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Kerry Ready To Fight In Divided Congress27:21
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Sen. John Kerry spoke with Radio Boston on Monday in WBUR's studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sen. John Kerry spoke with Radio Boston on Monday in WBUR's studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In an increasingly bitter political environment, the U.S. House and Senate will begin work this week facing tough challenges in a nation still reeling from the brink of economic collapse.

Sen. John Kerry, the senior senator from Massachusetts and the 10th most senior senator in the chamber, will look to jump-start the economy in this, his 26th year in office.

We speak with Kerry for a comprehensive discussion about the economy, President Obama's State of the Union address, infrastructure investments and the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., now that the GOP has taken control of the House.

Guest:

  • Sen. John Kerry, senior senator from Massachusetts

[transcript]

Meghna Chakrabarti: You're here in Massachusetts announcing a 500-job contract in Pittsfield with General Dynamics to build this new littoral combat ship for the U.S. Navy.

While it definitely brings 500 much-needed jobs to Pittsfield, it's also a $5 billion contract that comes at a time where, for example, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, saying that the nation is in extreme fiscal duress. And, in the fall, the bipartisan debt commission said military spending actually needs to be cut in order to attack the nation's debt. So is this contract fiscally prudent at this time?

Sen. John Kerry: Yes. Yes because it is going to produce much-needed upgrade of our capacity and, in the end, will save money. Because the ships that are being built are modern, state-of-the-art, much more efficient, much fewer people to man them. Less fuel. I mean, all of the above. So in the long run the United States is not going to suddenly fold up its tent and disappear as a global military power, we can't afford to in terms of many interests, ranging from humanitarian interests, efforts to bring assistance to people in the wake of disasters, to our national security interests with respect to religious radical extremism and terror. This ship — which has been approved incidentally by the same Robert Gates who is calling for those cuts — is an important modernization step for our U.S. Navy.

I believe we will have to make reductions in our military spending. I think that's appropriate. I think the time has come where we do need to make some tough choices on both sides of the ledger, military and civilian side. But this ship, I do not think, is outside of the parameters of what it takes to have a modern and efficient military, even as we save money.

In regard to the jobs, are there other sectors in Massachusetts that could have equally benefited or benefited even more so from a big $5 billion boost, that possibly could have created even more jobs here?

Look, we have to take the opportunities as they arise and and fit within the parameters of what is appropriate in terms of expenditure and what is needed in terms of the matrix of health care, education, military, technology, R&D — other kinds of grants that Washington is engaged in. As I say, this is one where these particular people — the ones at General Dynamics — have the expertise and the capacity to do what is necessary in this particular sector of our federal budgeting. There are many other sectors that also benefit in Massachusetts — MIT, University of Massachusetts — many other people get grants for research into nanotechnology of energy-efficiency or other kinds of things. We recently had major grants come to the state, which I'm proud of, because I think they're critical to building the infrastructure of the future, new grants for transportation, for our rail system, to build high-speed rail, the Pioneer Valley is going to benefit, southeastern Massachusetts is going to benefit.

So the answer is, there's a large, some would say too large, federal expenditure that is going to happen anyway, and I'm proud that Massachusetts is competitive in as many different sectors that we are.

Another sector that has had your attention for some time is of course clean energy and green energy. You're certainly familiar that Massachusetts hit a major bump in the road with the loss of Evergreen Solar, Inc., the plant in Devens that was making solar panels and took its operations to China...

Very frustrating...

And part of the reason why is these jobs went to China, where, as a nation, it announced in 2009 it's going to bump $3 billion into essentially a market of solar cells — they're going to build 275 solar plants, etc. So in the face of that kind of major investment from a nation, how is it that Massachusetts, which wants to stand behind its green energy economy and green energy future, how can it compete?

This is the huge question for our country, really, not just Massachusetts, and I've been thinking and working on this very, very hard of the past few years. A year ago, I tried to lead the Congress to a climate change energy initiative that I think would have made it much less likely that Evergreen leaves and much more likely that a lot of other companies were created here. And I'm very frustrated that we weren't able to achieve that.

