"They're fools -- and work for fools!": Grayson on GOP staffers (and much more)

The Florida Democrat also talks about Tea Party "destruction," the right's "torture" and Boehner's golf fantasy

Published October 16, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Alan Grayson        (Reuters/Larry Downing)
Alan Grayson (Reuters/Larry Downing)

On the first day of the government shutdown, firebrand Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson told Salon that Republicans’ on-the-job drinking was partially to blame. Now he says the current showdown will end the party – for good.

In an interview late Tuesday afternoon, Grayson accused Republicans of pushing “health suppression” and measures “torturing” congressional staffers, and repeatedly “dragging America into heavy traffic.” The Florida Democrat also defended the effectiveness of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, predicted the demise of any “Great Betrayal” targeting Social Security or Medicare, and said voters will soon send the Republican Party “to the ash heap of history.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

What’s your sense of what’s going on in the House right now?

Pathetic flailing around to little or no purpose.

What do you think John Boehner is trying to accomplish?

John Boehner is trying to maintain his position as President Obama’s golf partner.

Do you think the intention is to pass something that will become law?

No. I think that has never been the Tea Party’s intention. The Tea Party’s intention is destruction.

Do you expect that Boehner’s proposal will pass the House?

I’d have to see it first… You may recall that when they took over the House, they promised we’d have 72 hours to deal with anything before we voted on it. And now we’re not even getting 72 minutes.

What do you make of this Vitter Amendment?

I think that only those Republicans who were determined to shut down the government should have their healthcare benefits cut. Not the rest of us.

And the drive to take benefits away from congressional staffers?

We have always had staffers get the same benefits as other federal employees. They are federal employees. I’ve never understood the logic of abandoning that principle.

What would you say to the Republican staffers who could be affected by this?

That they’re fools and they work for fools.

What’s revealed by the fact that we’re now talking about opening the government and raising the debt ceiling in exchange in part for getting rid of the portion of people’s compensation that goes to health insurance?

What it shows is that the Tea Party emperor has no clothes -- that they never should have, or could have, forced their idiocy on the other house of Congress, or the other branches of government. That their blackmail and extortion and coercion has been recognized for exactly what it is. It’s never made any sort of sense or had any moral strength to say to America, as they’ve said, “If you don’t let us steal your car, we will burn down your house.” They tried to steal the car, which was Obamacare, under threat of burning down the house, which is the U.S. economy. That was always wrong, it’s still wrong. It’s always gonna be wrong. The sad thing is that they were able to extort the concessions that they’ve already received with those kinds of tactics, such as the fact that they took the president’s budget, cut it by 20 per cent, and then threw it in the trash can.

If the portion of congressional staffers’ compensation for health insurance were taken away, how do you think that would affect who comes to work in the House?

Well, I know what the Tea Party would say…They would say that denying healthcare benefits to congressional staffers ensures that we will have a healthy staff. That’s Tea Party logic for you.

And what would you say?

I would say that it’s torturing people who work very hard, for very long hours, and for at best modest pay -- almost all of whom could be earning more in the private sector -- for the sake of some kind of twisted symbolism that only Tea Party fanatics can understand.

Do you think it’s necessary at this point, in order to keep the government open and avoid a default, to give the Republicans some sort of fig leaf at least that they could claim as a concession?

I think the president’s got this exactly right: We don’t bargain over whether the government does its job. We don’t bargain over whether the government pays its debt... It shows an utter disrespect for the law itself, and a sick love of chaos and despair, to drag us down into the mud this way and keep people from getting the benefits that they’re legally entitled to.

If it comes down to it, are you willing to vote for something that has other policy language besides opening the government and/or raising the debt ceiling?

Every proposal will get considered on the merits. That is too broad a question for me to answer -- I have to see it first. I’ll know it when I see it. But it should never have come to this.

This discussion of additional income verification under the ACA, what do you make of that?

It’s an effort analogous to the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts: now they’re getting into health suppression. They’re trying to do whatever they can to block people who do qualify…from getting that health coverage by throwing up bureaucratic roadblocks in their way.

And delay of this reinsurance tax that some unions and businesses have objected to reportedly being in the Senate deal – almost momentarily -- and then taken out again, what do you make of that?

I think that it was meant to address one of the flaws from the unions’ perspective in the arrangements that we’re making for healthcare… Because it would have benefited union members, the Republicans were against it, despite the fact that it’s entirely just on the merits, and there’s no reason that we should discriminate among union members and non-union members when we’re talking about affordability credits.

What about the push to delay or remove the device tax?

It’s an example of the lengths to which Republicans are willing to go in order to give payoffs to their corporate donors. I have characterized many Republicans as corporate shills, and this demonstrates that as well as anything I can imagine. The Republicans are insisting on keeping the government shut down and forcing the government into default in order to be able to deliver a benny -- short for a benefit -- a benny to a corporate special interest.

What does that suggest then about the Democrats who have backed getting rid of the device tax?

I think you’d have to ask them that question. I don’t know what’s on their minds. I do know what’s on the minds of the Republicans, because all you have to do is check their FEC [fundraising] reports.

So when we hit midnight Thursday night what is going to have happened?

I don’t know. But I do know that this will prove once and for all, beyond any doubt, that the Tea Party and the Republican Party are agents of chaos. And they are completely unsuited to participating in government.

Are you suggesting the voters will prevent it from happening again?

The voters will prevent this from happening again. Even a dog knows when it’s being kicked.

How will they do that?

By voting the Republicans out of power and relegating the Republican Party to the ash heap of history.

