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Politics: Economic Recovery
With Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)
Thursday, May 15, 2003; 3:40 p.m. ET

House Republicans approved legislation Friday that would reduce taxes by $550 billion over 10 years to help boost the faltering economy. The measure passed just as the Senate readies itself to vote on a similar, $350 billion tax cut package. Democrats in both chambers have argued that the cuts would swell federal deficits.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) was online to discuss the economic situation, the tax cut proposals and the Democratic response.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

New York, N.Y.: Senator,

What is the Democrats policy on taxes and jump-starting the economy? And as a follow-up, why don't we hear about these ideas?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: We believe that short term and immediate tax cuts can stimulate the economy but the president's plan is a ten year plan with very little stimulus in the first year or two. Our approach would be to give tax breaks to working families who will spend the money and provide a boost to the economy.

The press regrettably does not cover much of the substantive debate, but more about the horse race -- who has the votes rather than the ideas of what is being pushed.

Boston, Mass.: Senator,

What do you say to those in your party who are supporting this tax cut?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: Well they certainly have a right to their views but I disagree with them. The president's fiscal policy will expand the deficit from $6 to $12 trillion in ten years. I don't view that as progress or helpful to the economy. In addition, there are fewer than a handful of Democrats in the Senate supporting the president's plan.

Taylor, North Dakota: Senator Dorgan:

North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted for President Bush in the last election. They support the president's policies including his proposed tax cuts. Why then are you so opposed to tax cuts? Why do you think you are more qualified to spend my tax dollars than I?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: I am not opposed to tax cuts, I am opposed to giving most of the cuts to the richest Americans, as the president proposes to do. Precious little of the president's tax cut will end up in the hands of working families, farms and Taylor, N.D. I also do not believe many of the people in Taylor want to double the national debt as the president's plan would do.

Montclair, N.J.: Senator, could you and the Democrats in the Senate please filibuster or otherwise block the bill raising the Federal Debt ceiling? It's shameful that we're passing tax cuts and more debt at the same time; couldn't you refuse to allow the ceiling to be raised until the tax cuts are withdrawn entirely? I've written to my Senators about this, but it doesn't seem to be part of the program.

Sen. Byron Dorgan: Unfortunately the country will default on part of its debt very soon if the debt ceiling is not raised. We are having to raise the ceiling because the Bush fiscal policies call for very large deficits.

Washington, D.C.: From 2001 to 2003, Senate Democrats have proposed over $2 trillion in increased spending -- more than the total of both President Bush's tax cuts. Please explain how spending $2 trillion lowers the deficit.

Sen. Byron Dorgan: We Democrats during the Clinton administration eliminated the budget deficits and turned them into surpluses. Seems to me that it is hard for you to make the case, now that the Bush administration is proposing we double the federal debt, that the responsibility for that belongs to someone else.

Richmond, Va.: Everyone is arguing about the details of the various proposed tax cuts-how much, to whom, in what form, for how long, etc. Republicans (at least Bush) want big tax cuts; Democrats want smaller tax cuts. Everyone is accepting the basic assumption that tax cuts create jobs.

Let me ask a question that no one (including you, so far as I know) have asked, and which I hope you will ask in your speeches both on and off the floor of the Senate:

If tax cuts create jobs, where are the jobs from the 1.35 trillion 2001 tax cut, which was far bigger than any currently proposed, and after which we lost 2 million jobs?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: Excellent question. I have asked that question on the floor of the Senate. Economic growth and jobs is much more about people's confidence in the future than it is about promised tax cuts. You are right. Two years ago we were promised by the president that large tax cuts would create jobs and we have ended up loosing over 2 million jobs in two years.

Conway, Ark.: In the past you have forcefully criticized the Democratic leadership for too easily conceding the heartland in presidential elections. I know many people who want to see a responsible government influence in their lives, whether in terms of agriculture, health care, workplace safety, etc. etc. etc. Are you hopeful the next campaign will aggressively court voters in middle America? Will you play a leading role in leading that charge to mobilize all of America to get us back on track?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: Yes. I am writing to all of the Democratic candidates telling them that I expect they will run a national campaign and not give up in the heartland before the campaign begins, as has been the case in the last decade and a half.

