A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
The White House calls on Congressional leaders to join budget talks led by Vice President Biden. Ohio’s Senate passes a bill curbing public-employee bargaining. And the Supreme Court rules the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- Ron Elving Washington editor for NPR.
- Karen Tumulty national political reporter, The Washington Post.
- Doyle McManus columnist, Los Angeles Times.
Friday News Roundup Video
Diane and the panelists respond to several callers defending public employees against recent moves by some politicians, most notably Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), to balance state budgets by cutting public employees’ pay and benefits:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Employers in February hired at the fastest pace in almost a year, causing the unemployment rate to fall to 8.9 percent. Vice President Biden opened talks with congressional leaders on this year's spending by offering an additional $6.5 billion in immediate cuts. And Wisconsin's governor threatened pink slips for thousands of state employees if his proposal, stripping many of their collective bargaining rights, is not passed today.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio for the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup, Ron Elving of NPR, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times. I look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Join us by phone at 800-433-8850. Send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody. It's good to see you all.
MR. RON ELVINGGood morning.
MS. KAREN TUMULTYGood morning.
MR. DOYLE MCMANUSGood morning, Diane.
REHMI must say today's labor report -- is the labor market strengthening? And is this as good a sign as it looks, Ron Elving?
ELVINGThis is good news. No way, it is not good news to see the economy adding jobs, almost 200,000 jobs, nearly as many as private expectations were pointing toward. It's good that these are jobs in the private sector that -- actually, the public sector, state and local jobs are going down.
REHMTwo hundred and twenty?
ELVINGThey're dropping substantiality. And we'll get into the reasons for that, of course, in a moment.
ELVINGBut, for the moment, we do see the private hiring improving and improving substantially enough that the unemployment rate has actually -- slightly, slightly -- dropped again. And the underemployment rate, which is a sometimes less noticed rate -- and it's, of course, much higher of people who are working fewer hours than they would like, but do have jobs -- that also came down two-tenths of a percent. This is incremental. It's tiny. It's not fast enough. We do need to create jobs faster than this, just to get back to where we were a year or two ago. In the long run, the population is expanding. We have a lot of young people who are underemployed. So it's not, ultimately, good enough. But it's so much better than where we were in so much of 2009 and 2010 that it has to be seen as good news.
TUMULTYYeah, I think one of the things that is most relevant in all of this news is the fact that the private sector does appear to be doing better. We've had this argument going on ever since the stimulus package was passed, whether, you know -- with the Republicans suggesting somehow that government jobs that are created by government spending are not real jobs. This does suggest, again, it's unarguable when the private sector starts coming back the way it does. And economists do suggest that this is something that does look sustainable now.
MCMANUSAnd when we mean sustainable, that's where I'll be a little contrary and then say, yeah, this is good news, but it's slowly good news. The -- one of the federal bank president's forecast that, if this keeps up, well, by the beginning of next year, the unemployment rate could go down to 8 1/2 percent. We could conceivably be somewhere in the mid to low eights through much of next year. Well, that's good news, but this is agonizingly slow. And that also has a political impact. An unemployment rate that is heading toward 8 percent is good for the incumbent president of the United States because the arrow is going in the right direction. But that's still a much higher unemployment rate than anyone wants to see.
REHMOkay. But look at the -- look at this from another perspective, that of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke who says if the policies that Republicans want to institute go through, it really could hurt the job growth. Karen.
TUMULTYYou know, the Republicans feel as though the issue of cutting spending has so much salience out there. And, also, people, like the House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, argue that in last year's election suggested that people don't believe that government spending really creates jobs, is really the kind of engine for the economy that the Obama administration says it is. So, I think, this is -- again, it's an argument that we're going to hear made, but it's unclear how far it takes us.
ELVINGSince the last peak, I believe, in public employee roles, we've come down something like 400,000. When those people are thrown out of work, they have largely the same problems that people who are thrown out of work in construction or manufacturing or any other field may have, in fact, in some respects, worse. Because, if we're shrinking the government and doing so with the thought of making it a permanently smaller government, those people don't stand much chance of being hired back to the same jobs, whereas, in construction or manufacturing, we can hope that, in a recovery, some of those jobs come back quickly.
