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  January 6, 2011

Why Are House Republicans Reading The Constitution?

Robert Scheer: More 'States Rights' might be good, but is that really what Tea Party wants?
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Robert Scheer is the editor-in-chief of Truthdig. He's also a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and host of the KCRW podcast Scheer Intelligence. For decades, Bob was the national correspondent, and then columnist, for the Los Angeles Times. He's the author of many books, including The Great American Stickup, The Pornography of Power, and most recently They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington, Congress is back in session, with the Republicans threatening to torpedo Democratic health-care legislation, Democrats crying foul, the Tea Party movement--now represented in Congress--saying they're going to force Congress not only to read the Constitution on Thursday, but also every piece of legislation to come out of Congress is now to be justified specifically under the Constitution. So we're looking for some kind of warfare, at least in rhetoric. Now joining us from the West Coast, from Los Angeles, to give his take on Congress and what to expect in American politics over this coming year is Bob Scheer. Bob was Vietnam correspondent, editor-in-chief of Ramparts magazine, served as the national correspondent for The LA Times, he was a syndicated columnist for The LA Times for 12 years, and he's now the editor-in-chief at His latest book is The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street. Thanks for joining us, Bob.


JAY: So what's your take on this war of words and symbolism in Congress this week?

SCHEER: Well, it's a bit nutty, you know, in the sense that any kind of fundamentalist appeal--which is what this is; you know, it's all written down somewhere, whether it's the New Testament or it's the US Constitution, and then we just have to go and parse the sentences and find out what to do. And it doesn't work that way. The founders were very clear that it doesn't work that way, and they were very apprehensive of people distorting. But I think there's something healthy about the process as well. Not that you can find literal meaning in the Constitution on every point. There's some that we should find. For instance, the free speech protection I think is very clear, you know, the right for people to assemble is very clear, the fact that we have to have due process is very clear. Those were written very clearly. But when it comes to, say, interpreting the Commerce Clause, which is going to be at the heart of a lot of these debates, as it was with Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he tried to push through progressive and needed legislation during the New Deal, it seems to me that they're trying to have it both ways. The fact is that the Republicans, they're a mixed bag now, and some of the Tea Party and libertarian people, I think, are acting out a very good impulse. We have an outrageously bloated government. We have this Fed on our back. We've gone into tremendous debt to bail out Wall Street. And some of the Tea Party people, like Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul, who's now in the Senate, have recognized that. And so I do applaud them. But the Republican Party basically is, as I say, a mixed bag that I don't think really can hold together, because they really want big government. They want big government, certainly, when it comes to the military, which our founders did not have in mind. It was George Washington who warned us about the impostures of pretended patriotism, and they thought empire and a big military was the enemy of a republic. That was the lesson they drew from Rome and from the experience in Europe. So any idea that you can find solace in the US Constitution for this incredible military expenditure, this huge national security state that we have, is, I think, ridiculous. They also were very afraid of the concentration of economic power and the idea that it's okay to have this huge federal government. The main thing the federal government does outside of the military is to defend Wall Street and to act in the interests of big business. That's their main activity. That's the main expense that we've gone through. We're in a terrible economic situation, which is why we have the outrage that fueled the Tea Party. We have a lot of suffering. We have 50 million Americans that have either lost their homes or whose mortgages are underwater and they're in danger of losing their homes. We have over half the people told a Washington Post poll that they worry about making next month's mortgage payment or rent payment. So there's a lot of pain out there. Unemployment is, you know, at what, 9.8 percent? And that's--you know, really, that's stating the whole problem [inaudible] people [inaudible] looking. So we have very real problems. And the idea that you should have big government to protect Wall Street and bail out Wall Street and have this huge military empire which basically protects America's corporate economic interests around the world, and yet you shouldn't have government doing something to help poor people or working people suffering during this recession, that the government should act in a pro-human way to extend opportunities for people I think is an enormous contradiction and one that will expose the Republican Party, really, as not a serious center of ideas or an alternative.

JAY: There's a kind of unholy alliance in both parties now, but let's talk about the Republicans to begin with.

