Episode 15: What You Missed While Comey Was Testifying

Congress quietly took the opportunity to hack even further away at consumer protections and healthcare. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

On Thursday, while Comey was testifying, Congress quietly took the opportunity to hack even further away at consumer protections and healthcare. Rebecca and Jeremy walk through what we missed while all eyes were on Comey, in this week’s installment of In Case You Missed It. Next, Mustafa Ali of the Hip Hop Caucus explains how communities of color and low-income people will bear the brunt of Trump’s climate denial agenda and the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris accord. Then, what the Washington Post’s latest swing and miss on Social Security disability says about the mainstream media’s failure to properly report on poverty and disability, with Ned Resnikoff of ThinkProgress. And finally, it’s not just Trump’s budget that’s a Trojan horse for tax cuts for the wealthy. Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute shares the good, the bad, and the ugly from D.C.’s own budget, which the D.C. Council is set to pass this coming week.

This week’s guests:

  • Mustafa Ali, Hip Hop Caucus
  • Ned Resnikoff, ThinkProgress
  • Ed Lazere, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute

For more on this week’s topics:

  • Republicans fast-track Trumpcare, and take steps to dismantle consumer protections.
  • At long last, good news out of Kansas.
  • How communities of color will bear the brunt of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord.
  • In which Rebecca debunks the Washington Post’s most recent article peddling myths about disability.
  • Everything you need to know about D.C.’s budget fights.

This program aired on June 9, 2017.


REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas, find us on WeAct Radio, the Progressive Voices network, on the TuneIn app, iTunes, and everywhere podcasts can be found. This week, what does Trump’s climate denial agenda, including his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord, mean for low income and communities of color. I talk with Mustafa Ali of the Hip Hop Caucus. What the Washington Post continued swing-and-misses on Social Security Disability say about failures in mainstream media when it comes to covering poverty and disability. I talk with Ned Resnikoff, a senior editor at ThinkProgress. And finally, it’s not just Trump’s budget. The battle over tax cuts brewing over D.C.’s budget. Ed Lazere of D.C.’s Fiscal Policy Institute unpacks where that is all headed. But first, Jeremy Slevin, the Slevs.

JEREMY SLEVIN: Hello. We’re back to the Slevs.

VALLAS: Well yeah, you’re still the Slevs.

SLEVIN: Always.

VALLAS: You’ll always be the Slevs. The Slevs forever. The Slevs joins for In Case You Missed It. But in case you missed it this week is what Republicans were quietly up to when everyone was paying attention to Comey and Russia.

SLEVIN: I think it’s actually in case you missed it this week —

VALLAS: ’Cause you probably did miss it!

SLEVIN: All eyes were on Comey, meanwhile they were voting to take away health care.

VALLAS: And we should say upfront, like, just to be clear, all eyes were on Comey, appropriately, right. This is, some reporters have said this is even Watergate, you know, 10.0, this is a critical moment in our nation’s history. I do not mean to take away from that in the slightest.

SLEVIN: But I think we can walk and chew gum.

VALLAS: But that’s the hope. That we can’t only —

SLEVIN: Right? Or we should be able to. Like I think Comey was hugely important and a hugely salacious hearing and revealed a lot. But I also was kind of peeved that there was no network news coverage of the fact that the House voted to repeal Dodd-Frank, which would have prevented another recession. Like, this is a huge deal in its own right. And maybe Comey is the lead story but I think the second story should be, hey we’re about to repeal Wall Street regulation.

VALLAS: Among other things.

SLEVIN: Among other things.

VALLAS: There’s also I should say at least, my own opinion is that there’s a level of media fatigue and I say this, not on the part of necessarily the people reading. That’s maybe an open question.

SLEVIN: Or listening.

VALLAS: Producing media coverage, thank you, thank you.

SLEVIN: I thought you were talking about our show.

VALLAS: No, no one’s tired of our show, Jeremey. Everyone’s excited and enthusiastic every week. So but I’ve observed a level of media fatigue on the part of those producing media. Journalists, editors, whoever it is making those decisions. Even when it comes to health care; they feel like they’ve already told this story, this has been going on all spring, it’s not clickbait anymore and Comey is. So here we are, watching a battle move forward at, really incredibly rapid pace to undo the Affordable Care Act, to replace it with something that is massively inadequate. In the process, 23 million Americans at stake, at risk of losing their health insurance. I mean to say, and all of that is playing out rapidly in the Senate, following the House’s decision to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But no one is paying attention anymore because it is literally all Russia.

SLEVIN: So, so exactly what happened in the Senate yesterday, while just down the hall from where Comey was testifying, also in the senate. So Senator McConnell implemented what’s called rule 14, which is a rule that means —

VALLAS: Wait, don’t tell us yet. I feel like there’s a moment —

SLEVIN: We can play the guessing game.

VALLAS: Well rule 14, I feel like there’s this oppotunity for —

SLEVIN: I know 13!

VALLAS: Tremendous intrigue, for smoke filled rooms. For code for secret handshakes.

SLEVIN: That’s kind of exactly what it is. [LAUGHTER] It’s like it’s perfectly named, like, we’re implementing rule 14.

VALLAS: Rule 14 is a go.

SLEVIN: Over and out. [LAUGHTER] But actually what rule 14 actually means is they can skip the entire committee process, which if you’ve seen how a bill becomes a law is how legislation is passed.

VALLAS: This is kind of a big deal.