MCMANUSThere are really two arguments going on here. One is how many jobs will be lost by these budget cuts? And much of the argument this week was among different economists with different numbers for that, not whether but how much. Mark Zandi, the private economist who once advised John McCain, estimated 700,000 jobs...
REHMWould be lost.
MCMANUS...would be lost through the budget cuts that the House Republicans are talking about. Ben Bernanke's number works out to something more like 200,000 jobs. Okay. That's the immediate debate. But there's also a larger theoretical debate, if you like, which is that Republican economists, including John Taylor out at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, are arguing, well, okay, maybe in the short run, you will have these job losses because of the reduction of government money in the economy. But, over the long run, you will promote more private jobs because people will see the deficit is coming down, and that will encourage private industry.
REHMBut doesn't this come down to a theoretical argument? And how can we truly know what the answer is until all the figures, all the cuts are on the table?
MCMANUSIt's partly theoretical, and it's partly historical. Actually, the Keynesians will say that John Taylor is absolutely wrong and, if you look at previous examples, that, in fact, we need more stimulus spending right now -- not less. As non-economists, you're going to have a hard time coming up -- coming to a definitive conclusion.
TUMULTYWell, I do think that the White House, in particular, has sort of, you know, engaged the -- and we'll talk a little bit more about what happened this week later -- but they have engaged the Republicans on their own turf. The White House is now offering spending cuts. So, again, I think, at this point, the argument in Washington, at least, is not whether there will be spending cuts. It is how big they will be.
REHMWhat kinds of spending cuts are we talking about, that the White House is offering?
MCMANUSThe White House is more interested in cutting things at the margin. The White House is more interested in cutting things that it has never been all that interested in, in general. Although some of the other cuts that they're offering really hark back and remind me of some of the cuts we heard from Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, cutting things like community development grants and cutting things that matter to people out in the states and in the regions, not the programs, of course, that Barack Obama has championed in the last couple of years, particularly things with respect to education.
MCMANUSFor example, today, the president is going down to Miami this afternoon to encourage a number of projects that he says will help us educate ourselves so that we can outcompete all the rest of the world, that we have to be the best educated country in the world if we want to succeed and, indeed, prevail in the rest of the 20th -- 21st century economic competition.
TUMULTYYeah, the actual cuts that got made this week with this two-week spending bill were -- they essentially gave themselves two weeks of breathing room to come up with some new -- a larger agreement to prevent a government shutdown. There were $4 billion worth of cuts in that, but those were all -- over half of those were earmarks. Now, nobody is standing up for earmarks these days. And then the other programs that they cut were things that, actually, President Obama himself had singled out for cuts because they were either redundant or ineffective.
TUMULTYFor instance, there was one that was supposed to bring broadband to remote rural areas. Well, it turned out, if you looked at how the thing was working, it was actually bringing broadband to the suburbs in places that already had broadband. And there were a number of education programs in there that sounded good in theory but that, as you looked at the data, didn't seem to be producing much by way of progress.
REHMSo, Doyle, then what happened between congressional leaders and Vice President Biden yesterday? Vice President Biden said we had a good meeting. The conversation will continue, more cuts put on the table.
MCMANUSRight. Vice President Biden took in a new proposal from the White House for $6.5 billion more of cuts. That would get us to $10.5 billion. The House Republicans have proposed $61 billion. So at least we now have, in a sense, the framework for negotiation. What is supposed to happen next week is that the Senate Democrats are supposed to come up with a proposal, the Senate Republicans are going to come up with a proposal. Both of those proposals will fail. We're in for some classic brinkmanship here.
ELVINGBy the way, Diane, after that first round of talks yesterday up at the Capitol, the Vice President Joe Biden issued a one-sentence statement. Now, Joe Biden issuing a one-sentence statement is a little like Charlie Sheen turning down a chance to be on a talk show.
TUMULTYBut I must say -- I would say, while all these negotiations are taking place in public with all these parties putting their plans on the table presumably, I would keep my eye on Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell because it is -- if you look at what happened during the lame duck session when everybody was out negotiating in public, but the actual deal got cut in private between those two -- and nobody even knew they were talking -- I think that may be the model for going forward if, in fact, something is actually going to get agreed upon.
REHMAnd what happened to those six behind the scenes? Do you remember the three Democrats, three Republicans?
