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One on One With Rep. Jan Schakowsky: “We Are Not Helpless!“

Rep. Jan Schakowsky. (Photo: davidcharns)

One on One With Rep. Jan Schakowsky: “We Are Not Helpless!“

Rep. Jan Schakowsky. (Photo: davidcharns)

Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s (D-Illinois) $227 billion jobs bill was more or less dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House. And while she’s proud to say it left its mark on the president’s American Jobs Act, that bill is stalled out in Congress. But in a wide-ranging interview last month, Schakowsky insisted that a jobs bill must pass. In a rhetorical landscape overrun with hyperbole, she claims that today’s political battles really are “epic,” and she remains ambitious on every front, from auditing the military to experiencing firsthand what it means to rely on food stamps. In this conversation with Truthout, Schakowsky envisions a not-so-distant future where food banks set up shop on Capitol Hill, foreclosed homeowners trade their sadness for anger like bankers trading credit default swaps, and the public comes forward “with their hair on fire that ordinary people deserve better.”

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Alissa Bohling: As you promoted your jobs bill before introducing it in Congress, you really emphasized that you were relying on the American people to make it a reality. But you’ve also acknowledged that a lot of people feel helpless right now with regard to the economy. What would you say to the public, and especially to those people who feel apathetic or disenfranchised, or perhaps are hesitant to participate in something like a mass demonstration?

Rep. Jan Schakowsky: The reason I wanted to really sell this bill even before the president introduced his, is that we are not helpless in the face of this crisis, that there are things that we can do.

We know the American people think that job creation is the number-one priority. When asked, is it deficit reduction or jobs, overwhelmingly the American people – Republicans, Democrats, even people who self-identify as Tea Party – think that jobs are more important than debt reduction.

I was on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and the cuts that were proposed did not go into effect until 2015, realizing that we have a fragile economy and that budget cuts would exacerbate the problem, not help the problem, as the Republicans like to say. And the American people get it, they support that idea.

Republicans like to say, oh well, it’s just public-sector jobs and those aren’t real jobs, and those don’t really do anything to the economy. Of course, that’s just ridiculous – I don’t even get that. One of my Republican colleagues from Illinois said, on television, well the government can make jobs, but only the private sector can create jobs. What does that even mean? I said to him on television, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

AB: Do you think he was being disingenuous? It looks like the same know-nothing strategy as saying taxing businesses slows job creation, when there’s strong evidence that’s not the case. But we hear these arguments over and over. Does anyone making them actually believe them?

JS: I think there are some people there that are believers, that are persistently sticking with this kind of trickle-down idea that some of these individuals are job creators.

Let me give you an example of how false this notion is. When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not get funded because of the Republicans, 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed, but 70,000 private-sector construction workers were laid off. Yes, the money came from the federal government, but these are private sector workers who were doing the construction programs. So, I don’t know what they’re talking about.

This idea that we are not helpless, that we can put people to work, I think makes total sense to the American people. These are very real jobs, and they allow individuals to go out and be job creators.

And that’s the difference in philosophy, too: that the job creators are ordinary Americans with money in their pockets that allows them to go out and buy things and be customers, and that what businesses need – more than confidence, more than tax cuts – they need customers. That’s what the CEOs are saying, that’s what the small businesses are saying, “We need people to come and buy, and then we’ll be able to hire more people.” So, that was the idea of my bill. I never saw it as a total answer, but you know, 2.2 million more workers would, as the president said about his bill, help to jumpstart the economy.

AB: And the bills, both yours and Obama’s, face a lot of resistance, especially on the issue of funding them by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

JS: Yes. They [the opposition] floated this idea – I think they’re still at it – of class warfare. But of course, what Barack Obama is trying to do is stop this war on the middle class that has been going on for decades. From 1983 to 2009, 80 percent of the increase in income went to the top 5 percent, and the bottom 60 percent lost 7.5 percent in income. We’ve got the biggest income disparity in our country since 1928, and when you’ve got a situation with the 400 richest Americans having as much wealth as the bottom 150 million Americans, which is about half the population – and that’s the largest of any major industrialized country – this is not good for our economy, and it’s not good for our democracy.

AB: So, if, as you say, the American people really get it, that we need jobs and we don’t really need to worry about the deficit at this point, are they doing enough to put pressure on the president, to put pressure on Congress, to follow these priorities that they’ve indicated in polls and elsewhere?

