For this month's Readers' Review: "Drown" -- the debut collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz. Twenty years ago, Diaz published ten heart-breaking tales about a fragmented family from the Dominican Republic finding their way in 1980s America.
Guest Host: Susan Page
President Barack Obama is set to announce new guidelines for the National Security Agency. A budget deal moves ahead in Congress. And West Virginia residents grapple with a chemical spill. A panel of journalists join guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top domestic news stories.
- John Stanton Washington bureau chief, BuzzFeed.
- Ron Elving senior Washington editor, NPR.
- Karen Tumulty national political reporter, The Washington Post.
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A chemical spill tainted the water supply for more than 300,000 West Virginians this month. The water had been housed in a storage facility that was subject to few investigations or regulations. Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post said the spill is a bit of a paradox because the coal-washing chemical that leaked was meant to treat the water. “It’s sort of ironic too because a lot of people in West Virginia, because of the coal industry, consider the EPA sort of ‘public enemy No. 1’ and I’m wondering if they’re having a little bit of a reassessment of that this week, too,” Tumulty said.
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MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's off today and will be back on Tuesday. President Obama is set to announce new guidelines for the National Security Agency. Congress passes a budget deal and looks ahead to debate over raising the debt limit. And West Virginia residents grapple with a chemical spill. Joining me for the national hour of the Friday News Roundup: Ron Elving of NPR, Karen Tumulty with The Washington Post, and John Stanton of BuzzFeed. Welcome.
MS. KAREN TUMULTYGreat to be here.
MR. JOHN STANTONGood to be here.
MR. RON ELVINGGood to be here.
PAGEYou can join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can also watch a video live stream of this hour on drshow.org. So, Ron Elving, a big speech by the president just an hour away about this controversy over NSA surveillance of Americans. What do we expect him to say?
ELVINGTwo key phrases to watch for. One is judicial review or juridical finding. The president is going to suggest that before any of the National Security Agency of the establishment of the national security in the government is allowed to get at any of this metadata that's been collected over the years, telephone calls, numbers -- not necessarily the contents of the calls -- but all kinds of other information about us and the calls we make.
ELVINGThat would only be accessible after some time of judicial finding or judicial review. That's a change. And the other key phrase, private sector. The president is going to propose that this be moved out of the National Security Agency, that it be moved out of the government entirely and entrusted to some as yet unnamed entity in the private sector.
PAGESo, Karen, will this satisfy critics of the surveillance program?
TUMULTYYou know, probably not all of them. But it will address some of the key findings of the review panel that the president appointed. And it will certainly -- you know, it is a response to that. You know, it's like every story this week has sort of pointed out the difference between candidate Obama and President Obama on these issues.
TUMULTYCandidate Obama very famously said that, you know, choosing between our safety and our liberties was a false choice. As president, you know, he's sitting in a different seat. And, again, I think this is going to be seen as responsive to the review panel's report that it is not going to satisfy the most ardent civil libertarians.
STANTONWell, I think also, you know, one of the biggest problems with this whole system is that the judicial review process often is the deck is stacked essentially against the public in a lot of ways because many of the judges are sort of already predisposed to give the government a lot of leeway. They've seen in the few rulings we've seen that they have already been pretty willing to let them do what they want. And so even allowing for more judicial oversight and control of this, I think a lot of folks are going to still be pretty skeptical, frankly.
PAGEWithout the -- if Edward Snowden had not leaked all that material, would we be having this debate now, Ron?
ELVINGYou know, we can't say for certain we would not. But I think that it's clear that the degree of Edward Snowden's revelations and the world reaction to them have driven everything that has happened with respect to national security in the last six to eight to nine months and that the conversation has been substantially different. Now, the White House, the president, will say this was a debate they had always planned to have. But I suspect strongly they did not expect to have it in public.
PAGEYeah. I bet that's right.
TUMULTYAnd this has affected not just the debate domestically but actually, you know, the president's relationships with a lot of other world leaders who have found out, you know, through these disclosures, you know, how extensive, you know, their own privacy, they would say, is being violated.
PAGEYou know, John, Karen mentioned that this will, to some degree, address concerns raised by those alarmed by this surveillance program, perhaps not entirely. Do you think it will be judged satisfactory by the national security types?
STANTONThat's interesting. You know, I think a number of them are probably going to be upset with them, frankly. You know, we actually just did a story this morning about the hatred, the visceral hatred that a lot of the folks in the intelligence community have towards Edward Snowden. A number of them were fantasizing about ways that they would try to kill them.
STANTONAnd they really don't -- they have a -- they look at this as a walking back from the kind of security that they think we need. And I think that, you know, this is -- this helps give them some cover, but I do think that they're going to feel a little bit unhappy with it.
ELVINGYou know, Judge John Bates, who is the former head of the court that is in charge of overseeing this whole program under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, has said he is really uncomfortable with these limitations. Even something that most people think of as pretty mild, such as having a public interest advocate appear before the court, that upsets Judge Bates.
ELVINGAnd he says, you know, you're going to add layers and layers. It's going to slow the whole process down. Let's remember what the intention of this was all the way back to 9/11 and back to the 1970s and our fears not only the war on terror but also the Cold War.