Does that mean a new era of liberal legislation out of Washington?

I don’t know. You know, eventually the Whig Party was replaced to some degree by the Republican Party. I don’t know what’s going to replace the Republican Party. I just hope that it’s more benign and less malignant.

What about if there’s a deal in the next couple days?

It’s irrelevant. They keep dragging America into heavy traffic. They’ve done this over and over again. The fact that there’s some kind of temporary deal until December or January doesn’t change the fact that they are anarchists. To the extent that responsible people want to continue having our society function, the Republicans will have to be rejected. They’ll have to be expelled from the body politic.

Even though the Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest caucus among Democrats, there’s a perception that when push comes to shove -- whether it’s on the Affordable Care Act or the fiscal cliff deal -- that the progressives aren’t really able to extract concessions. That in the end, once there’s a deal, the progressives -- unlike some of the Tea Party members -- will go along with whatever the leadership has come up with, or give John Boehner the votes to pass something like a fiscal cliff deal or raise the debt ceiling. Do you think that’s fair?

No. I think you’re vastly overgeneralizing… The reason why the Progressive Caucus voted for the Affordable Care Act was because it saved lives and it saved money. The Affordable Care Act was progressive… that’s why the Tea Party is so desperate to eliminate it…

I think the Progressive Caucus hasn’t shown the willingness to inflict pain on other people that the Tea Party has shown. The Progressive Caucus won’t torpedo constructive, productive, progressive legislation because it’s not good enough. But I don’t think that that’s somehow a criticism of the caucus. I think that shows the caucus knows how to get what it’s trying to get -- it knows how to get to yes.

Assuming the government opens up again and the debt ceiling is raised, how concerned are you that we’re going to see cuts to Medicare benefits and/or Social Security benefits afterwards?

Well, the possibility of a Great Betrayal has raised its ugly head again. I’m not going to call it a “Grand Bargain” -- I know other people do. And I guess every time, it’s going to be like a game of whack-a-mole: there are vast corporate interests and right-wing ideologues who want to privatize Social Security, and they want to voucherize Medicare. And they want to do that because they’re going to make staggering amounts from doing so…I guess they’re going to keep trying, and I guess we’ll have to keep beating them.

I gave 3 million signatures on a petition to the White House a few months ago…demonstrating the public doesn’t want to see cuts…if you poll it, it’s overwhelmingly true.

The public just doesn’t want it. I mean, if we’re still a functioning democracy, then any effort at cutting these benefits should be shot down. And it probably will be shot down…The guy who ran against me last year said in a debate, he said that he wanted to raise the retirement age to 70 or 72. And he got 37 per cent of the vote, and I got 63.

Do you think progressives can get the president to back down on cutting Social Security or Medicare?

I think the public will. I mean, the public spoke vehemently against military intervention in Syria, and if necessary, the public will speak vehemently against any great betrayal of their earned benefits for Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

If the end of this shutdown is that Republicans get a change to the medical device tax, can they reasonably call that a victory?

No, not unless they’ve completely lost touch with reality. The only ones they can claim victory to in that regard would be the corporate lobbyists that pay them to obtain that kind of win. But in any larger and more general sense, they haven’t won -- they’ve lost.

They’ve for one thing tortured close to a million federal employees who deserve better treatment than this. For another, they’ve wasted staggering amounts of money… For another, they have stuck a knife into the economy… They have created chaos in the financial markets. They have substantially undermined consumer sentiment. And they’ve revealed themselves to be utterly incompetent when it comes to being a governing party. I mean, if they regard that as a plus, then that as much as anything shows how out of touch they are with reality, and how little they deserve to be part of government.

How concerned are you that there would be a debt default at this point?

I’m concerned. You know, the president has made it clear that the debt ceiling needs to be increased or we’re likely to default. I take his word for it. I wish that he would declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, but he has said that he is presently inclined against that approach. I hope he changes his mind… In a Reuters op-ed piece a few days ago, I pointed out that you could easily avoid this entire problem if the Federal Reserve simply wrote off its treasury debt… The letter that I sent to Chairman Bernanke has gone unanswered…

The Republicans seem to be bent on destroying the credit of the United States. They actually want that to happen as far as I can tell. There was an interesting ABC/Washington Post poll where we got the crosstabs… 31 per cent of Republicans thought that breaching the debt ceiling would cause serious economic harm, and they wanted to do it anyway. So yes, all of that makes me concerned. We have a significant part of the population that seems to have a financial death wish, and I’m concerned that they’re going to drag us down with the rest of them.

Senator Ron Johnson said to me that not raising the debt ceiling “doesn’t have to be a crisis,” because you can prioritize payments. What do you make of that?

They’re proving that they’re economic illiterates. I mean, even if you prioritized payments, you would immediately be reducing the GNP by 4 percent overnight. It’s just a matter of arithmetic…and this is before you get into the multiplier effects... I can’t believe that in this day and age, people would think that if the government goes suddenly from borrowing $50 billion a month to borrowing zero, that that has no macroeconomic effect.

The language Republicans have proposed where the debt ceiling would be raised but the Treasury would be specifically prohibited from using so-called “extraordinary measures” to avoid a default – are there any circumstances under which you would vote for something that had that language?

I don’t know… I’d like to see how it’s worded, and what it’s in the context of, and what are the tradeoffs. But the fact is, they’re like children putting their hands …on a hot stove. They don’t even know what these extraordinary measures are, and they want to cut them off… I’m sure they don’t know. But whatever it is that they don’t know, they want to stop them.

By Josh Eidelson

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