JS: At this point, what we need to do is rally around the president’s bill. The question is, are we putting enough pressure on the Republicans, who insist on calling rich people the job creators, and their jobs program is deregulating everything. We’re about to have a debate on it right now, on clean air, clean water. This is really Dirty Air Week, because they want to just get rid of all those regulations, set the companies free to do everything they want. And that’s what we do a lot in the Energy and Commerce Committee, is fight against the deregulation, putting all kinds of toxic pollutants into the air and water.

AB: And the same strategy that is used on the environment is being used on the jobs front: anything that’s bad for corporations is then turned around and portrayed as being bad for the economy as a whole, most often by Republicans and sometimes Democrats, too. How do you battle against that kind of strategy? You’ve fought it on military funding, as well, for example.

JS: I guess it depends what you mean, where to battle. They have a majority right now in the House of Representatives. We’re passing all kinds of junk right now. And this bill, called the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act, which basically gets rid of regulations on toxins and on clean air, it’s going to pass. [It did.] There’s no way to win those battles right now in the House of Representatives, so the battlefield is really out in the public. And once again, the public does not accept their formula, that you have to choose health or jobs, that it’s one or the other. The American people want both, quite rightly.

And of course, as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson testified today, there’s a huge amount of jobs created when you have regulations that require pollution control because it develops a whole new industry that helps with compliance. Their whole argument right now is a jobs argument, when Lisa Jackson comes in, that the EPA is a job-killer. And again, I don’t think people buy that. The polling data says they don’t buy that.

These are epic battles right now, really. Politicians always like to say that the next election is the most important ever. But this one really is about – as the president said – what we’re dealing with now is really about the heart and soul of our country. If we can just mobilize around the things that most Americans believe, and in forceful and clear and repeated kind of messaging, tell the truth – because we’re going to be up against well-funded lies.

AB: Citizens United and ALEC changed everything.

JS: It changed everything, and it completely coincides with the shifting of wealth to he wealthiest. They’re not just putting it under the mattress. They have succeeded, through policy changes, to become the wealthiest, and now they’re using their wealth to seal the deal. Now they’re spending it on television, and calling President Obama everything from anti-Israel to anti-jobs to anti-Medicare, and it matters not if it has a shred of truth in it – they just keep repeating it and repeating it.

AB: What is morale like among the Democrats when the battle is often a losing one at this point?

JS: In the House, that’s certainly true. A lot of the worst of what the Republicans do doesn’t see the light of day in the Senate. You know, they’re definitely making some progress legislatively, because of the last election. But I expect that the public opinion tide is going to turn, now that the president is out and about in the country, making a strong populist argument that is really about the middle class.

AB: Although he’s still calling for cuts to entitlement programs as well, which isn’t terribly populist.

JS: Well, except that, you know, he’s not talking any longer about raising the age of Medicare. Social Security, as you noticed, was not part of the proposal – which it shouldn’t have been, because it has nothing to do with the deficit. He issued a veto threat, which is unusual when you make an announcement of a proposal, that if we don’t see significant revenue increases, then he certainly has no intention of doing anything at all with Medicare; we hope that will be true with Medicaid as well. And so, you know, I feel like this president – how can I put this? He reads all these studies, he pays attention to data-based conclusions and analysis, and I feel like we have an opportunity to make the case on specific Medicaid and Medicare proposals.

Look, and Democrats, we’re not entirely against – I’d be more than happy to have Medicare, for example, negotiate with the drug companies for lower prices. That would reduce the cost of Medicare. There are ways to make these programs more efficient. We can’t turn a blind eye to good ideas either, just because it’s in the realm of Medicare and Medicaid. What we want to prevent is cuts in benefits.

AB: The military budget is now under more scrutiny than ever, and you’ve been a big critic of private contractors, through your Stop Outsourcing Security Act and other means. Now that it’s been shown in the public record that private contractors create a climate of impunity in war and also inflate the cost of waging war in general, do you think that issue will make its way into the supercommittee as they look for places to cut?

JS: I really hope so. You know, God bless the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) for doing a study to show what I’ve thought for a long time, that private contracting is really not cost-effective, on top of jeopardizing our mission and undermining our values as a country. I’m happy that the president is looking at $1 trillion in savings as we end combat troops in Iraq and wind down the war in Afghanistan, but I am concerned about what that means in terms of contractor presence, and making sure that we can really realize those savings.

AB: Because you think when the troops come out, contractors will go in?

