EXCLUSIVE: Sherrod Brown on GOP's "shameful" plans, economic populism -- and those teenage letters

Leading liberal tells Salon about Republican duplicity, the left's future and how his young self would see him now

Published January 14, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

Sherrod Brown           (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sherrod Brown (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

As Salon noted earlier this month, one of the very first things the new all-GOP Congress did (literally on day one) was to make an arcane rule change that many say could result ultimately in cutting Social Security. While a number of liberal groups and groups devoted to protecting Social Security (not always one-and-the-same) immediately sent up a warning cry, few politicians have been as forceful in their denunciation of the move as Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who recently described the move as "dangerous" and warned it will "set the stage to cut benefits for seniors and disabled Americans."

To hear more from the senator about Social Security's imperiled future, as well as what he and his fellow Democrats in the Senate will try to do to preserve it, Salon spoke with Brown over the phone yesterday. In addition to Social Security, our conversation touched on House Democrats' ambitious new plan to cut taxes for the middle class, Antonio Weiss' decision to withdraw his nomination to the Treasury, and Brown's reaction to recently unearthed letters of his from his youth decrying then-President Nixon and championing social justice. Our conversation is below and has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You sent out a strongly worded press release last week attacking Republicans for making a change to parliamentary rules that some have argued lays the groundwork for eventually cutting Social Security. Can you tell me a bit about what Republicans are doing, exactly?

What Republicans are trying to do is what they’ve tried to do on Social Security almost since its existence. Every time they had a chance, they went after Social Security. The most recent major assault was President Bush trying to privatize it a decade ago and [it] got a lot of pushback all over the country — not just from Democrats, of course. They know they can’t go ahead with a sort of frontal assault on Social Security, so they’re going for Social Security disability.

They also know that throughout the history of these programs of Social Security ... when one of the two funds, the disability fund versus the retirement fund ... runs a little shorter, for obvious demographic reasons, the Congress has reallocated from one to the other. And it’s been done easily, bipartisanly. But they would rather ... go after Social Security Disability beneficiaries, many of whom are disabled people. They claim fraud; there’s very little evidence of fraud, especially compared to other large programs. And it’s shameful, frankly, that they are going after Social Security and attacking those who are most vulnerable, those on disability.

And can Democrats do anything — other than raise the public’s awareness?

I think Democrats will win this ... [Republicans] know they can’t go after Social Security retirement, because that’s people's parents. But they think they can go after disability because that’s poor people or that’s people who are "gaming the system," or that’s some ... guy who doesn’t want to work when he’s not really hurt — [those are] the stories they will tell. They’ll always find [those] on Fox ... in a country of ... 330 million, they’ll find some story of somebody that gamed the Social Security disability system. They can always do that. And it’s got some, you know it’s, it makes an impact when they do that. The fact is [SSDI recipients] are overwhelmingly doing the right thing here, and they should be ashamed to cut people off Social Security disability.

Earlier this week, Rep. Chris Van Hollen unveiled a new proposal that would levy a tax on financial transactions (and close some tax loopholes for the wealthy) and turn those savings into tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent of earners. Do you agree with that approach or does it not go far enough?

I’m heartened by Rep. Van Hollen’s approach because I think he ... knows we need to change the debate on taxes, he knows we need to change the debate on what’s happened to the declining middle class; how few opportunities are available now for people who aspire to be in the middle class. And a big part of this is taxes and who pays taxes, who gets tax breaks. There was a big story in the New York Times this week about ... people who are really wealthy ... who have big private art collections. They get tax deductions because they set up a kind of phony museum that only their friends come and visit ... I mean, there’s all of those kind of things. And it's the wealthy like that who have been gaming this tax system. And I think Chris’ [Van Hollen] ideas [are what] we should be talking about.

Also, Sen. Durbin and I are working on something called Patriot Employer Act, which will reward those companies that do the right thing, that give decent healthcare, decent wages, do their production in the United States, don’t outsource, don’t fight unions if the union wants to organize ... instead of giving tax breaks to ship jobs overseas like we have.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, Antonio Weiss, a successful Wall Street hand, recently withdrew his nomination to the No. 3 position in the Treasury Department, in the face of significant opposition from liberals. At the same time, though, he was appointed a “counselor” to Treasury Secretary Lew. Which do you think is more reflective of the Democratic Party right now — the withdrawal or the end-around appointment?

I guess I don’t know how to answer that ... I think the first lesson is that this government has been, for presidents of both parties (it’s [been] better under Obama than it was [under] Bush) ... Wall Street has had too much influence. They are already trying to roll back Dodd-Frank.

I don’t want to get into personalities of who should be picked. I made clear how much I like [Federal Reserve chairwoman] Janet Yellen. The administration went with her; I think that was really important ... I talk to the administration all the time about more pro-consumer, more pro-Main Street nominees for regulatory jobs and for banking jobs and for advice and Treasury jobs.

I’ve heard good things about Antonio Weiss, I’ve talked to him on the phone; I don’t know him, I was going to meet him in the next week or two. I don’t really have much opinion on him, but I do think the administration needs to be much more careful in looking at Main Street rather than Wall Street ... I’ve said this administration’s better, but it’s not as good as it should be.

Last one: You probably saw that BuzzFeed dug up some interesting, politically informed letters you wrote when you were a young man, back in the early ‘70s. Rather than grill you about something you wrote decades ago, I was wondering what you’d say to your younger self today if you had a chance?

That’s a tough question. I’ve actually only ... just looked at one of them last night. I remember reading in, of all places, Reader’s Digest, about 40 years ago, something that said, would the boy I was be proud of the man I’ve become? And I guess if you look at my sentiments in those days, and my passion for justice learned from my parents, that I've continued that fight in the United States Senate.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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