Remarks at Press Availability Following Vice President Biden’s Address to House Democrats at the 2016 Issues Conference
Baltimore – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Members of the House Democratic Caucus held a press availability following Vice President Biden’s remarks at the 2016 Democratic Issues Conference. Below are the Leader’s opening remarks followed by the question and answer session.
Leader Pelosi. I have many wishes for you and one is that I wish you could have heard the Vice President in the Q & A afterwards because one of our colleagues, Mark Takai has been diagnosed. And, in fact, as fate and coincidence would have it, he had treatment this morning at Johns Hopkins for the diagnosis of cancer that he has. And the first question was from Elijah Cummings who asked about and thanked the President for undertaking the Moonshot of curing cancer, taking it on a path of being cured and then Mark Takai. So it was something that really, of all the opportunities we have as a Member of Congress to see that intimacy of a personal challenge of Member, of a person – of any person – and the intellect, the determination and the empathy that Joe Biden brought.
But that followed a very lively morning for us. It was very productive. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen the Members so quiet for an entire morning except for when they were asking questions. We were very fortunate to have three of our relatively newer members to be our moderators and I’d like them to tell you a little bit about what happened there but it was so informative so reinforcing, so confirming of our values and the urgency of how we have to persuade the country that there’s real reason to be hopeful.
Q: I was wondering what you thought about Vice President Biden’s comments that the GOP presidential race is a “gift from the Lord” for Democrats?
Leader Pelosi. Did he say that?
Leader Pelosi. I was still probably enjoying his remark before about the Ryan Budget being a gift and what it does because it offers the clearest contrast. It’s something that Speaker Ryan is very proud of. So, he takes pride in that budget. We see a great contrast there in terms of how they want to diminish Social Security, voucherize Medicare, block grand Medicaid, take money out of Social Security, give tax cuts to high-end, cut education. He talked about that first and I was still savoring his remarks in that regard.
Who knows in a presidential. You can never predict. It looks interesting from this vantage point but as I said, I think, to some of you last night: let the process work itself out, then we’re have something to say. But there’s no question that there are some candidates who seem to have more, shall we say, a place we can make a stronger contrast than other places. Although all of them are starkly different from our Democratic candidates and we are very proud of our Democratic candidates.
Q: I just wanted to follow up on that question because the Vice President said he didn’t know who he wanted to root for – Cruz or Trump. Do you have a preference? And I wonder what….
Leader Pelosi. Now, would I say? If I said one – so I would say the one that I don’t want to have a reaction to so I would have to blah blah blah [sic].
Q: But Mr. Trump said earlier this week that he had a good relationship with you and that he thought he could cut deals with you. What is your relationship with Donald Trump?
Leader Pelosi. Well, first of all, I don’t have any anticipation of working with anyone except a Democratic President of the United States, first and foremost. So, that’s what I think. Second of all, I worked very closely with President Bush on a number of issues. And we worked issues that ranged from HIV/AIDS, energy, TARP, low income tax credits and the rest. And we didn’t agree with him on the war in Iraq, we didn’t agree with him on privatizing Social Security, but where we could find agreement.
And I noticed in one of the daily metropolitan journals of today – I don’t know which one; source and the messenger soon parted, I’m sorry to tell you. One of them talked about this energy bill that’s being debated in the Senate now and it said it would be the biggest energy bill since the energy bill of 2007 and that’s a bill I worked with President Bush on. I wanted renewables; he wanted nuclear. We had a bill that he was very proud of that has done great things in our country. And I think I mentioned yesterday that President Obama uses for some of the authority for some of what he is doing now. So, the president is the president. You work with the president. I don’t have much of a relationship [with Donald Trump]. I have met him and I’m a courteous, polite person so I can work with almost anyone. And I hope to work with him in philanthropy and climate change and any other endeavor that he might become interested in but I expect to be working with a Democratic as President of the United States.
Q: Leader, can I ask you about the Flint water crisis? What action, if any, do you think Congress should take on that? The Senate is looking at some possible amendments to the energy bill that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to address Flint. Is this something Democrats are kind of talking about here? Is there an appropriate response?