JS: I’m concerned about to what extent our uniformed military will be replaced with civilians. One of the reasons I’ve been so focused on these private contractors is that I think their presence masks the real footprint and scope of the war. We don’t even count them when they’re killed. We talk about troop numbers. We don’t really talk about, in a way that it penetrates, contractor numbers. Sometimes we’ve had more contractors than uniformed military or blue badge [intelligence] people.

AB: There is an audit going on at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) right now around a conflict of interest regarding contract awards to a company that DARPA’s director, Regina Dugan, used to head. But aside from piecemeal audits like this, do you think there will ever be an audit of the entire Pentagon, as you have called for?

JS: The lack of knowledge even of how many contractors there are, at the State Department, the Department of Defense, even the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – it’s just remarkable, how little visibility there is on those numbers. Any kind of audit and oversight program is totally inadequate if it doesn’t cover these contractors. And I’m not saying that we need to go back to having our military do KP duty, but I am saying that if KBR is providing meals, then they ought not to rip off the taxpayer, and if they are fined, they ought to pay for it, and we ought to have some criteria that if you engage in misconduct often enough, that you are prohibited from getting more contracts.

AB: Would you support contractors in any combat positions?

JS: No, I do not. There’s going to be a report coming out pretty soon dealing with what is inherently a government function, and I’m looking forward to that. I absolutely would not. We cannot outsource war.

AB: I have another question related to international conflict for you because you’ve worked a lot on advocating for women. You’re one of the original cosponsors of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which has yet to be adopted after being introduced twice, and it has a relatively modest price tag …

JS: You know, I just talked today to Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), and he sounded enthusiastic about reintroducing IVAWA in a bipartisan way and getting to work on that.

I want to say one other thing about women, though. One of the reasons I had a pretty diverse package of job creation corps in my jobs bill was to make sure we had some gender balance in the kind of jobs we would create. So, when I talk about a health care corps or a community corps, or even teachers, I think it’s really important, when we make direct investments to create jobs, that gender balance be a consideration. I am all for infrastructure investment. We need to rebuild our infrastructure, but we also have to invest in human capital. I have a child development corps in my bill, and those jobs are more likely to have more women.

AB: So you think the infrastructure jobs will lean more toward men?

JS: I do. Jobs in the trades mostly today still are men. The good thing in the president’s bill is that there actually is some money for training and money targeted toward getting more diverse in those jobs. That’s a good thing, and there are good organizations of women in the trades that are pushing more women, but the reality is, right now, that those kinds of construction jobs are very male. At the beginning of this recession, men were the primary victims, but then it started to hit public sector jobs and there were layoffs at the state and local levels. Those public sector jobs have traditionally been more diverse in terms of gender and race. And so, we’re seeing now growing numbers of unemployed among people of color and women. Much of my bill goes to direct job creation by helping local government, so it can directly help restore some of that work that went to minorities and women.

AB: A question about a more personal experience you undertook while also in your role as a legislator: In 2007, you lived on food stamps for a week, and afterward you gave a pretty humble report back. You spent most of a weekend eating only chicken soup …

JS: I’m actually going to do that again at the end of October. It’ll be interesting to see. The amount of money has gone up, but so have food prices. I don’t know exactly what that dollar figure is, but I’m going to do it a little differently this time. I’m going to start in the produce section instead of ending up there after I spent most of my money. We’ll see what happens.

As artificial as doing it for a week may be, it was an indelible experience for me. Now when I go to the grocery store, I watch people actually weighing things before they get to the checkout, taking things out of their baskets and putting them back on the shelves, and I realize that shopping, for many people, is a very different experience than I have been used to. I’m much more sensitive to that, and I see how hard it is. And I have every advantage. I don’t have little kids pulling at my skirt and asking for strawberries, let alone snack foods, and I have a kitchen where I can store food and cook food. I have transportation that can take me to a grocery store. If I collect coupons from different stores, I can actually drive from one to another and get things that are cheaper. I have to remember now, I’ve got to start collecting coupons.

AB: It must be unsettling at times to have an experience like that over a short period of time and then go back to a position, as you’ve described, of relative privilege, where you’re responsible for these policy decisions that are often most felt by the people who are most vulnerable.

JS: I have to tell you, I don’t feel a tremendous personal separation. I feel like that is my primary constituency and my primary obligation, and I seek out opportunities to connect with those people in my district. I’m aware of my privileged position. I don’t feel a sense of, that I feel like some of the Republicans do, that somehow they’re deserving, that people who make a lot of money deserve to keep it.