I'm pushing the White House as hard as I know how. I hope the president will embrace in his State of the Union major initiatives — I expect him to with respect to energy. The United States of America needs to lead the world in energy technology. We can. We invented the solar technology that is now being developed in China. We invented it in the laboratories of Bell Labs 50 years ago. And here it is being developed overseas. We don't have one company in the top 10 of solar panel-producing companies of the world. I mean it's worse than a tragedy, it's a crying shame in the terms of American aspirations. We need leadership that is prepared to say to America, "We're going to go to the moon, as we did in the 1960s. We're going to go to the moon here on earth in our push for technology, we're going to make the same kind of commitment to be first, to lead the way."

And that is the biggest single kick that I can think of to the American economy. That, more than anything else, is where there are tens of thousands, millions of jobs, waiting to be created. Every day that goes by that we allow a China or an India, Mexico, Brazil or another country to be developing there, we're losing market share, not just for a year, we're losing it for decades. So I think this is a national security imperative, personally, for the United States, and I will be pushing this very, very hard over the course of the next year.

I will also make a major proposal over the next weeks on infrastructure development. I know in today's newspapers there's a big brouhaha about spending and the Republicans are saying we can't spend. If the Republicans pursue the policy they're now talking about, they are going to lead America into an economic desert, because they are failing to understand the connection of legitimate long-term investment. And a good conservative economist will tell you that long-term investment in the infrastructure of our country is not spending, it's investment, and it produces many times more revenue, in terms of jobs, incomes from the particular projects, than it amounts to in terms of spending. So we got to get our act together. The United States has got to get smart and tough and disciplined and focused and start to move into these sectors or it is going to be too late. It's simple.

Well then how do you counter the argument which certainly comes from the other side of the aisle — you’ve heard it a million times — is that these longterm infrastructure just balloon an already out-of-control deficit?

That is not where the deficits are coming from. It’s just not where they’re coming from. We’re not doing the kinds of investing that we ought to be doing in the longterm interest of our country. I mean, the average American understands when they drive across the Tobin bridge, when they ride the MBTA in Boston, or if they travel to some other part of the country — you go across Brooklyn Bridge, you go on the major highways -– how’d they get there? Where’d those highways come from? How do you drive from here to New York? How do you get on an Acela rail that goes from here to New York to Washington and so forth?

Because our grandparents and our parents built it. We invested in it. And the truth is, now we’re not investing in that kind of infrastructure and in the future, and the result is America is declining in its capacity to move people, to move goods, to attract businesses, to provide quality of life and create jobs. Now, if you look at the budget of the United States, the deficit is not coming from those expenditures. The deficit is growing because of the entitlement side that we are locked into, which is structural, and because of our defense expenditures, and because President George Bush gave America a tax cut we couldn’t afford and didn’t need at the time. Nobody asked for it. But he did that. It was a credit-card tax cut, just run up the debt. And, he ran two credit -card wars, one of which we never should have become engaged in, which was the war in Iraq. That is a huge increase in the deficit. So those are the things that we have got to start to get a handle on and if we do that we can grow. But if we do it the way the Republicans are talking about doing it — just this "scorched-earth cut policy" — I’m telling you: You’re going to drive America back into another recession, and you’re going to drive America back into a less productive state than its been in any time in modernity.

But you are currently in a Congress which, on the House side, has the GOP majority, and then of course there’s a smaller majority for the Democrats in the Senate side. There doesn’t seem to be the mood in Washington right now to really push these big new spending projects.

Look, if you’re investing in a bridge that’s going to be there for a hundred years, and which has tolls, and will ultimately pay for itself, that’s not a spending project. And if it gets people to and from work faster and more efficiently, if it gets products that are produced from one place to an airport more efficiently, then America gains. If we view those kinds of projects as spending projects — you know, most businesses have what’s called a capital budget. When they grow their business, when they build a building, when they build a new plant, that’s a capital expenditure. And the truth is, they don’t pay for it out of current expenditure the way we do in the United States Congress. I mean, only the government runs as ineffectively as we do today, without actually crediting those things that are longterm capital expenditures as a capital budget and not having to balance it against your current accounts expenditure.