Leader Pelosi. Well, we are listening closely to the reports from our Member Dan Kildee there, also Congresswoman Lawrence has been very involved. All of our Members from Michigan have. You’ve heard me say a number of times one of the things that attracted me to politics and taking an active role in government is I’m a mom. And moms, parents can do many things for their children, they can even home school them, but they cannot answer for the water they drink, the air they breathe, the safety of the food they have. So as a mom, this is first and foremost.
One time, a volunteer in my campaign, somebody asked her, “Why are you volunteering in politics?” And she responded. She said, “I understand that government has something to do with the air we breathe and the water we drink. So I should be interested in government as long as I breathe air and drink water.” So, again, this is so fundamental and to have a governor of the state be so cavalier and dangerous and intentionally endanger the people of the city of Flint is something that is so incomprehensible.
Now, what are some of the challenges of changing the pipes – you know many of the needs and the urgency of it. There’s no way we can subtract – well, maybe there will be a scientific way. But right now we are concerned about what the damage that has been done to the brains of these children because of their intake of this water. Somebody suggested to me that they might want to be doing a supplemental in the Senate and, of course, then we would. I haven’t spoken to the Speaker about that as a route or the Senate. We did have somewhat of a conversation [Tuesday] in the White House because this is such a big challenge to us.
But it is absolutely appalling that the governor of the state would release this water from a questionable source to do such damage. And if you’ve seen – and I don’t know, because I am just depending in some respects on some of this on the reporting on it. But if you see how the older water – that’s what’s going to the poorer neighborhoods, that’s worse than the newer water. So the newer water is one day old – this is six, seven days old. Flint is an economically challenged place to begin with but there are more affluent sections than others. They’re getting the cleaner water – not so clean but cleaner than the other.
So, this is it. This is it. And if may take this question back to when John was speaking, I was remembering that some of the conversations, the reporting was giving us about millennials and a new economy that recognizes the work of people and the rest and the distrust people have of government – the distrust that they have of government, right? And you look at these past fifteen years. They come in, they see our reaction to 9/11, going into Iraq. They see a deficit exploding. They see Katrina. They see September 2008 when the economy did a total meltdown and near recession – I mean a near depression, certainly a recession. They see the interest in gun safety being ignored by the Congress. They’re saying: we have challenges; we can see what they are and we don’t see solutions that positively affect us. So, when you see the, really, malfeasance in office of pouring out lead-contained water for children to bathe, and drink and cook, it’s no wonder people have the attitude that they have toward government. And if you compound that within that same period of time, Citizens United, where the whole idea of a democracy as a government of the many becomes a government of the money in terms of big money – thank you, John Sarbanes, for your leadership.
So, we have some real challenges and what we have to do is have an economy that works for everyone, that our participation is in public/private partnerships or policies that encourage the private sector but also makes the investments in education and infrastructure that is a public policy role. That’s the message that we have to get out to the American people as what is the difference between Democrats and Republicans. And there are plenty of places that we can work together – and that’s, as I told you the other day, what our purpose is. My watch is telling me to stand still – no no, stand up and walk around for a minute. I don’t know why. I’m not sitting down.
Chairman Becerra. Before we go, I think a couple of us want to follow up. Go ahead, John.
Congressman Sarbanes. Yeah, I was just going to follow up on what the Leader said and what the Vice President emphasized. All you have to do is look at the Ryan Budget and what it proposes just as a matter of political philosophy and you see cuts to agencies that the American people believe should be there to protect them. And so, the issue of what’s going on in Flint introduces the larger frame of ‘do you believe that you should properly resource – invest resources in government’s ability to protect people – to make sure that their water is drinkable, their air is breathable?’
And all you got to do is contrast the proposals the Democrats and the Democratic Caucus with [the] Paul Ryan Budget. And you can see clear as day which party has the vision to invest in protecting Americans and making sure they’re strong and healthy – that their children can achieve. The contrast is direct. And so, what’s happening in Flint introduces that discussion again – I think in a very powerful way. You’re not going to cure cancer, which is the Vice President’s number one focus right now, if you’re not investing in research. Contrast the Paul Ryan budget with what the Democrats propose. You’re not going to educate the next generation if you don’t invest in our schools, if you don’t invest in community colleges. Look at the Paul Ryan budget compared to what the Democrats are proposing. We’re about investing, not just in physical infrastructure but in human infrastructure in this country because we know the promise that represents for the country as we move forward. That contrast is night and day.