SLEVIN: You introduce a bill, it’s referred to a committee who debates it and they hold hearings with experts. Now, obviously this is how the Affordable Care Act was done. It was done painstakingly over a year with multiple hearings in the house and senate.

VALLAS: Hundreds of amendments.

SLEVIN: Not what the house did. And the senate is now fast tracking it to move straight to the floor and they also doing it, of course, with no Democratic votes. They are using what’s called reconciliation so that they can override any filibuster from Democrats, to actually prevent a filibuster.

VALLAS: So 14 might not sound like a snazzy number but a huge, huge deal.

SLEVIN: A very scary number.

VALLAS: Translated, they are, the senate has made clear their decision to fast track as you said, their attempt to repeal this bill, to ram this through without a single Democratic vote. And to do it all with very limited transparency.

SLEVIN: And furthermore, they are planning on debating the whole bill and writing the whole bill in secret and then giving it to the CBO at the same time that they release it. So there will be maybe three or four days when this bill is public at all. And of course that is by design because they do not want their constituents to know what is in this bill.

VALLAS: A slight improvement over what the house did, which was to vote on a bill that they didn’t know was is and that they didn’t have a CBO score on, but nonetheless let’s not get our sense of normalcy and what should be done just because the house was so absolutely crazy in how they did this.

SLEVIN: So the time is now —

VALLAS: So this all happened. This all happened while people were paying attention to Russia.

SLEVIN: This all happened yesterday. Also on the other side of Congress, the house voted, as we mentioned, to repeal Dodd-Frank. It was almost unanimous, only one Republican voted against it. All Democrats voted against repealing Dodd-Frank so if you think that both parties are in the pocket of Wall Street, look at this vote. There is no clearer example.

VALLAS: Anything else we missed while we were all watching the Comey hearing?

SLEVIN: I’m sure there was a lot, but dismantling two of the core foundations of the Obama administration on the same day as the Comey hearing —

VALLAS: And just to be clear, not just dismantling pieces of legislation moved forward in the Obama administration, but pieces of legislation that are essential and really, really important for, I said that, like, essential and really really important are different things. [LAUGHTER] But essential and really, really important.

SLEVIN: It can be really, really important but not essential, maybe

VALLAS: Well, these are both.

SLEVIN: They’re both!

VALLAS: For the American people, so something that should be getting more coverage than it is. So other things going on that we should know in case we missed them?

SLEVIN: Yeah, some good news. We should always end on good news. So in the states, in Kansas, the legislature finally repealed these massive tax breaks for the rich that Republican governor Sam Brownback had signed a couple years ago. Kansas has been really struggling. They promised it would lead to job growth, in fact it hasn’t. Its economy has been in the tanker while other states nearby have done really well. The majority of these tax cuts had gone to the rich, so one $1.2 trillion in tax cuts are now repealed over the, they overrode Sam Brownback’s veto. Other good news, in New York City, they became the first city to disinvest in their public pension plans which cover teachers and firefighters from the private prison industry.

VALLAS: So a huge deal, really shareholders voting with their wallets when it comes to what they think about private prisons.

SLEVIN: Yeah, and in this case it was the biggest city in the country, a city entity, so this is a massive multi-billion dollar pension plan. Sadly, under Trump the private prison industry has been seeing a resurgence because he promised under Jeff Sessions to undo many of the Obama era rules that reigned in private prisons at the federal level.

VALLAS: But potentially progress at the state level or at the city level, we’ll see what else happens. So you actually managed to get some good news in, Jeremy this time, without googling ‘good news this week’ on air.


VALLAS: I’m proud of you.

SLEVIN:Fortunately I googled it before air.

VALLAS: Alright well don’t go away. Next up, Mustafa Ali from the Hip Hop Caucus talking about environmental justice and what President Trump’s climate denial agenda means for communities of color and low income folks in this country. Stay tuned.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. President Trump recently announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a multinational agreement meant to curb carbon emissions and stem rising temperatures attributed to climate change. Here to talk about how low income and communities of color will bear the brunt of this decision if it moves forward, and the rest of Trump’s climate agenda is Mustafa Ali, he’s the senior vice president of climate, environmental justice, and community revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus, and he previously worked at the EPA on environmental justice issues. Mustafa, thanks so much for joining the show.

MUSTAFA ALI: Well thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

VALLAS: Well for folks who aren’t familiar with the Hip Hop Caucus, what is it and what do you guys do?

ALI: Sure. Well, the Hip Hop Caucus has been around since 2004. Really, one of the things that we do is we give voice to those who are often unheard, who have been marginalized. The Hip Hop Caucus focuses on culture and connecting that with the civic process, with policy. With the things that really play out everyday in our lives. We have People’s Climate Music where we bring artists who are socially conscious together to use their platform to share on a number of different issues; civil rights issues, social justice issues, climate justice and environmental justice issues, a number of those issues. We also have Respect My Vote campaign, where we have engaged with over 700,000 and getting them registered to vote and engaged in the civic process. And we also have a new program coming out called Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities, helping those most vulnerable communities be able to get resources, to be able to really focus on moving their communities from surviving to thriving.

VALLAS: And you guys use a lot of tools that are maybe viewed as non-traditional, it’s not just publishing papers or hosting educational events. You use a lot of kind of cultural tools. Tell us a little bit about some of those and maybe give an example.

ALI: Oh sure. Everything from you know, engaging at concerts with concert goers, to utilizing poets, to be able to share their information to other artists, athletes and a number of other things. You know, we’ve been very very blessed that utilizing cultural influencers, those folks in respective states and cities and communities who actually are the movers and shakers, if you will. So everything, as Reverend Yearwood would often says, we are connected from the streets to the suites.