ELVINGRight. Kent Conrad, Saxby Chambliss -- a number of other people were getting together quietly, and, presumably, they still are. They haven't been trumpeting what they're doing. They've been talking to each other. We have groups of people like, say, Saxby Chambliss from Georgia, very conservative Republican, Mark Warner, the young senator from Virginia who's a Democrat, traveling around the country together, actually doing a little bit of a "Mutt and Jeff" show just to show that they can, in fact, talk some way to each other.
REHMRon Elving of NPR, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times. When we come back, we'll look at what's happening in Wisconsin.
REHMAnd, in Wisconsin, we have a situation where Democratic Sen. Nick Milroy was tackled by police as he tried to get back into his Senate office. We have an e-mail from Alice, who says, "Now, there is a video of police in the Wisconsin State House tackling him to the ground as he tried to enter the building to get into his own office." This standoff between the Wisconsin governor and elected representatives, and, Doyle, he says he's going to start laying off 1,500 members of the government, starting today.
MCMANUSThat's right. He's threatened to lay off notices now. This is, in part, because layoff notices often have to go out well before any layoffs are planned. The governor wants to cut the budget 7 percent overall, including about an 8 percent cut in what Wisconsin state government sends to school districts. This situation is really kind of spinning toward chaos. You've still got those 14 members -- Democrats of the state Senate -- somewhere out there. We're not sure whether they're all in Illinois or -- some are apparently sneaking back occasionally...
MCMANUS...into Wisconsin. And there are polls that suggest, even in Wisconsin, that the governor is playing a dangerous game here, that, in fact, Wisconsin voters -- a plurality of them, at least -- don't like the idea of stripping all collective bargaining rights from state employees. So this could really be a crash.
REHMExplain how collective bargaining affects budget cutting.
TUMULTYOkay. First, there are two issues here. One is the fact that the governor is saying they need to cut the budget. And the public employee unions have come around as saying, yes, we understand that, and we are willing to negotiate what kinds of cuts we're going to talk about. We will contribute more to our health care. We will contribute more to our pensions. Beyond that is the argument of whether their rights to collective bargain should be limited. And that is where, I think, the governor -- judging by the polls that are coming out -- is losing the battle for public opinion.
TUMULTYNow, the governor argues that even though these cuts are a relatively small portion of the budget, that he needs to have the ability to limit collective bargaining because nearly half of the Wisconsin state budget goes to local governments, goes to school districts, goes to counties, and that if those local governments don't have the ability to renegotiate their contracts -- not the current contracts, but the coming ones -- and have more power at the table, they aren't going to be able to make those cuts.
REHMBut wasn't there a huge question raised, Ron Elving, when the governor gave $143 million in tax cuts to corporations in Wisconsin, and then turned around and said, we're broke, therefore we have to make these cuts, and we have to cut off collective bargaining?
ELVINGYes. And this is a situation that obtains -- and several other states as well -- including in Ohio where John Kasich, another Republican governor just elected in November -- have said, look, we've got to lower the costs of doing business in Ohio or Wisconsin or Indiana or where have you -- Michigan is another -- where the governors have been elected on a very pro-business platform of saying, we've got to cut taxes. We've got to make it more attractive for people to bring their business to Wisconsin or Indiana, whatever our state is. And we've got to say to them, you can work here and create jobs here. Don't go to the Southwest. Don't go to the South. Don't go overseas. Stay here in the Great Lakes region. And, in order to do that, we have to lower taxes on business. This is the argument.
ELVINGAnd in order to then balance our state budgets with that much less revenue in a recession -- which cuts into revenue, in and of itself -- we have to do something pretty drastic on the cost side. And what we're going to do is we're going to do something which, it happens, they've been interested in doing for a long time, which is backing off on allowing public employees, teachers, a number of others -- not police and fire in Wisconsin, but does include police and fire in some of the other states -- would not be able to bargain as they have so successfully done in recent decades to not only adjust their pay, raise their pay, but also to create these pension benefits and health care benefits that are so important to workers.
TUMULTYAnd, if I could just add -- 'cause I misspoke a bit on what would actually happen to collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Public employees would be allowed to continue to negotiate on wages only, but those wages' increases would be capped according to inflation. So they argue that's really -- you know, being able to negotiate on only a part of your compensation package -- and even that is capped -- is essentially no negotiating power at all.