Congresswoman Kuster. I just want to add – about security – that part of what this is about is that there is an insecurity in the electorate and among the American people about physical security, personal security with gun violence, now family security. You know, as a mom, certainly, parents across the country look at Flint with trepidation that this could happen in our communities – and obviously international security. So, part of the discussion this morning, woven throughout, is that this is likely an election that’s about security but that we have a broad platform about how we can keep American families safe.
Chairman Becerra. And I just want to add on the water issue with Flint – many of us are concerned that this – it’s a dubious process that the Governor has instituted, where the person who is supposed to do the investigation is compromised. I don’t think any of us believe that a guy who has contributed thousands of dollars and is very close to some of the people that may be behind this is going to go out there and investigate properly the Government officials that played a role in this. And certainly, you don’t want to see a situation that we saw with Wall Street meltdown, where no one in Wall Street paid the price. There’s no rap sheet on any of these guys, and certainly, many of us believe that what went down in Flint should cause someone to have a rap sheet. There should be some indictments for what went on.
But, if Congress does something on water – for many of us in California, there’s a price for water in a lot of places, including in the state of California. And we hope that our colleagues are willing to see that America’s suffering as a result of these crises with water that have been occurring throughout the nation. It’s certainly our drought-stricken state of California.
And finally, I should mention Brad Sherman stood up at one point with the Vice President when we were talking about Flint and he said, ‘Porter Ranch in California in the Los Angeles area has now seen the largest level of pollution in our history from methane gas that continues to leak out in the Porter Ranch area, which is causing the evacuation of thousands of people.’ And so, if we’re going to deal with crises, we should be prepared to deal with crises that impact all of our families, and he mentioned Porter Ranch. And I think we would be remissive if we didn’t mention that Brad brought that up as well.
Leader Pelosi. And that all comes back to infrastructure, whether it’s transportation, highways and all of that. But, our water systems, our transmission of natural gas and the rest, our infrastructure of the future with broadband and the rest – we’ve always been able to come together in a bipartisan way on these issues. We just did the Transportation Bill, which is not up to the challenge, but the best that we could do.
Q: “Stepped-up basis” – the Vice President mentioned that word. Where do you stand on that?
Chairman Becerra. I think the [Vice] President was talking about trying to have real tax reform that will help working Americans. And he mentioned how stepped-up basis is not something that most working Americans have to worry about. They don’t even know what it is because they don’t have enough assets when they die, so that they have to worry that the value of the asset will have a stepped-up basis, and therefore, those who inherit that wealth will not have to worry about the differential in the increasing value over time.
I think a lot of us understand that the reason people feel so disconnected from the Government leaders is that it doesn’t seem that we’re paying attention to their concerns. Stepped-up basis may be important to some Americans, probably folks who can have ‘billionaire’ in front of their name, but to most Americans, stepped-up basis is just another loss of revenue that could’ve gone to help build better schools or find that cure for cancer a lot sooner, or maybe lower Middle Class tax rates a little bit more and so…
Q: A repeal? Is a repeal a stepped-up basis?
Chairman Becerra. He talked about the need to deal with – he didn’t say – he talked about, he said ‘compared to what’s going on.’ He used stepped-up basis as an example of how we’re not really dealing – whether it’s with tax reform or anything else – with what Americans care most about. That’s why he contrasted what Democrats and Republicans are for.
He presented in a context the cost of providing free community college education on an annual basis, which is six billion dollars a year. And people would say, ‘Well gosh, that’s too much money to invest.’ Right? Sixty billion dollars over ten years – and you concur to the fact that from the one tax expenditure, which is benefiting – I think he said – a quarter of one percent of Americans – right – that’s a 14 billion dollar loss of revenue to the Federal Government every year. So, what he said was: you can cover that cost of the community college – right? That investment in tomorrow’s generation – and you’d have eight billion dollars left over to go to deficit reduction or any other kinds of things that represent an investment in the American people.