VALLAS: So let’s get back to Paris. We’ve been talking a lot about climate the last week or so, we as a country, I feel like climate change is sort of having a moment in the news where people are finally paying attention to it, a lot of the headlines don’t really get into what it actually means for individuals, for families and for whole communities if we head down this path and withdraw from this multinational agreement called the Paris climate agreement. Would love if you would unpack a little bit what it means, what’s the significance of this decision and then let’s get into what it actually means for people.

ALI: Oh sure. So you know, a hundred and ninety five countries coming together to say that they realize that yes, the planet is warming up, yes that climate change is real. And that we need to be able to address those greenhouse gases that are making our planet warmer. And the impacts that will come from that. So, you know, how that translates into everyday people’s lives is that as the planet warms up, we’re going to see more storms like Katrina, like Sandy, like Matthew. And the impacts that happen inside of those communities, especially for the most vulnerable communities can be devastating because not only the impacts from the storms, but then trying to recover after the storms. So that’s one of the reasons we need to be very, very focused. The other thing is that they’re be increased droughts and wildfires that will happen and we’ve seen, you know, across the country how that has played out and the impacts that happen in that space. And then, for many communities is already a disproportionate burden from pollution.

So, with air pollution, you know, we have asthma situations that are happening across the country. I know when I was a child, very few people had asthma. Now, when I’m across the country if I ask the question, almost every hand goes up in the room that either someone has asthma or knows someone who has asthma. Or other types of bronchial types of issues. And when we have the heating up of the planet, there’s a doubling down if you will on these types of situations. And we have to be very, very concerned with that. Because not only will we be losing more people’s lives because of this air pollution but also we need to be very, very focused on the changes that need to happen for our most vulnerable communities who unfortunately are disproportionately impacted in this space, especially African-American communities and Latino communities. And the flip side of what the president isn’t really getting is that there are also huge economic opportunities that exist by moving to a climate economy. Moving away from fossil fuels. Moving into solar and wind and advance manufacturing of those could create a number of jobs in areas that have unemployment rates. In the rust belt, where we know there are a number of very super talented folks who are looking for an opportunity and already have skins, could be moving into this space and creating you know, jobs that create an opportunity for folks to be able to move into the middle class if you will or to solidify their place in the middle class if they’re already there. And then also places like in Appalachia, where I come from, you know helping those coal miners to move away from the fossil fuel industry, but still be able to protect their culture, to protect their ability to create a living wage is extremely important also. So the president is really missing a prime opportunity by the decision that he has currently made.

So the blessing is, is that they are now little thousands of cities and other across the country who are saying that if the federal family won’t lead, then they will lead. And we were recently with the mayor of Washington DC, and she just signed an executive order saying that they will support and continue to move forward on some of the things that were identified inside of the Paris accord, so you’re seeing that across the country. You’re seeing people say that they have power, that they are engaged and raising their expectations in this space.

VALLAS: So you mentioned asthma, and that’s one area where maybe people understand the connection, right. Air pollution, maybe their kid has asthma, they know someone or someone in their kid’s school that has asthma, that’s a connection that maybe people understand readily. The impact on people’s lives, but there’s a lot of other reasons for what you mentioned coming to be. Which is that people of color in particular but also low income communities more broadly are disproportionately hit by these kinds of climate decisions and climate policies. Would love to hear you unpack a little bit more of that outside of just air pollution but maybe also bringing in things like extreme weather and the responses to those types of events.

ALI: Sure. Well you know, I was fortunate to be a part of the responses in Katrina and Sandy and a number of the other ones. And when we have these storms, you know there are those public health impacts of course that happen also, I remember when we were working on the Katrina catastrophe. One of the after effects was mold, and how it just, it was amazing how it exploded through many of the homes and existing structures that were there. And then folks having to deal with that situation as well. When we have this warming up of the planet also we begin to change seasons if you will. So you know, farmers have more difficult time in being able to grow crops and have the consistency in that space. We have pests that normally there is a season you know, where they stopped populating if you will and now those seasons will be longer so you’ll have things like mosquitos and the diseases that are associated with them as they’re allowed to have a longer, sort of, life cycle if you will. So especially for folks who are in some of the warmer places in our country, in Florida, along the gulf coast and some other areas as well. You know, we have to be very, very concerned with some of the diseases that are associated with some of the pests also that will be able to move forward.

The other thing that we find with some of the pollution that will be exacerbated by this is is you have liver and kidney diseases in some instances when folks have more exposure to some of these toxins and pollutants that are other there and a number of skin ailments as well and of course some of the other respiratory diseases that are also associated with some of the pollution and the doubling down, if you will that climate will bring in that space. And then we also need to talk just a little bit also about the cultural aspect of this. So, folks who are in indigenous lands, you know the changes that will happen in that space may make it more difficult for them to move forward on some of their cultural practices. Many of them of subsistence fishermen and we have other communities as well who operate in that space. And the changes in water temperature will make it much more difficult for the various species that they utilize to continue to thrive.

VALLAS: And then language barriers it feels like it fits into what you’re talking about. That was something that we saw in the Flint water crisis. Spanish speaking Flint residents learned about the crisis and the unsafe water a lot later than English speaking folks, so a lot going on here. In terms of the intersection of culture, of ethnicity, of race, of income and of the safety of your environment.