MCMANUSNow, there is an argument here on behalf of the structural changes the governors are talking about because the history in lots of states has been that, in those negotiations, it's been pretty easy for governors and legislators, in good times, to grant modest payroll increases that the voters don't get mad about, but very generous benefits and pensions. There's a huge pension overhang that a lot of states have. So there is a problem there that needs to get fixed. The question is, do you need to abolish collective bargaining rights to do it?
MCMANUSAnd an interesting test case is going on out in California where Jerry Brown, the newly elected governor, is negotiating with his public employee unions, is telling them, your pension rights and your health benefits are going to have to get trimmed. The unions are coming to the table on that. He's also talking about tax increases, which is an important element here that the Republican governors in Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin will not brook.
REHMNow, the Wisconsin Senate passed a resolution ordering the arrest of those senators who left the state two weeks ago. Would that arrest be constitutional if these senators were still in Illinois? Ron Elving.
ELVINGThis is a question that will have to be fought out in the courts. It's not something that we've had a lot of experience with, people leaving their state to prevent a quorum in the State Senate. There will be two views on whether or not they can go into another state. Now, of course, if they can catch them sneaking back into their offices to get some of their clothes, then they won't need to go across state lines to arrest them. If the state is exercising its usual authority to compel the attendance of senators at a lawfully constituted meeting of the State Senate, that's going to be a lot less controversial.
REHMSo is there a potential for a backlash here? Karen, is the governor sort of moving a little ahead of the people?
TUMULTYI think he is. I think that a lot of these governors have looked at the example of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has become something who has relatively high approval ratings in New Jersey for a Republican and has become something of a YouTube folk hero for his confrontations with his state's public employees. But it's the question of whether you get tougher with them in the negotiations, or you end their ability to negotiate. And I was -- again, I think there was a backlash, a political backlash, against public employees themselves because people do perceive that they get more generous benefits than people are getting these days in the private sector. But there is the question of whether then you take away their rights to bargain, and that may have overshot the runway.
REHMBut, you know, yesterday or a day before on this program, when I asked a representative of Americans for Prosperity about the pension benefits, he called them lavish. And I asked him what lavish meant. And we had a representative of the unions here, and she said that the middle range was $26,500.
TUMULTYYou know, there's -- that's -- first of all, I think pretty much every economist will tell you that pension benefits in the public sector are more generous these days than they are in the private sector because most of us in the private sector have 401 (k) s, which are called defined contribution plans, and you just hope your investments pay off well. Most people in the public sector have defined benefit plans. They have guaranteed benefits when they retire. And, again, this is a -- again, something that is a -- almost luxury that the private sector doesn't have anymore. Also, I think most economists who have looked at public sector benefits do believe they are -- the retirement benefits, at least, are somewhat more generous than you get in the private sector.
REHMBut are the salaries, at the same time, somewhat lower?
TUMULTYYou know, you hear all kinds of things. I mean, there is -- it is true that the average benefits do not look terribly generous. But in every state, you hear stories of people who game the system to get six-figure pensions, people who run up their overtime in the last three years that they're working. Gov. Cuomo in New York, when he was attorney general last year in New York, did a whole investigation on this. So there are individual anecdotes that tell one story, but the overall numbers do tell another.
MCMANUSBut there is also an equity problem here in the sense that -- look, no one is going to argue that elementary school and high school teachers are overpaid in this country. I'll make that argument not only because my eldest daughter is teaching high school in a public school in New York City, but people go into that profession of teaching both because they want to teach and because -- let's face it -- the pensions and the benefits are pretty good. And there's a promise there of some stability. It's not as scary as the private job market.
MCMANUSNow, if you want to change the rules, you can change the rules over time. And you can certainly renegotiate the deals that we have historically made with our civil servants -- federal, state and local -- that promise that extra job stability. But this isn't a negotiation that's happening in that kind of careful and dignified way. It's happening in an atmosphere of political polarization, where governors in Ohio and Wisconsin have nailed their collars to the mast and are turning it into a crisis.
REHMAnd what about Rhode Island, where the governor -- the mayor of...