So, I think he’s trying to make the case that all of the positive things that the Democrats are proposing to do, that we really think are going to help people out there, again, reach for that American Dream, see themselves in the solution for this country are things – we have the resources to commit to, we just got to make these choices. And if we present that contrast to the public, we believe that they’re going to choose the agenda that we’re putting forward.
Q: I was just wondering if there was any discussion of specific commitments from the Vice President about campaigning for Members or what the time commitment…
Chairman Becerra. He said he’d either endorse, campaign for us or against us – whatever helps us most.
Leader Pelosi. We didn’t spend any – less than a minute on any political reference.
Q: The Administration sent a letter yesterday on defending the deportation raid targeting immigrants. Biden talked about this in a closed door [question] and [answer session]. And what was Members’ reaction to the Administration’s defense of these raids?
Chairman Becerra. Actually, the Vice President was very passionate about this. And in fact, he asked to have that be the last question he responded to because he went into quite a bit of detail. And he made it very clear – the Administration is trying to do its best to try to enforce a broken immigration system and that these are the consequences of having a broken immigration system.
What the President would like to do has become very clear through the executive actions that he has tried to implement but has been blocked almost every step of the way by our Republican colleagues who now have a case before the Supreme Court. What the Vice President made clear is that they’re trying to do this in not just a constructive and legal way, and they’re trying to do it in a humane way. And he very pointed in saying he heard many of us who had complained – I think almost every single Democrat had communicated to the White House before that when we first heard about the unaccompanied minors who were coming into the country, that they should not be housed in prisons like livestock and a lot was done by this Administration to make sure the treatment of these minors was not just humane but gave them a chance to be able to deal with the circumstances they were in.
He did stress the Administration’s position – that they feel they have an obligation to carry out the laws, even within a broken immigration system as best as they can. And while there may be some differences exactly how it’d be best to do that, I think he was very passionate and very constructive in explaining what the Administration is trying to do, given the constraints they have of a rebellious Congress that is constantly and Republican Governors who are constantly thwarting the Presidents efforts through executive action to make some progress.
Leader Pelosi. Many of us have visited the border and seen the early stages, which were deplorable, and expressed our – more than dismay, deep concern to the Administration. And they started building these other centers. So today, his point was that under 100 people have been deported, he said…
Chairman Becerra. A smaller number.
Leader Pelosi. …And the fact is, there aren’t raids. Now again, I associate myself with my colleagues who have expressed concern about this. But the way it was being reported was widespread raids. There weren’t raids. There were individuals who had either broken the law in other ways other than status or were newcomers to the country. It’s also a message to Central America that it’s better if we could adjudicate these cases – people can have their due process there, so that moms know not to send a child with a “coyote,” with the chance that they’re going to get to the border, be let in and able to stay. So it’s a very comprehensive thing. And at the same time, the court case…
Chairman Becerra. And he mentioned the Supreme Court will rule sometime this summer.
Q: In his speech, the Vice President said he believes Democrats can take back the House. He said he was sincere in that belief. Do you guys share that level of optimism? And if not quite that optimistic, what’s kind of your outlook on…
Leader Pelosi. As I say, that sentence – he probably didn’t spend one minute on political – but he was just saying what’s at skate. And what is at stake makes it urgent for us to win. And, but, I – you’re asking me. I’m optimistic. I’m always optimistic. In ’06, nobody thought we would win. In ’10, people didn’t really think at this point that the Republicans would win. Something intervened: it was called Citizens United – endless, undisclosed money piling in at the last minute, after Congress, the Senate failed to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which we had passed in the House.
But after – people say: “Oh, you can’t win until there’s redistricting. But remember this: in ’06, when we won, we had just suffered a terrible redistricting at the hands of Tom DeLay – who almost went to jail for it – a mid-decade redistricting. We lost seven seats – seven seats is 14 – you know, it’s 14, a swing of seven is 14. We lost seven seats in, like, ’05, and we won the election in ’06. In ’10, they didn’t have any good redistricting behind them. It’s just: we had a tide, and they had a tide. And we can have a tide again. Some of it will depend on who the presidential candidate is. In the meantime, we’re building our blocks to win as many seats as possible. I don’t know if we’ll have it in one more year. I feel absolutely certain we’ll have it in three years. But, I’d like it in one year. So, you just don’t know. You certainly don’t know in January of the election year.
