of the ten-year window which don’t affect people currently on these programs. And then there are other changes, like means testing . As I say, I’ve worked all my life. There was a time when I really thought I’d have to depend on this. I don’t, so why should I get it?” But it has to be a safety net, because increasingly with Social Security, companies aren’t giving pensions or retirement to general workers. Therefore, the only thing that they have is Social Security. So it becomes really important for people who aren’t well to do, and that’s what we need to protect. These programs went on as ‘great America’ programs that everybody would get them: millionaries, billionaires, thousandaires, everybody. And now they have to be shaped into more like insurance programs that if you need them, you get them. If you’re above a certain level to a certain level, you pay much more to have those. And if you’re at a certain high level, you don’t get ’em. I don’t understand why that isn’t obvious, but it isn’t. I think, you know, you can do outside of the tenure window certain things that won’t affect people now. You can begin to change retirement; increase the age a month a year, because people are living longer, they are working longer.”
Shafer: “A quick question about Prop Eight. The Obama administration yesterday filed a brief against Prop Eight; of course he’s had his own evolution on same-sex marriage, you’ve had yours, many people have. Meg Whitman signed a Republican brief, as did Clint Eastwood. Do you see all of that having any impact on the nine people who really count at the Supreme Court?”
Feinstein: “I think, and well, I’ve told my people there, I have a wonderful judiciary staffer, an attorney, who has worked his heart out on this brief. I happen to believe that the arguments that the brief makes are really legally cogent. It begins with constituents of Jerry Nadler in the house. The two women who were married for a very long time, I think the survivor is in her eighties. What it took away from them was estate tax, so she got hit with a huge estate tax when her partner died. Now that’s unfair; it takes the federal benefit away and there are a whole host of hundreds if not thousands of federal benefits which illegally married, the state makes the marriage legal. If the state makes the marriage legal, the federal benefits should attach. I voted against DOMA, I forget I think it was Nineteen-ninety four, or nineteen ninety-six, one of the two of them. Fourteen of us, only, in the Senate voted against it, but it was clearly a violation of the Equal Protection Clause because it selected one group of a legally designated entity and discriminated against them and took away federal benefits.”
Shafer: “What about the Prop. Eight? A lot of times the President had said ‘Let the states decide. Get rid of DOMA, but let the states decide.’ And now they’re saying ‘No, California was wrong.'”
Feinstein: “Well, that is being challenged, as you know. It’s going before the Supreme Court and it’s really important, and I think today, it’s a different story. And I think you have to register the change in people, and people have changed, and so you have what is it? Eight, nine states now, that license marriage?
Feinstein: “So people within those states, or people going to those states can be married in those states.”