REHM...Providence has laid off 2,000 teachers?
ELVINGRight. Pretty much the whole teaching -- well...
REHMThe whole group.
ELVINGYes. And, of course, they're -- we're going to have a struggle that will take some weeks to resolve. And probably most of those teachers will get back their jobs. But here, again, you have someone who is saying we have to balance the budget. The only way we have it under our control, if we can't turn to the revenue side, is to lay people off or to literally eliminate those jobs. Now, we know we have to have teachers. We know we have to bring these people back. And the popular struggle over this -- the voter struggle, the political struggle -- really is much influenced by the point that Karen raised a moment ago, which is that the private sector has been absolutely decimated in terms of its pension benefits and what it can expect.
ELVINGThere was a time when four people out of five had a defined kind of pension, as Karen was describing. Now, that number is down to, I believe, something like one in three. This is a tremendous contrast between private workers and public workers. And it, of course, makes it possible for all of those governors -- from Chris Christie, on around the Great Lakes, all the way to Wisconsin -- to make these kinds of crisis decisions that Doyle was describing.
MCMANUSAnd just a technical note on Providence, the teachers haven't actually been laid off. But they've been given their advance notices, their layoff of notices of 30 days from now. So they haven't lost their jobs, but, in effect, they have been taken hostage.
TUMULTYThere's one more argument that the unions make that, I think, ought to be brought in here as well. You know, they say one of the reasons that these pension funds suddenly finds themselves hugely underfunded is because elected officials chose to underfund them. They weren't transparent about their liabilities. They invested them in things like the stock market and the real estate market on the, you know, assumption that these things were booming and they would keep booming forever. So the union members are saying, hey, you know, why should sanitation workers have to pay for the fact that elected officials made some bad gambles?
REHMWhat's the counter-argument?
REHMOr is there one?
ELVINGI suppose the counter-argument is the money has to come from some place and that everyone thought it was a good idea, for example, that a lot of private companies to invest their 401 (k) money in the company's own stock. It didn't work out so well at Enron.
REHMSo who's going to teach the kids in Providence if all these teachers are laid off, Doyle?
MCMANUSThe teachers won't end up getting laid off. The mayor is playing chicken with the council, and they will end up, I assume...
ELVINGMost of them.
MCMANUS...unless the mayor wants to -- most of them. There will be -- the problem is not laying off all the teachers. The problem is that we are going to be defunding school systems all over the country, not just in Providence, at a time when, as you say, we need to be putting more money and more energy into the system.
REHMDoyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Supreme Court ruled on an interesting case last week. Talk about that 8-1 decision, Karen.
TUMULTYThis had to do with a group that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church. It's actually, you know, basically one large extended family. But they go around the country protesting, among other things, at the funerals of U.S. servicemen who've been killed in action and carrying horrific signs saying, basically, that these young men and women's deaths are the result of God punishing this country for its tolerance of homosexuality. It's really offensive speech. I think just about everyone would agree with that. But the court decided, overwhelmingly, that that is part of our system, to tolerate offensive speech, and that is really what free speech is about. So it was a pretty overwhelming decision. The single dissenter was Justice Alito.
REHMWere you surprised with that?
TUMULTYYou know, he's been sort of interesting on free speech issues, even coming up to now. He's so -- he's showing, I think, a way -- you know, a tendency to sort of chart his own course. But he has suggested now, in a couple of cases, that the right to free speech is not absolute. And, in this case, he said that our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.
REHMYou've had some personal experience along this line.
TUMULTYI did. I did. The Westboro Baptist Church actually chose my son's high school last year, Bethesda-Chevy Chase. It's one of the high schools in the suburbs here in Washington for a protest. Their great offense was that they have a student organization that is a Gay-Straight Alliance. And so they announced they were going to come and do their thing outside my son's school. And I was really impressed by the administration at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School because, first of all, they told the parents to butt out, which was probably a great beginning. And then they decided that they were going to use this as a teachable moment for the kids.
TUMULTYAnd an explanation of the kids that, you know, one of the reasons that our system of democracy has been so durable and so strong is that it allows for things like this. And, ultimately, they allowed the kids to organize their own counter-protest. It was a very dignified thing. I certainly found my own son was both shaken by the whole thing, but, also, he came away with it with a real understanding of our Constitution that, I think, he wouldn't have gained in any other way.