Washington, D.C.: Republicans, including all current major leaders, when first elected said they wanted a balanced budget. Why do you think they have completely let go of this idea? And, more importantly, why are the Democrats so shy in attacking them?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: That is a question one would have to ask President Bush. He and his Treasury Secretary seem to think deficits don't matter any longer. I think they are profoundly mistaken.

We have been highly critical of the fiscal policy and resulting deficits but have gotten very little coverage. These are the largest deficits in the history of the country and I feel they will threaten economic recovery.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Many states are facing their worst budget deficits since the 1940s. In recent years, devolution have shifted the responsibilities of many federal programs to the states. Will the states now be provided with sufficient funds so these programs may operate properly?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: We are trying to provide some funds to the states, but the Bush administration opposes that but, as you know, in the turbo charged 1990s many states permanently reduced their tax base. Now they find themselves short of money. They have to address at least some of this on their own.

Hazen, North Dakota: As the baby boom generation moves into retirement heath care costs will be one of the most difficult expenses to manage on an individual and national basis. How will the tax plan effect the states and federal government in providing Medicare/Medicaid and other health care resources?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: The resulting increases in deficits and doubling of the federal debt will crowd out the resources necessary to deal with the baby boomers retirement years. That is the danger we face and why these decisions are so important.

Ogden, Utah: Treasury Secretary Snow made a strong argument on the TV networks this last Sunday for this tax cut. He is basically reversing his position of several years ago against big deficits. Why has the Democratic leadership failed to exploit this shift more aggressively with the public? It seems to me that this is a P.R. debate and the President and Republicans are winning. The Democrats should be more aggressive, don't you think?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: No questions that the President and the Republicans are winning the PR debate! The President has a pool of reporters, Air Force One and a cross country agenda that is covered in every detail. You are right about Sec. Snow -- he has changed his position. We have made that point repeatedly on the floor of the Senate and in press conferences.

Washington, D.C.: The Democrats had the majority in the Senate last year and for the first time in 25 years the Senate did not pass a budget. Do you blame Tom Daschle and this record for losing the majority?


Sen. Byron Dorgan: No. We tried very hard to pass a budget last year and as you know, at the start we were split evenly and we were not able to find a key to getting the budget. I regret that, but that is not what influenced the election last fall.

East Lansing, Mich.: Greetings, Senator,

Since the Reagan era, it seems that the Republican party has taken such a "high stakes" position on endorsing tax cuts and letting our national financial health spiral down deeper into debt and more debt.

In our family budgets, most of us would be mindful of having to pay off our personal debts sooner or later.

It seems as though the American public understands this, too. We have been polled and shown consistently to reflect a sentiment of reluctance towards cuts and deficits.

I don't understand the rationale for greater debt, and with the public never enthusiastic with it, why don't they change their tune?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: I don't know the answer to that. I know that the easiest lifting in American politics is to propose tax cuts. It doesn't take much thought or courage. The question is what do we want to go without in our country? Roads? Food safety? Defense? Those are the choices we -- Democrats and Republicans -- need to face.

Washington, D.C.: Senator Dorgan,

What effect, aside from the deficit, will this tax cut package that will imminently pass the Senate, have on domestic spending, including education, health care, housing, welfare, childcare, etc.?

And how big is this tax cut package going to be after it is conferenced with the House?

Sen. Byron Dorgan: The president has proposed substantial spending increases in Defense and Homeland Security and is a decrease in federal revenues due to the tax cuts. That means there will be substantial pressure to reduce the rest of discretionary spending that includes education, healthcare, roads, farm programs, etc.

The conference with the House will certainly enlarge the cut, and the tax cut leaving the Senate today will be over $400 billion over the next ten years. The president and the Republicans want a larger cut and they will most likely get it.

Sen. Byron Dorgan: I regret that I am out of time today. We are doing marathon votes in the senate --10 minutes per vote -- and we have been at it since 9:30 this morning. Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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