And I understand that previously you have spoken about a particular idea on how to create the capital necessary to create these necessary infrastructure projects. And, by the way, the people of Massachusetts can look just outside their front doors and realize that we absolutely do need some sort of spending on roads, bridges, we’re very familiar with that, as you know, in the state. But previously you had mentioned the idea of some sort of infrastructure bank.

Yes, I’m going to be proposing an infrastructure bank. Europe has a European infrastructure bank, other countries do this. What you do is, you take a certain pot of money, a small pot of money, and you leverage private sector investment. You put that money into a revolving loan fund, it is repaid over time, so it is not an expenditure, it's a loan, and it's made on a strictly revenue balanced analysis and you wind up rebuilding infrastructure. You attract private capital to those projects. And the private capital comes to those projects because they have the opportunity through bonding to be able to make money over the longterm.

Can you attract the same kind of funding creativity to other major issues that people care about? We mentioned green tech, education...

Well, education is a lot tougher to attract that kind of capital to because there isn’t that stream of revenue. Your product is a person whose brain has hopefully grown and enhanced to have the capacity to think and produce and be a high-end job-filler.

But also the best investment in the future of the United States.

The best investment. It’s the most important investment there is. The single-most important investment there is, is education. And our education system, by and large, is not doing what it ought to be doing. We have to improve significantly. Other countries are beating us badly in scores of math, science, geography and other kinds of measurements of knowledge capacity. And we’ve been talking about this for as long as I’ve been in public life. Another thing that frustrates me deeply: We have to, once and for all, confront the question of what it’s going to take to provide first-rate education in the toughest places. This is not a struggle in some cases, in Weston, in Newton, and some other higher-income communities in Massachusetts. But I guarantee you, in every low-income community in our state — in Lawrence, Mass., in Holyoke, in Boston, various places — it’s a tough issue. And it’s not just money; it’s leadership, it’s standards, it’s the relationship of teachers to the students to the administration. It’s a whole series of things. The biggest single issue that I’ve found over the years is leadership. Where you have a really strong principal you have tended to have a better school. And to have better relationship to teachers, and parents and students.

With the Congress as it is, do you honestly think any meaningful legislation can be passed in this session?

Well, obviously I'm hopeful, I am always an optimist, otherwise I wouldn't go at this the way I do. But I am an optimist, and I have a basic sense of possibility that keeps driving me. I'm hopeful that reason can take hold here, that we can find a critical mass within the House and Senate that recognizes truth when they hear it and see it. So my hope is that as we get into this debate, we can reason with each other.

If, on the other hand, people are determined simply to be ideological, and partisan, political, we're in trouble. And there's no other way to put it, and the proof will be in the pudding. We'll see what happens. The president will put some proposals on the table tomorrow — we'll see how the Republicans treat it. And if they decide that this is just part of the 2012 campaign, and they're going to turn America into a playground for perpetual campaigns, we're all going to pay an enormous price for that.

I will use every power I have, every breath I have, to fight against that kind of partisanship and unreasonableness. We have to compromise, we have to sit down and find the common ground that acts in the best interest of our nation. This is about our country. You know, there are big stakes here. Future generation coming along, we want them to find good jobs. The way we're going, we're cheating future generations of that future. Because we're not investing sufficiently in the things that are going to make a difference to our economy and to the quality of life in America. It's not all just about "the balanced budget." Yes, we want to balance the budget. Incidentally, the last time we balanced the budget, we had a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and we made the tough choices. We can get back to this, but we're going to have to be disciplined and find that common ground.

If the ideologues that have come to the U.S. House of Representatives particularly, and a few to the Senate, are determined simply to pursue this scorched-earth policy, then 2012 I hope will be turned into a major referendum about the future of our nation, and I know where Barack Obama will be and I know where I will be in respect to those issues — I think on the right side of history.

On that note, wasn't 2010 a referendum on the Democrats and not having used the mandate that was given in 2008?