MCMANUSIt's worth noting, though, that in that eight justice majority decision, the Supreme Court -- and I think it was Chief Justice Roberts who wrote it...
MCMANUSThe court held that states and municipalities can regulate these demonstrations, that a state can -- for example, in this case, it was the state of Maryland. Maryland now has a statute that says that a demonstration at a funeral has to be on public property, not -- and can be kept 100' away from the service. In the case of -- that actually happened here, the demonstration was about 200' away. So it is possible to regulate these to try and preserve both the right to speak in public and the right to have a private funeral without being harassed.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, it'll be time to open the phones, read your e-mail, your Facebook messages and your tweets.
REHMAnd a correction. As always, we thank our listeners. Jeremy in Rockville says that Rep. Nick Milroy was not one of the AWOL state senators. He's an assemblyman. And we also want to find out exactly what time that tackle by police took place because we know that the Capitol was shut down at a certain point. All right. And let's go now to Carmel, Ind. Good morning, John. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning. When the pink slips start flying for the teachers, are the congressmen and senators going to take a pink slip as well? And when we talk about the benefits that are outrageous for some of our public officials, where you have a salary for life, health care benefits -- you know, they go to cut health care benefits. Why don't they cut theirs? I mean, that would make a big impact upon me if my elected official says, you know, we can't afford this, we can't afford that. We're going to cut the health care for the mother -- single mothers with children. So guess what? We're going to cut our health care as well.
TUMULTYYou know, it's been interesting because I've been looking at cases around the country of -- for instance, pension -- you know, people who game the system. And it's surprising how many of the people who do it are actually elected officials themselves. So, again, I mean, that is also -- and don't forget, by the way, you know, these elected officials are in this odd position of negotiating these deals that help them politically and that help them personally in many cases.
ELVINGThat's right. I mean, we have two kinds of public official here. I don't think that you can lump together and not make a distinction between somebody who is elected as a congressman or a governor and someone who is a schoolteacher. I mean, they have different functions. And the elected people have all the power for making the decisions unless those schoolteachers have some power to collectively bargain.
REHMAnd we've gotten a few e-mails like this one from Mary. She says, "Please clarify that, at least here in Ohio, as a public employee, I will not receive Social Security benefits." Karen?
TUMULTYThat was the case -- it is the case in some places. It was more the case among employees who were hired a long time ago. More recently, a lot of states have changed their laws so that people do participate in the Social Security system. By the way, that was the same thing that happened to federal employees as well in the 1980s.
MCMANUSIn fact, we sometimes get the question of how can members of Congress vote on Social Security when they're not paying Social Security taxes. Well, in fact, they are...
MCMANUS...in the system now.
REHMAll right. To David in Akron, Ohio. You're on the air.
DAVIDThank you. Why is it that the same people who think public employee pensions are too high don't say a word about huge bonuses for corporate CEOs and financial institution officers, not to mention tax breaks for the wealthy?
REHMThat sort of sticks in people's cross. Doyle?
MCMANUSWell, it does. And it comes down to that basic philosophical argument if you want to take the pure end of the Republican Party, the Tea Partiers and the fiscal conservatives, that the private economy is the engine of economic growth, and they can give out any darn bonuses they like.
REHMOkay. A little clarification on the member of the state assembly in Wisconsin. He was tackled by police as he tried to enter the state Capitol that's closed to the public. The altercation took place after pro-union demonstrators were ordered clear from the Capitol for the first time in 17 days. After the crowds had dispersed, he then tried walking into the building, coming through the doors. He can be seen on this videotape getting grabbed around the neck, tackled and held down, shouting in protest until the Capitol police let him up, and he left.
ELVINGCan you imagine how frazzled the Capitol police are in Madison, Wis.?
ELVINGAfter weeks of these all-day, 24/7 protests, after all the tension that's been going on between the parties, the whole world is watching. And these people just thought they were going to be having an ordinary February at work.
REHMLet's go to Geneseo, N.Y. and to Tony. Good morning to you.