ALI: Without a doubt. I mean we always have to be very mindful of that. You know, in some of the various instances that I’ve worked on you know, we have a number of new arrivals to our country who are here whether from Asian speaking countries, from Spanish speaking countries or a number of other countries, maybe throughout Africa or even from Europe. And making sure that you know, the information is translated in a way that you know, can connect with those cultures. We also, when we begin to talk about culture, we also have to understand that some folks who are now coming to our country maybe coming from countries where they didn’t have the best relationship with their government. And the trust factor that exists in that space, and that’s why the work that needs to happen should be happening now, and not after something happens to build those relationships, to build that trust, and to build the mechanisms that are necessary to help people to be protected.

VALLAS: So environmental justice as very much core to economic justice and racial justice. I’d love if you’d take us out with a call to action of how folks can get involved, whether with specifically the activities that the Hip Hop Caucus is leading on or more broadly, these issues of environmental justice.

ALI: Oh sure. So in relationship to the Hip Hop Caucus, you know, we’d love for folks to come and join with us and folks can go to www.hiphopcaucus.org. You can be a part of our Respect My Vote campaign, or you can be a part of People’s Climate Music if you’re into the entertainment aspect of the work that needs to happen. And as it relates to environmental justice, the first and best thing to always do is to seek out those organizations that are in your area that are doing work already on the ground. They can use your assistance as long as you are coming in an authentic way and understanding that there is skills and expertise that already exists inside of communities, and you are being an addition to that incredible work that has been happening for decades now from organizations who are focused on environmental justice. They would love to have you.

VALLAS: Mustafa Ali is the senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus. Mustafa, thanks so much for joining the show and for everything you’re do to raise awareness about these issues.

ALI: Thank you so much.


VALLAS: With the Washington Post at it again, swinging and missing big time on Social Security Disability Benefits and the people that they help, I’m joined by Ned Resnikoff, he’s a senior editor at ThinkProgress, who covers, among many things, issues related to poverty and public assistance programs. Ned, thanks so much for joining the show.


VALLAS: So you did a tweet storm in response to the Washington Post piece, and without getting into sort of the nitty gritty of what the Post got right, what it got wrong and if folks are interested in my thoughts they can as always, go to TalkPoverty.org and read my latest in the what the Post got wrong on this series. But I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about one of the themes that you explored in that tweet storm, which was about the responsibility that reporters who cover these issues have when it comes to the policy connections. You made a specific point that got into kind of, how there are some reporters who have really really beautiful writing and then there are some reporters who are really good on policy. But what happens when you’re really good at the former and not so good at the latter?

RESNIKOFF: Right so I think first of all, these are two very different skills. Telling a compelling story about particular individuals is very very different from being able to look at data and create an accurate policy analysis based on that. And when you’re writing about policy I think you need to be able to do a little bit of both if you’re a reporter, but not everyone is going to be great at both. You’re going to be stronger at one or the other. And the disadvantage of being able to do something like pick apart a CBO report but not write a compelling narrative is that your stories are going to be boring. Which is, fewer people will read it but it’s not the end of the world. The disadvantage of being able to tell a really compelling, beautiful story about a handful of strong characters but getting the policy totally wrong is that a lot of people will read it and a lot of people will believe but it could be not just false but damaging. And I think that’s what you see with some of the reporting about poverty generally but also SSDI in particular, where there will be a handful of individuals who can craft this sort of really compelling narrative around and that compelling narrative, either it will be completely unrepresentative of the broader population who receives these benefits or there’s crucial context missing but the story feels complete because of the talent of the reporter in creating this compelling, seemingly holistic narrative.

VALLAS: And I should give credit where it is due, the series is beautifully written. It is some of the best ethnographic kind of journalism that we have today. In terms of how nice and flowery and pretty and compelling the writing is. One example that comes to mind is, could have been ripped from the pages of “Of Mice and Men.” There’s a whole kind of, mini story woven into the lede which paints a picture of a family and a chaotic morning and there’s a puppy and it’s a new puppy and then child drops the puppy and ‘Oh my God’ the puppy is dead, except it’s not dead and it comes back to life. And I’ll spare you the details any further than that but it reads almost like fiction. But on the flip side it’s missing all of that critical context as you note about, for example, how hard it is to qualify for benefits, how most people who apply are denied and how disability is not some pathological things that’s in people’s heads, it’s a very real and medical phenomenon. And it is deeply offensive to suggest otherwise. So I’m curious to hear you opine about some of the other themes and issues that we see not well covered by media in exactly this way.

RESNIKOFF: Well, one of the stories that came to mind actually is, I think it was called “Jimmy’s World,” that story from the ’80s, I think also at the Post.

VALLAS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah this rings a bell!

RESNIKOFF: Yeah. This is a perennial Achilles heel, I think of journalism because, you know, editors, they need to create a newspaper that people will actually read and I think also as an editor myself, I’m really drawn in by good writing. I’m really captivated when a reporter can create something that’s compelling and poetic and flows like you said, almost like fiction. But it’s much easier, because most editors are also not policy experts, or they’re editing things on a number of different subjects at once. And so, especially when a story is that compelling it’s much easier to miss the very serious conceptual or factual errors in it. And you don’t necessarily have the resources to check those anyway. But one particular subject where this comes up for me because I’ve written about it a lot in the past as a reporter, is SNAP, food stamps. Where there’s a similar construct around this perennial coverage of stories, either about food stamp fraud which makes up a, in reality, a very small percentage of actual total benefits dispursed.