I was the target of this whole right-wing thing recently. I was on the Don Wade and Roma Show in Chicago, which is on WLS, which is a right-wing radio station, and the question was, how much of my money do I deserve to keep? And I made the case that you don’t deserve to keep all of it, that it’s not so much deserving – everybody has to pay their fair share for things like national security and fire departments and things we decide to do together. And it was as if I had said something controversial!

And I talk a lot about this crazy business of class warfare and about the America that I grew up in, where the norm was that one person in a family could get a good job, often a union job, and could live a middle-class life. My father was a furniture salesman, my mother, after I was older, went back to being a Chicago Public Schools teacher. Everyone I knew went to public school, got a good education, and that was the normal, people expected it. If you lost your job, you could go out and get another one. You could buy a car, and you could save up and buy a house.

We passed a health care bill that says 26-year-olds can stay on their parents’ policies, but in a way that’s an admission of the fact that young people no longer can expect to go out – if they can get a job – to get health care. In a way, it’s an admission of the failure of what’s going on in our economy right now. We have to raise expectations again. I want to see people with their hair on fire that ordinary people deserve better. Ninety percent of Americans having less wealth than half of one percent of Americans: this is not good for our country; it’s not good for them.

AB: Some people would argue that in those better days you’re describing, certain groups, people of color and women especially, didn’t experience it that way.

JS: Yes, but you know, I’m reading about the Great Migration from the South to the North. While it’s absolutely true that African-Americans were discriminated against when they came north, there were still jobs in the post office, in the stockyards, in the steel mills, that people could get, so they did live better than they did in the South. There were jobs in the North. And it’s true that women, after the war, often had problems, so it was back in the kitchen. And it is true that there was a lot of discrimination.

But it was also a time of the great compression of wealth. There was not this kind of disparity in income like there is now – nothing like it. And the wealthiest Americans were paying taxes at a much higher rate than they pay now, and there was growth in the economy. I don’t deny that life was not great for various segments of our society, but, overall, there was more opportunity.

AB: It was interesting looking at some of the early photographs from the Wall Street protests to see how some of the protesters were dressed, how they carried themselves, and then to see, next to them, some of the bankers and other people going to work, not only very dressed up in their suits, but wearing different expressions and sometimes holding themselves in a very different way. The disparity can be striking.

JS: I think people sense that in their bones, except that there’s a kind of resignation that has to be turned into anger. I suggested to my food pantry people that maybe they do a food distribution in front of Congressional offices and empower the people who are getting food, to teach a lesson to policymakers. I think it has the potential not only of enlightening some Congresspeople, but maybe also changing the dynamic of that handout of food, that recipients become protesters rather than victims.

AB: It does seem like there are a lot of angry people taking the initiative to protest and so on, but some of them do appear to be the usual suspects. Young, self-described anarchists, professional activists. And there’s a wait to see when the anger will become more widespread, or whether it will.

JS: I go to these home foreclosure workshops. We co-sponsor them with the state, and there’s housing counselors and some of the lenders are there, and these people come with their papers. Their heads are down – they’re depressed; they’re not furious. I want them to be furious. We bailed out the damn banks, and now those banks won’t help them.

AB: So what is keeping people from getting angry?

JS: I think we need to do some better organizing. I think we also need to hold out real solutions and at least clarify what the demands ought to be. Everyone cannot allow the American dream to slip. That’s what these people are experiencing, the American dream just slipping through their fingers. They have to understand they are the victims. The perpetrators, the banks, no one’s going to jail, they’re getting their bonuses, and now they don’t want to lend any money. They don’t want to refinance. They don’t want to do anything for these homeowners. The better response is to really get mad.

AB: It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the president’s jobs bill. Although it was reported mid-September, about a week after he made his proposal, that the calls were not coming in to Congressional offices the way they were during the deficit talks.

JS: The president does need to get out there more with the consistent message of calling legislators. I know that there is organizing going on around town meetings the Republicans are having, and that’s really important. There has to be a cost to their obstructionist behavior and to their incredible sticking up for the richest “job creators” – we have to just blow that one apart. If that’s the truth, then where are the jobs? Because boy, they’re sitting on $2 trillion. The very idea that Bank of America and General Electric (GE) didn’t pay taxes ought to be enough to make people rise up.

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