TONYGood morning. I have three brief comments. You know, I think a lot of the talk about union pensions and union benefits reminds me of the rhetoric in the lead up to the Iraq War, where no one was paying attention to the facts. Even Mr. McManus, today, described our pensions as being huge. And David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote an opinion piece saying that unions were the problem, union contracts were the problem, making very false claims. Our pensions are not huge. My mother worked for the Department of Motor Vehicle for 17 years, and when she died two years ago, her defined benefit plan paid her $383 a month. That's -- and so I wish you guys would get your facts straight.
TONYOn a second point, I would also like to let people know that our unions know that we should contribute to any workers laid off in Wisconsin because they're fighting a very strong fight, and I'm willing to contribute money to support them if they do get laid off because of the governor of Wisconsin giving money to the rich by tax breaks. And it's going to happen in New York when they cut off millionaires' tax so they can lay off state workers. It's completely unfair, completely unfair.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Any comments, Doyle?
MCMANUSSure. Tony, when I used the word huge, I wasn't talking about individual pensions, let alone your mother's pension. I was talking about the overhang of unfunded liabilities for pensions that too many states have let build up. In Illinois, it is gargantuan, and in other states, it is merely huge. That doesn't have anything to do with anybody's individual benefits. It's a real fiscal problem that does have to be solved.
TUMULTYAnd, again, this is one of these things where it's -- you know, there are -- I think when people look at the average numbers and what most people get, they do look fairly modest, and they are aimed at, you know, assuring that people in their -- you know, in their twilight years have a decent standard of living. The problem has been -- and a number of states are trying to crack down on this -- that there have -- these kinds of systems are also open to abuse and gaming. For instance, just last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he's going to try to crack down on what these practices were. Again, people in their last -- in law enforcement and other areas, in their last few years rack up a lot of overtime so they can boost the value of their pensions.
REHMBut then you've got people, as you say, gaming the system. You've got the huge vast majority of people who are simply earning a minimal in the way of retirement benefits.
TUMULTYAnd there's also the question -- a lot of these jobs are very physically demanding. I mean, do we really want 58-year-old police officers chasing bad guys? You know, there is that question, too, that there are a lot of jobs in the public sector that there really is no equivalent...
TUMULTY...to in the private sector.
ELVINGThere is a lot of scapegoating that goes on in the political conversation on both directions. But, particularly, when people take an outrageous case, someone who's gamed the system, it's essentially an anecdote. And they use that as though it were typical, and they use that to characterize all these benefits as "Cadillac." We've heard that term quite a bit...
ELVING...in these states. Cadillac benefits. It recalls a little bit the '70s and '80s when Ronald Reagan used to talk about catalogue -- excuse me -- Cadillac welfare benefits and welfare queens.
REHMAll right. To St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Jeanette.
JEANETTEGood morning. I'm a little bit confused about whether the State of Wisconsin pays the public employees' pensions any more than it pays the governor's pension. In other words, what I'm trying to get at is, it seems to me that these are a part of negotiating contracts no matter whose pensions it is.
TUMULTYWell, in most states, you have -- when you say the public employee pensions, you're talking about a vast variety of plans. Individual school districts, individual towns, individual counties negotiate their own benefit plans with their different employees. Interestingly enough, in some ways, Wisconsin is an ironic place for this to have started because, first of all, their pension system is in pretty decent shape compared to a lot of other places. The unfunded liabilities are relatively small, and the benefits are not particularly generous compared to the benefits that you see in other parts of the country.
REHMHere's a message from Twitter, who says -- Creeper says, "Diane, please make sure to point out that public worker's pensions are paid for by taking money out of their paychecks' deficit neutral."
ELVINGI'm not really sure what that point is.
ELVINGI'm not sure what that e-mailer is saying.
TUMULTYThe public workers, they -- in many places -- do contribute -- there are some public workers who contribute nothing to their pension benefits. And then the other part of it is taken by the -- you know, the county or the city. They also contribute to it. But I do believe -- and I've seen data on this out of Boston University that suggests that public employees who also get Social Security benefits contribute a slightly lower percentage of their own pay to their retirement than private sector workers do.
REHMAnd here is a message from Trudy on Facebook. "Will public sector unions have any recourse if the Ohio bill goes through? Or are they finished? Could the Wisconsin bill be discriminatory since it was aimed at bargaining units, mainly female teachers and nurses, excluding the mainly male professions, police and fire?" Doyle?