SCHEER: If you want to talk about Democrats for a minute, I do call this the Clinton bubble. That's what my book, you know, The Great American Stickup, is all about, the radical deregulation of Wall Street that opened the doors to all this greed and these collateralized debt obligations and all of this financial gimmickry which is at the center of our problem. That did come in when Clinton made his alliance with the Republicans. That was bipartisan, but it took a Democratic president to really dismantle the basic sensible regulations of the New Deal. That is true. But what's happening now is at least some Democrats recognize you've got to use government to get a little bit of financial regulation, to help people, to do something about unemployment. And the Republicans are now just saying no to all that, and they're in this weird position. They talk about Adam Smith when it comes to do something to help ordinary people, but they don't talk about Adam Smith when it comes to dismantling the very centralized power that he warned against. We don't have a free market. We don't have, you know, a market of the invisible hand. We have a tightly controlled market in which seven banks have enormous power, and a few other large corporations. And the US government is big precisely 'cause it's bailed these people out and is at their service.

JAY: You've mentioned this issue of the New Deal and how the constitutional argument was used to oppose reforms that Roosevelt tried to institute. And eventually he won that fight actually by threatening to pack the Supreme Court with people that would vote in favor of his legislation. And so eventually he won the fight to allow the federal government, for example, to have a regulation over wages and working conditions and such. But to what extent is this current situation--not just the Tea Party and not just the Republican leadership, but to some extent the leadership of the Democratic Party as well, trying to get back to pre-New Deal days?

SCHEER: Well, you can't go back to pre-New Deal days unless you dismantle the large corporations. I mean, what Roosevelt did is, you know, he saved capitalism. He allowed for a framework in which these guys could be incredibly aggressive and concentrate their power but not destroy the entire system. So he put rules of the road, very sensible rules of the road, rules of disclosure and accountability and the minimum amount of regulation needed to prevent fraud. And what we've seen with the radical deregulation that came after it is the [inaudible] great disservice to the whole image of American capitalism in the world. We can't even keep our books right. You know, AIG, which was our big insurance company, when they did credit default swaps, they were were supposed to be insurance policies. There was no money behind it. There was no transparency. These bundles of mortgages made no sense to anyone. No one can even sort them out. And we're holding--the Fed is holding trillions of dollars of these toxic assets. So we're really not talking about a realistic world if we think we can go back to a pre-New Deal era. What we're really talking about is whether the federal government will do for ordinary people what it does for the rich guys. That's really the issue here. I mean, there was no question George W. Bush, and then followed by Barack Obama, threw trillions of dollars at Wall Street and saved Wall Street. But when it comes to saving people and their homes and preventing the--you know, having some kind of a moratorium on foreclosures and getting people back to work and helping them that way, then the federal government is not supposed to act. And that's a real big contradiction. But let me say something in principle on the constitutional question. I am for states' rights. I don't think we get a whole lot from the federal government. I mean, under Bill Clinton we ended the poverty program. He called it welfare reform. But there's no longer a serious federal poverty program. We have 44 million Americans living under the official poverty line, which is $20,400 a year. We have a lot more poor people than we've ever had in our history, and even as a percentage it's higher than when Clinton came into office. And, you know, so, yes, I would like to keep more money on the state level. The federal government does very little for education. It does very little that really [inaudible] stuff that helps people live their lives. And so I would like to see more state initiative, more state experimentation on all sorts of things, social issues and what have you. But that's not what this Tea Party movement is about. They're about masking the power of Wall Street in Washington. That's really what's happening here. A lot of money has been put into this campaign. And it sounds insurgent, it smells insurgent, and there are some genuine insurgents there among the libertarians, but in the main it's taking the anger that Americans felt about being ripped off by Wall Street and trying to deflect it onto other targets, one of which is the government bureaucracy, and another is immigrants, and what have you. So we end up with this hunt for stereotypes rather than a hunt for the real villains.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Bob. And you can learn more about Bob's Scheer's work at And his book, again, is The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street. Thanks for joining us, Bob.

SCHEER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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