VALLAS: Less than 1%.

RESNIKOFF: Yeah. It’s an extremely efficient and very, very not corrupt program. Remarkably so. But when there’s a story of fraud, because it fits into a certain narrative and also because reporters, for obvious reasons, are addicted to novelty, then it becomes a story. And the other thing is the constant policing of the consumer habits of people on SNAP. And you see this in SNAP, SSDI, a number of other benefit programs that receive any sort of media coverage where the myth of deserving and the undeserving poor is just such a powerful legend. So if you see people making bad choices with the benefits they receive or doing something to indicate that maybe in some karmic way, they don’t deserve those benefits. It’s a really, incredibly powerful narrative. That you can retrofit to suit a number of actual factual landscapes depending on what they are.

VALLAS: We saw sort of a feeding frenzy, no pun intended around SNAP earlier this year when the New York Times ran a piece, a front page piece that was all about what’s in the grocery cart of a household helped by food assistance and it was a big picture of lots of soda bottle and oh my god, they’re spending it all on sugary beverages. Of course, that wasn’t actually true, that was the headline and the lede but it was actually belied by the study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the New York Times was purporting to cover. But a great example of exactly what you’re describing.

RESNIKOFF: Right, and if I’m remembering the story correctly, part of the issue is that the New York Times failed to compare to the consumption habits of the average American family not on SNAP, which I do think that reports obviously shouldn’t fall into the trap of sanctifying poverty, because that’s the flip side of the myth of the undeserving poor is the myth of the saintly, intrinsically deserving poor, which is just buying the framing but approaching it from a different way.

VALLAS: We’re all humans. We’re all real people.

RESNIKOFF: Right, exactly.

VALLAS: No one’s perfect.

RESNIKOFF: Right. SNAP recipients and SSDI recipients should be treated like normal people and the expectation should be that they respond to incentives and benefits or penalties in the same way that any of us.

VALLAS: The same is very much true, specifically with respect to reporting on people with disabilities. And that’s not just specifically about Social Security Disability benefits but there’s a whole kind of, ongoing discussion within the disability world and the journalism criticism world about disability porn. It’s sort of this sympathetic oh my god, patronizing, let’s feel really bad for these people kind of spin that paints them as not even humans but as objects deserving of our pity or our charity. But not as people who have complex lives and who deserve to be speaking about their own situations in their own right.

RESNIKOFF: Right, and I think that’s the subtext with some of the SSDI coverage where they say, oh this person has depression or this person has chronic pain, do they really qualify for SSDI? It’s basically the subtext is this question of whether or not they deserve the special category of moral person we assign to people who we decide are really, quote unquote, disabled.

VALLAS: So back to your role as an editor and sort of what the responsibility is incumbent on people who work on these issues, it’s hard to have this conversation without thinking about 1996. And the myth of the welfare queen which was many years of reporting, kind of reaching a crescendo in the early ’90s that then didn’t just provide cover, it sort of provide an imperative for congress and the white house to act because there was such a national fervor around the perception that we had all these people in this country, particularly, and it was very racialized, single moms who were popping out babies so they could get all these supposed large welfare checks. The welfare queen never existed and there’s been tremendous media and journalistic criticism tracing it back and finding the origin in President Reagan’s speeches. But she had a huge impact, even though she wasn’t real. And it feels very much like that’s what we’re watching here with this ongoing zombie lie about the Social Security Disability programs and really public assistance and social insurance more broadly. What is your hope and what is your call when it comes to journalists who work on these issues?

RESNIKOFF: Well first of all I think that not enough journalists who report on these issues talk to experts in academia, sociologists or public policy experts. I think also there needs to be more interaction with caseworkers, social workers, you know, in reporting on SNAP and other poverty issues. I talk to a lot of people who work at food banks. The professional norms and the code of ethics you’re supposed to follow as a journalist differs from the sorts of responsibilities you have if you work at a non-profit or if even if you work as a sociologist covering low income populations. So, it doesn’t mean talking to those people uncritically or deferring your entire perspective to them, but if you’re going to a holistic picture of what’s actually going on then you need consult experts, not just whatever your idea of both sides of a debate might be.

VALLAS: I feel like there’s also a conversation to be had about the role and the responsibility of editors. I found it notably that, you know, a few minutes ago you mentioned that, you sort of said in passing, well there aren’t really the resources for editors to do much more than fact checking. Is that OK on these issues or any issues that have policy implications and is there something that needs to change about the way that this kind of reporting moves forward, especially if it’s going to be in a national outlet with the visibility of say, The Washington Post?

RESNIKOFF: So there’s an industry wide trend toward lighter and lighter editorial oversight, which I think is just asking for disaster. The New York Times just bought out a bunch of editors last week I think. We should be going in the opposite direction, more editorial oversight, especially with genuinely complex stories like this. Not just editorial oversight but there’s a responsibility for editors, I think, to the best of their abilities familiarize themselves with the subject matter that their reporters are reporting on. I mean the reporter’s always going to be the primary authority on a story but it’s worrisome if editors have a sort of, layman’s understanding of a really complicated issue where they’re the ones who are basically deciding the final cut of the story.

VALLAS: So is the trend that we’re seeing towards driving maximum traffic and clicks and content that will generate those clicks and simultaneously away from the quality control of the content?