MCMANUSSure. Well, unions can always go into court and challenge the constitutionality of the legislation. As Trudy points out, in Wisconsin, the legislation apply -- does not apply to the police and firefighters' unions, and the state would presumably have to defend that principle. It's a bit curious that a state would say that it cannot tolerate collective bargaining by teachers, but it can tolerate collective bargaining by police and firefighters. In Ohio, that statute -- which is likely to pass, hasn't finally passed yet -- is even more vulnerable to challenge on a couple of provisions.
MCMANUSIt's a more sweeping statute. It does cover the police and the firefighters, which is a big political liability -- that makes it easy to attack politically. But it also has a remarkable provision that would bar public employees from speaking to legislators while contract negotiations are going on. And that looks pretty clearly to most legal scholars like a flat-out violation of your First Amendment right to talk to your legislator anytime you want to.
TUMULTYA number of people have pointed out that they do not believe it is a coincidence that the police and fire unions, who are exempted from these cutbacks and collective bargaining in Wisconsin, also supported Gov. Walker in the last election.
REHMKaren Tumulty. She is national political reporter for the Washington Post. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Barbara in Washington, D.C. Good morning. You're on the air.
BARBARAHi. I'm going to ask your panel if they could discuss a little bit -- if they are up to speed on this -- the fact that the states without civil servants that are unionized, such as Texas, have, you know, greater deficits than what they're looking at in Wisconsin and other states that are trying to change the collective bargaining language of these unions. And just -- and, briefly, a comment -- it is pretty disconcerting to sort of see this demonization of anybody who have a pension. And it would just seem that, in America, we would be happy that people have health care and pensions, and those are the things that, you know, our parents grew up with and just are, you know, help secure a -- the middle class.
MCMANUSActually, if you take a look at a kind of a spreadsheet of all the states -- the Union states, the non-Union states, the deficits -- you don't get a very consistent pattern. Whether a state is running a deficit or not depends on how that state and its legislature have behaved over the last 20 years. So you've got, you know -- you've got states with strong public worker unions like California and Illinois that do have terrible deficits. You've got Texas with a terrible deficit, even though it's go no unions at all. So all that really shows is that the issue of collective bargaining is not a silver bullet. It doesn't guarantee that a state is going to end up in one place or another.
REHMAll right. To Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Good morning, Al.
ALHi. I have a question and concern. Is there any type of a timeframe if the -- in the collective bargaining process where the two parties have to agree to a date in which they have to resolve their issues? Or is this just go on and on and on until you get a different elective party into the, you know -- the government and just could solve that one?
TUMULTYI would assume it varies on -- depending in the state or locality that you're in. In some places, you can bring in a third party as a mediator. In some places, you can't. So, you know, everybody sort of operates on their own rules.
REHMSo where is this going to end up? Where are we heading?
ELVINGThe caller raises a very good point, which is that we have some pendulum swing going on here, where -- after the 2008 election in a lot of the states and certainly here in Washington -- the Democrats came into power and they said there are a lot of things we've been waiting to do for a long time. And now we have the people with us because the 2008 election told us that. And we're going to do them all, whether it's health care or cap and trade and the energy area. We're going to save the environment. We're going to redo Wall Street. We're going to do all these things, and the people are with us. It turned out that there was a little bit more doubt about that. And what the Democrats really had in 2008 was people's dissatisfaction with the existing conditions and with the Republicans.
ELVINGThey were not necessarily on board for everything the Democrats wanted to do or had ever wanted to do. Now, we have the opposite situation. Just a couple of years later, after the 2010 election, Republicans won a lot of governorships, especially in the Great Lakes region. They picked up 63 seats in the House, six in the Senate here in Washington. And, now, they are pursuing, more or less, the exact agenda that they have had for many, many years in terms, not just of the deficit -- because we're not really looking at the deficits so much. We're looking more at spending and government role. And we're looking at those discretionary things in the budget that Republicans have never particularly liked. And collective bargaining, especially for public employee unions, is very high on that list.
REHMWell, to be continued. Ron Elving, Karen Tumulty, Doyle McManus, thank you all for being here.
TUMULTYThank you, Diane.
MCMANUSThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. Have a great weekend, everybody. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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