Congressman Sarbanes. I was just going to say: you can frame it as the Democrats taking back the House, or you can say that the composition of the House will reflect the electorate taking their country back and making a choice for a particular agenda. And I think that if we put that choice out there in a clear way, there’s every possibility that the American people – in the Presidential race and the Congressional races – are going to choose the agenda which, when properly reflected, will mean the composition of the House and the Senate will be a Democratic majority. So our obligation is to put that clear contrast in front of the country in a way that they can make that choice. Let the chips then fall where they may electorally, and we think there’s every opportunity that that will mean that the House will come back into Democratic hands.
Leader Pelosi. Or else, the people who are elected share a view of America that we share.
Q: Just wondering what specifically Congress can do to change corporate responsibility norms if their boards of directors are controlled by people who think that CEOs have a fiduciary duty to maximize profits. How does Congress change that?
Congresswoman Kuster. The Vice President talked about how they didn’t use to be able to buy back their own stock. And now, we’ve heard from a number of people, we had economists this morning talking about the incredibly high percentage of corporate profits that are going back into buying back their stock. And I think one of the numbers was nine percent of these – strong growth, incredible profits – only nine percent is going back into the employees in the company. The rest is going to, I think 55 percent was buying corporate stock, and then another 40 percent was shareholder profits.
Chairman Becerra. And he connected that to the fact that more and more CEOs are being compensated not through direct salary, but by stock. So every time they buy back stock and the value goes up, their compensation through their stock options and so forth goes up.
Leader Pelosi. Forgive me if I said this to you yesterday, but you know if somebody takes your name and decides it’s their website – “XavierBecerra.com” – and you want your website back, then it’s “TheRealXavierBecerra.com.” Yesterday, I talked to the members about Wealth of Nations – the “Real Wealth of Nations.” And to your question, the economic model that we have now – and we are all capitalist, and we believe in the free market system and the rest – but it is tilted, grossly tilted, against working people. Our question in an election or in decision-making is: who has the leverage? We don’t, again, begrudge anyone their wealth, their success, their accomplishments and the rest – but not at the exploitation of the people, the workers, the environment, and the community in which they live.
So, I think that we have to take a look at this economic model, this “Real Wealth of Nations,” this real capitalist system, this market economy that attracts investment, again, bolstered by infrastructure investments that we make that encourage business success. – to do it in a way that recognizes that when Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, women weren’t part of the economy. Well, they were – because they were the home economy. But nonetheless, to view that in a different way – this is a much bigger discussion.
But we’re not going to achieve this – all Americans are not going to be able to participate in the full prosperity of our country, except cyclically, it will go up and down, and some times are better and some times are worse – unless we make an adjustment that recognizes the “Real Wealth of Nations.” And I think that Adam Smith would approve, all these years later.
Congressman Sarbanes. And Adam Smith would not have anticipated the extent to which the economic model now is being used to distort the political model of democracy. In other words, what’s happening is there’s a capitalist model at work, where people are taking their profits and are using that to get sort of an uneven share of the democracy, right? There putting their thumb on the scale, using their economic advantage, and I think Americans believe in a capitalist system. But they begin to distrust it if they think that it’s being used to hijack their political system.
And that’s why we’ve got to make sure that, whatever’s happening on the economic model side, people feel like their voice is being heard in the democracy, and that laws are being made based on their input, rather than on the input that’s coming from those who are part of, sort of, the economic elite. That’s the fundamental question here. And one thing we can do is create more disclosure in terms of how corporations are using their treasuries to get into the political space. And the SEC has a role to play with that. And that’s something that we support, so that people have confidence again that the political system reflects their values, and their input, and their voice, and hasn’t just become and instrument or tool of monied interests, or, you know, sort of a corporate agenda. That’s fundamental.
Chairman Becerra. Thanks guys. Eat the cookies. We’ll see you for the President.
Leader Pelosi. I know as soon as we leave you’re going to make a big lunch with these cookies. They are so delicious.
Q: Where are they from again?
Leader Pelosi. Vaccaro’s in Little Italy, right down the street. And they have gelato there, too.
Congressman Sarbanes. Get a cannoli there.
Leader Pelosi. Thank you all very much. See you tomorrow.