RESNIKOFF: I don’t think it’s just clicks I think it’s in some ways, it’s something a little bit more worrisome than that. Clicks and traffic are certainly an element of it, but I also think that with stories like SSDI, what you see is a certain amount of reputational curation. It’s staking out a provocative stances in publications in order to say something about the publication. And that might not yield immediate traffic or revenue benefits, but what it does is it creates a certain amount of cred for these publications with serious people.

VALLAS: So, Nick Kristoff comes to mind here as well. He wrote a widely read and thoroughly debunked column for the New York Times some number of years ago, I believe it was maybe 2011 if I had to guess on Supplemental Security Income benefits for children with disabilities. And he sort of, rang the bell and said you know, I’m usually this left leaning guy but I’m going to tell hard truths. And for this moment, that followed, he got all of this applause from left and right for being brave, for bravely telling hard truths despite the fact that they might conflict with his political leanings. Turned out they weren’t truths, hard as them may have been for him to tell when he thought that they were. And what he was alleging for folks who may not remember was that parents were actually trying to keep their children from learning to read, of course families in Appalachia with all the rural cartoonish stereotypes, so that they could qualify for disability benefits, which is just absolute thorough hogwash. But he did get all that really positive praise and reinforcement like you’re describing.

RESNIKOFF: It’s really bizarre. It should be obvious that there’s nothing actually brave or courageous about rich white media elites beating up on poor people, regardless of whether or not those rich white media elites are nominally liberal. But you see this again and again and again. Another example that I was thinking of recently because of the thing with Bill Maher where he said the n-word on air. I was looking back at all the other times he’s done racist things in the past. One of them was he and Alexandra Pelosi aired a segment on his show where she went to, I think it was a welfare office or an unemployment office in New York City and interviewed all of these people of color who were standing outside, waiting to receive benefits and it was basically a Jesse Watters segment. But the difference was because Pelosi is a liberal and Maher describes himself as a liberal, libertarian whatever, there is was this self congratulatory aspect of it, of saying oh look, we’re even challenging our own, and poor people of color are not in any way shape or form their own. It’s just, the fact that they feel this comfort doing it and congratulating themselves about it show that meaningfully they’re not part of the same sort of political coalition.

VALLAS: And of course, NPR should not go without its own share of criticism for its series that it ran a few years back on disability benefits as well. Again, receiving that kind of congratulations for defying expectations politically. So, my last question for you is maybe a big picture one to do with another really troubling trend in journalism which is the decline of the ombudsman, or the public editor. We see that the Washington Post there is ombudsperson anymore, the New York Times recently just announced that they’re retiring their public editor role. What does that say about these papers and more broadly, mainstream media’s approach to responsible journalism?

RESNIKOFF: I’m actually not sure how much it says, because the ombudsman role hasn’t been a, I’m sure of the history of it. But besides the Times, it’s hard to think of many other prominent examples of one recently and the Times ombudsman was retired I think for very specific reasons. I mean they can say that they’re retiring the role, I think the real reason is that they just wanted to eliminate Liz Spayd from that role, which even though I do with the Times had a public editor I applaud having Liz Spayd not be that public editor.

VALLAS: But there’s a very different choice that they could have made which was to remove her from the position if they had their reasons for doing that and wanted to make those public while saying but we are still committed to ensuring that we are publishing content that is accurate, that is ethical, that upholds the guidelines and mission that we set forth for ourselves.

RESNIKOFF: There might have been contract issues or potentially even union issues with just eliminating her from that position, though, regardless of eliminating the position itself. I’m not sure of that, that’s just speculation on my part so I can’t say one way or the other. But I do agree that, I mean, I for months now I very dearly missed Margaret Sullivan who was her predecessor in the public editor role and I thought was fantastic. And fortunately continues to write about these issues at The Washington Post as more of a general media critic columnist. But I do think having that internal check is useful.

VALLAS: And one that we’re losing and Margaret Sullivan deserves massive props for actually having spoken out and published a piece responding to the very Nick Kristof column I mentioned just a few minutes ago and rebuking him for not just getting the facts wrong but not having really done any research beyond anecdotal conversations. Ned Resnikoff is a senior editor at ThinkProgress and one of the best voices out there doing this right, so thank you Ned, for what you do and for joining the show.

RESNIKOFF: Thank you very much.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. We’ve talked a lot on this show about President Trump’s proposed budget which is essentially a trojan horse to give millionaires and billionaires enormous tax cuts, paid for by deep cuts to programs that help families make ends meet. But the DC council is just winding down a massive budget fight of its own. Here to unpack DC’s 2018 budget, the good, the bad, and the ugly is Ed Lazere. He’s the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Ed, thanks so much for joining Off-Kilter.

ED LAZERE: Hey, thanks for having me.

VALLAS: So there’s a big controversy at the heart of DC’s budget and folks may be paying attention, may not have heard, been hearing much about this. Help us understand what’s at the heart of it, it has to do with tax cuts.

LAZERE: Absolutely. So the district is an increasingly prosperous city, we have more people moving here, and incomes are rising, more businesses are growing and that means more tax revenue, and that means we should be able to do more to address the challenges that a growing city faces like growing school population but also lingering poverty and growing income inequality. And yet we didn’t get all that we were looking for in the budget because the DC council largely decided to prioritize tax cuts ahead of investments in things like schools and housing and homeless services. And in particular the tax cuts that concerned me the most were eliminating estate taxes for estates worth up to 5 and a half million dollars, and cutting taxes on businesses at a time when our economy is outperforming the rest of the region and there’s no indication that we really need to be cutting taxes for businesses.