No, I don't believe that, I really don't believe that. I think it was an emotional and fear-driven reflection of people's anxiety about where we are in the country, and the steps we have taken to redress what George Bush and the Republicans did, was the steps we had taken simply hadn't taken full hold yet. I mean the reality is the economy has grown better every single day since that election. And not one additional step has been taken to do that. The fact is we took those steps two years ago and we took those in response to the request from President George Bush. Barack Obama didn't come in and request the bailout; George Bush did, Henry Paulson did. I remember Treasury Secretary Paulson quaking, coming front of us in the caucus, and telling us that if we didn't do this the entire financial system was going to go under and the world might be affected. That's what he said, that Republican, and the Democrats stood up and took the hard vote and did it, and a few Republicans. Most of them ran for cover on their own president, and we turned around and put in place the financial regulatory reform, the Troubled Asset (Relief Program) — which incidentally has made a profit and returned money to taxpayers.

Yes, we had the health care fight, which I think was the right fight to have for our nation and our values and ultimately you cannot tame the deficit if you cannot tame health care costs. And you cannot tame health care costs unless you get Americans covered, because if you leave people outside of the system, every single one of them gets health care — they go to the hospital, they get emergency care — but it isn't distributed in a sensible and fair way and so we wind up hurting corporations more and the whole system would crumble on itself. I mean the lack of honest thinking about this is just shocking to me, and I think that hasn't caught up yet. I welcome this fight in these next few days, I'm really looking forward to this, because I think these guys are going to step over that line too far. If they go for their ideological excess, America is going to see how out-of-touch and simply unrealistic it is with respect to building America's future. And that's what the 2012 election will be about. I welcome that.

So you welcome a fight, but at the same time you also are calling for a spirit of compromise?

I welcome the debate, I welcome the discussion of what's in the real interests of our nation, what's really going to build America. Are you going to build America by disinvesting? Are you going to build America while China is putting $600 billion into clean energy (and) we're going to do nothing? Is that how we're going to build America? Is their vision one where people go back to being refused to their health care because they have a preexisting condition? Is their vision that children are going to be uncovered again and therefore have less capacity to learn in school and grow up to lesser jobs? I want to know what their vision is. If it's just a balanced budget at the expense of all those things, I want that fight.

So are you also prepared then to step up as a leader in terms of calling for a sense of bipartisanship once again in the Congress? For example, Sen. Mark Udall, a very simple suggestion has said maybe folks should cross the aisle when they sit down for the State of the Union. Do you plan on doing something simple, but perhaps as meaningful as that?

Well if all the dates haven't already been taken up I'll try to find somebody to sit with. But I think the more important thing, frankly, is to come together not in where we sit but where we vote, where we stand on the issues. That's how we have to come together here. I'm happy to join in on bipartisanship. I gave a speech two weeks ago at the Center for American Progress in which I laid out a major call for this bipartisanship, and I think I was very reasonable about what I said, but I also pointed to the reality that the filibuster that had been used over the last century very few times has been used over 136 times in the last couple years alone by the Republicans to stop everything — judges from being appointed, simple nominations from going through, the most run-of-the-mill legislation — all of this has been subject to a scorched-earth policy of "stop everything, make Obama fail". That's been their goal, make Obama fail. I mean, Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans. announced twice publicly that their highest priority is defeating President Obama in 2012. And they stop at nothing in the effort to do that.

Bringing it back home to Massachusetts, the junior senator now is Sen. Scott Brown, and for whatever number of reasons he won the special election in January 2010, one that people in Massachusetts particularly found meaningful was he really went around and connected with voters. The famous truck and driving it around the state. So now that you're the senior senator, do you see Brown's election as maybe a call or reminder to you that it's once again your opportunity to reconnect with the people?

I always... I mean, look, first of all I wore a barn coat several years before Scott Brown did, when I ran for president, so this is not something new to me, about going out and meeting the people. I won the primary in Iowa, the caucuses, I won the primary in New Hampshire, because I connected with people and I understand what it means and I won five times running for the United States Senate connecting with people. I'm going to Pittsfield today. I do this on a regular basis, going around the state, meeting people, connecting with people, so it's not new to me. It was a campaign. But I learned long ago that it's important to listen to people and get out there and hear what your bosses want you to do. I mean I've never had any illusions about who I work for or why I'm doing what I'm doing. I represent the people. I'm very lucky to be doing that. I have huge respect for that role. This is my home, I love it here. And I will continue to enjoy connecting to the people.

Editor's note: Some parts of this interview were edited for clarity.[/transcript]

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This segment aired on January 24, 2011.

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