This entire interview with Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.), the head of the House Appropriations Committee and a powerful veteran member of Congress, who is retiring this year, is worth a read. But one passage is particularly striking. Obey is discussing his proposal to divert funds from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education program to save teachers’ jobs. Due to the states’ fiscal crises, as many as 200,000 local government employees, many of them teachers, might lose their jobs in the coming year.
The proposal made it in to the House war-funding bill, which needs a Senate vote. The White House has threatened to veto the war-funding bill if it contains Obey’s change. Here is the quote, from an interview with The Fiscal Times:
The secretary of education [Arne Duncan] is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted .… [W]hen we needed money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal. We were giving them over $10 billion in money to help keep teachers on the job, plus another $5 billion for Pell, so he was getting $15 billion for the programs he says he cares about, and it was costing him $500 million [in reductions to the Race to the Top program]. Now that’s a pretty damn good deal. So as far as I’m concerned, the secretary of education should have been happy as hell. He should have taken that deal and smiled like a Cheshire cat. He’s got more walking around money than every other cabinet secretary put together.
It blows my mind that the White House would even notice the fight [over Race to the Top]. I would have expected the president to say to the secretary, “Look, you’re getting a good deal, for God’s sake, what this really does is guarantee that the rest of the money isn’t going to be touched.” We gave [Duncan] $4.3 billion in the stimulus package, no questions asked. He could spend it any way he wants. … I trusted the secretary, so I gave him a hell of a lot more money than I should have.
My point is that I have been working for school reform long before I ever heard of the secretary of education, and long before I ever heard of Obama. And I’m happy to welcome them on the reform road, but I’ll be damned if I think the only road to reform lies in the head of the secretary of education.
We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.
If Obey is right about this, it is, in a word, horrifying. Food stamps are not particularly generous. They help families that are often desperate. They are just about the last thing that should get cut in the midst of a horrific employment crisis in the wake of a job-sapping recession.