VALLAS: The table was set for the current fight around this budget and around these tax cuts a couple of years ago in 2014. Tell the story of how these tax cuts came to be part of what the DC council is currently considering moving forward.

LAZERE: Right. Well so the tax cuts, the individual tax cut ideas came from a tax commission that finished its work three years and I actually was honored to serve on it during the time, on that commission I pushed to recommend changes to reduce incomes for low and moderate income families like raising our standard deduction and personal exemption. There were business interests on the commission who called for the estate tax cut and the business tax cuts that I opposed but ultimately didn’t prevail. So those recommendations were made and then the DC council decided that they wanted to implement those tax cuts, they didn’t want the tax commission recommendations to just lie around so they passed legislation three years ago to implement the cuts and while most of the cuts were good cuts, it’s really that the methods that the council took to implement the cuts that’s most problematic. And that they essentially said, from that point on as the city’s revenues grow, as we have a prosperity dividend you might call it, that every single dollar would go to the tax cuts until all of them were funded. So it really, three years ago put tax cuts at the top of the list, ahead of housing, ahead of schools, at a time when the city had such tremendous needs in both of those areas.

VALLAS: So sort of a fundamental statement of priorities, that if we’re going to see increasing prosperity in DC as you put it, the first thing we need to do with that money is give people tax cuts, and primarily people who are actually already doing pretty well.

LAZERE: Makes a lot of sense, right?


VALLAS: Well, depending on who you are, I guess and how you feel.

LAZERE: Sarcasm, yes. So to the council’s credit or explanation, I think, and this is really pushed by the council chairman, Phil Mendelson, he wanted to make sure the tax cuts went through and he was nervous that if they didn’t go through quickly, that they may never go through. And so in some ways respect that but I really of course, greatly oppose the fact that it put tax cuts ahead of everything else. We as an organization recommended a much slower pace, a balanced pace to say as the city’s revenues grow, let’s devote some to tax cuts but also some to addressing issues like homelessness and the loss of affordable housing. And we just kept getting pushed back and that’s why this year we went to the point of saying, let’s not just slow down the tax cuts, let’s actually stop the ones that make the least sense. And certainly if you ask the average DC resident what should we be doing today? Should we be cutting taxes for people who have 5 million dollar estates or should we be doing more to help people who are sleeping in a tent move off the street and into their own apartment? And I think you and I both know that almost everybody in DC would say of course we need to invest more in residents and not in tax cuts for those who are already doing really really well in the district.

VALLAS: There’s definitely a rich and robust ongoing debate around affordable housing in this city as well as homelessness, that’s something that has at points implicated Mayor Muriel Bowser, lots of feelings on sort of both sides about how to address it but I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about not just affordable housing and homelessness prevention but other programs and services that are at risk of falling by the wayside or continuing to be under invested in if these tax cuts move forward.

LAZERE: I mean it’s a wide range of things. It really was frustrating to go through this year and see not a single dollar to taking anybody off our housing waitlist and not enough money to move forward with our homeless services plan. Another issue that’s been really really important to us is investing in quality childcare for low income children. We all know that the birth to three period is such a critical time of development and yet in the district what we pay to child care providers who serve our low income children is so far below market that none of them can provide, or barely none of them can provide the quality and the attention that infants and toddlers need. So we’ve been pushing for years to increase what the city puts into its child care subsidy program so that the quality can be there so that children can be in safe secure and educationally nurturing environments. This budget provided a tiny amount, but still left about 90% of the gap that we have been trying to fill in that.

VALLAS: There’s good news in the budget as well and I want to get to that in just a minute. But I also just have to say as sort of a spectator of this, given that my work focuses much more on federal policy, it’s been interesting to watch what appears to me at least to be a tremendous change in the political dynamic around this conversation. Back in 2014, as you were describing, when these tax cuts were initially being put into the mix and put on a track to advance as we’re watching now, it was not just conservative folks who were seeking to advance those tax cuts. It really was a broad coalition, including people who fight for progressive causes and for issues around poverty, inequality, homelessness and such. What has changed to splinter that coalition and to get us to the point where we are where now progressive advocates are saying loudly and boldly that these tax cuts need to be put on hold while this city addresses its affordable housing crisis and more.

LAZERE: I think it’s a couple things. To be honest, I don’t think we really fully understood when the tax cut trigger mechanism, to implement the tax cuts was passed, exactly what it would mean. And how many years it would be affecting the city’s ability to make new investments. I think that’s part of it. I think the other thing is that the city is prosperous enough that at least three years ago, the mayor and council were able to adopt a budget that made leaps and bounds in terms of its increased funding, particularly for homeless services and for schools. Putting enough money, for example, to make sure that homeless families with children could go into shelter year round rather than only in the winter when the law requires it. And putting money into close the really unfortunate DC general family homeless shelter. So we thought perhaps we really could do both, the prosperity would be enough, and then last year and this year we saw that no, of course, if you don’t have the money you can’t actually fund the services. So we saw budgets put forward that didn’t allow us to keep making progress on ending homelessness even though we had a plan that was supposed to put us on track to do it by next year. And two years in a row, not putting any money into taking families off the Housing Authority wait list at time when we know that affordable housing is the issue that’s pulling the city apart. So it was really, when we saw how the tax cuts really were affecting the investments that we were hoping to see, that we all just decided as an advocacy community that we needed to bring our collective voice to tell the mayor and council that that policy choice to prioritize tax cuts was the wrong one and that they needed to switch.

VALLAS: Does the changed political landscape in Washington at the federal level have anything to do with the changed perspective of advocates that you’re describing? And I’m of course referring to President Trump in the white house trying to push forward a budget that basically eviscerates every program or policy that helps families who are struggling to afford the basics, all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and we can of course expect congress to follow suit with its budget in the next few weeks?

LAZERE: I think it does a little bit but I also think DC politics, like all local politics are unique. The fact that we have just one legislative chamber, the DC council, with 13 members who are, essentially everyone is a Democrat, allows a little bit of diversity even within that political party. So it’s a little bit unpredictable where we’re going to go and certainly there is a certain amount of unity that if the federal government cuts health care through Medicaid, that we’re going to want to respond to the extent we can. I also think, and this is maybe an answer to your previous question that we have had elections in recent years that have elected more progressive members to the council, which may in part reflect the fact that we’ve had a tremendous influx of millennials in the last decade, many of whom seem to be the Bernie Sanders type voter who loves the city but also are deeply concerned about income inequality and racial inequities. And want to see their city do something about it. So I think those are some of the dynamics going on, I do think having a president who is totally in the opposite direction helps remind us what, as Mayor Bowser says, DC values are. And what we should be promoting. That said, we still got to the point this year where we couldn’t stop a cut in estate taxes for very wealthy households. So there are limits to that as well.

VALLAS: I mentioned that there is good news in this budget and we could spend a lot of time talking about the nitty gritty of what’s in it but I’m thinking about the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program TANF. Tell us what’s in the budget pertaining to TANF and what it means for families who are struggling to make ends meet in the district.

LAZERE: Yes, so I do think it’s important to note that the district is a progressive community, people care about inequities and we, if you look at our budget, we in many ways compared to other states for example, which is a reasonable comparison, we do invest more in things like housing and job training and other communities which often just rely on the federal money they get and don’t do much beyond that. So I always want to be grateful for what our local officials do and one really important thing that we did this year, groundbreaking really, is to recognize that cash assistance for families with children is really about making sure parents have resources to meet their children’s basic needs, and in many cases to pay rent. Most families don’t get subsidized housing and in an incredibly expensive city like DC that’s so important. So we made a decision as a community, both through working groups that made recommendations and then with the mayor and council and their budget to roll back the city’s TANF time limit, which was about to cut off 10,000 children and their families entirely from assistance, regardless of what circumstances they were facing including if they were homeless or fleeing domestic violence, with no chance to ever get back on, the mayor and the council recognized that that could create dire consequences for our most vulnerable children and contribute to other problems like children not being able to succeed in school or adding to homelessness. And as a result they said no, we’re not going to implement that time limit. We’re going to protect children and make sure that the families always have money to meet their children’s basic needs and it’s really an amazing accomplishment. I think we are the first place in the country that has rolled back its TANF time limit and we hope it’s a model for other communities.

VALLAS: And something that we’ll definitely be talking about more on this show in the future. My last question for you Ed, is, and I ask this both in admiration for the work that you and many local DC advocates do, but also as someone who used to do local work and now for the last several years has been doing federally focused work. DC is kind of a funny place to do local work and I say funny because there are so many people in this town who do policy work that is federally focused. We almost forget sometimes that we also have local policy, local politics and a lot on the line there. I’d love to hear you speak about what it’s like to get people to focus on local issues and local policy fights in a city that is so disproportionately focused on federal policy.

LAZERE: Yes well thank you so much for that question and for anyone listening, I do hope that you will get engaged you can start by checking out the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. We try to keep people on top of key issues and for me one of the reasons I love this job, and I had done federal policy work for a decade in the district before moving to local is that you can get things done and you can see the impact immediately in your community. So because the district is a progressive place we can actually showcase what it means to protect workers with a good minimum wage, and hopefully this summer by fully implementing, or starting to implement paid family and medical leave we can actually set a goal to end homelessness. We can set a goal to provide affordable housing to everyone who needs it. We can end the TANF time limit and welfare time limit in a country where that’s unimaginable in most places. So getting involved locally and raising your voice up can help show the rest of the country that you can have progressive policy and a strong economy. You can have shared prosperity and still make it work. So I encourage everyone to get to know their local issues, follow their policymakers, weigh in when important issues come up so that your voice can play a difference.

VALLAS: The DC council recently advanced this budget preserving the tax cuts but they have a final vote actually coming up on June 13th. What can folks do to elevate their voices, to make their voices heard, if they want council to hear what they think about these tax cuts in this budget.

LAZERE: Unfortunately, even though there are two votes, it seems highly unlikely that the council will change their mind on the second vote. However, I think it would be terrific if listeners could contact their policymakers to let them know what they think about the vote. So the four who voted for stopping the estate tax cuts were at large council members Elissa Silverman, David Grosso, and then Ward-1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward-8 Councilmember Trayon White. Everybody else voted to maintain the tax cuts, so contacting Chairman Mendelson for example, would be a good thing to do. And that he was the champion of this and it was really his leadership that led these tax cuts to be prioritized. So letting him know that you don’t think that was the right choice, that you’d rather, going forward, that the council focus on investing in DC residents and addressing inequities rather than unequal tax cuts for businesses and people who don’t need them.

VALLAS: Call to action for DC based listeners. Ed Lazere is the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and he has been deeply involved in DC’s budget and the fight around tax cuts. Ed, thank you so much for joining the show.

LAZERE: Thank you Rebecca.

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced each week by Eliza Schultz. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @OffKilterShow. And you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the We Act Radio network, or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.