PAGEI would just note that Obama is making this big speech on the 53rd anniversary of Eisenhower's famous warning about the growing power of the military industrial complex. Be interesting to see if he mentions that. Well, going back to President Obama, he's got another big speech coming up. After today, it'll be the State of Union Address later this month. He's doing events now calling for a year of action in 2014. So, John, what will his priorities be?
STANTONI mean, it looks like primarily they're going to be focused on the economy and on income inequality, which has become a major part of everything that Democrats are talking about, and also, frankly, Republicans. You know, this notion that there has to be almost a renewed war on poverty or some way to handle this, both parties are looking at that as a way to ignite their bases and to try to bring out some of the moderate voters. And I think you're going to see a heavy emphasis throughout everything he talks about and staying, you know, on those kind of themes.
PAGEKaren, what are the odds of a year of action in 2014? 'Cause I got to say, 2013 was not a year of action.
PAGEWell, proposing stuff, getting it passed, and having a big signing ceremony and signing it. That would be action.
ELVINGAnd the president also says that he can issue executive orders. And, yes, he can do that, but as far as proposing stuff and getting things through Congress, not so much.
TUMULTYI think the first big fight we're going to see is over the minimum wage, and I think that's going to be pretty telling as to how -- you know, how much traction these economic inequality or, as the Republicans like to frame it, economic mobility arguments are really getting out there. I mean, it was just this week that Congress turned down an extension in long-term unemployment benefits at a moment when, you know, long-term unemployment in this country is running at a higher rate than it has since World War II.
TUMULTYSo, you know, that's, again, not a great sign for a year of action. It's interesting, though, to see the president out there giving these kinds of speeches before a State of the Union because, so often, what we see is the president gives the State of the Union and then does the sort of lap around the country afterwards giving these speeches.
PAGEBut it's also true that he's doing events that relate to things he proposed a year ago in the 2013 State of the Union Address that mostly haven't happened. You know, you think about the manufacturing hubs, you know, he went to North Carolina to highlight. He had proposed, I think, for 45 of those in the last State of the Union Address. He never got money for them. These are now three pilot projects that he has within his power to do. So I'm -- it seems to me, in a way, it almost underscores the difficulty he's going to have.
STANTONWell, and I think also one thing that a lot of Republicans are looking for is what kind of a tone he's going to take in proposing these things. And they feel that if he comes in in his combative or getting in their face, like he has in the past, that they're going to then, you know, get into fighting stance immediately whereas they feel, well, if he comes out and he's sort of conciliatory or at least tries to find a way to walk a bit of a middle line, they may be willing to work with him.
STANTONYou know, that's what they always say. So we'll see what actually happens. But, you know, it is interesting to watch how the two parties are trying to, you know, get themselves ready for this speech.
ELVINGThere's no necessity for the president to be combative, really, in his tone because, on most of these issues, the lines are already very clearly drawn. The Republican Party, especially in the House, is adamantly opposed to any changes to the minimum wage. Many of the Republicans in the House would eliminate the minimum wage or lower it.
TUMULTYAnd this is an election year, and it's an election year in which control of the Senate is very, very much on the line. And so that is also not conducive to an environment in which people actually work together.
PAGEIt also makes you wonder the clout that the president will have even with Democratic senators. You know, you have a Democratic senator in North Carolina who found other things to do than go appear with the president when he was in her home state.
STANTONYeah. The (unintelligible) Mark Pryor in Arkansas and a number of other folks that are looking to figure out ways they can keep Barack Obama's name as far away from theirs as they possibly can.
PAGENow -- so we've been very negative. On the other hand, this week, Congress did pass a big spending bill, a big budget. Ron, tell us about it.
ELVING$1.1 trillion, that's a lot of money in anybody's calculation. It was a real set of appropriations bills with 12 parts, just like the good old days. These are real changes in the actual law that spends money by the federal government as opposed to just another continuing resolution. So in that sense, it's a return to regular order, in a way.
ELVINGOf course they passed it in both the House and the Senate with no amendments allowed. But, in a sense, that's also come to be regular order. That's where we expect Congress to operate. At least they got something done that represented a compromise, the good old sense, the old concept that the way things got done in Congress was that everybody gave a little, everybody got a little, and in the end you got a bill.
TUMULTYWhich means there will not be a government shutdown, and so that is how low the bar is now set, that averting catastrophe is now considered actual progress.
PAGESo you can scoff at that. But, tell me, why was it possible to avert catastrophe this time when it seems like year after year we've been on a series of fiscal cliffs?
TUMULTYBecause the last one worked out so well.
TUMULTYI think that the Republicans, you know, want to keep the focus this election year on the rollout of the new healthcare law. And so they want as few things as possible to distract the public from what they think is a winning issue.
PAGEAnd we did get some initial statistics, some demographic statistics on people who have signed up for the Affordable Care Act. John, what did they tell us?
STANTONWell, the one thing, the biggest problem for the administration, frankly, is that young people are not coming in at the levels that they had hoped. I think they wanted something over 30 percent, and they're, like I said, less than a quarter. And that is a big problem for them because, you know, young people are going to sort of be the (word?) burden of paying for this.
STANTONAnd, right now, they're not signing up the way they want. Now, obviously the White House will say, oh, well, they're young people, so they're going to wait till the very last second to do anything. But, still, this has got to be -- I'm sorry for them.
PAGEJohn Stanton, he's Washington bureau chief for BuzzFeed. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Karen Tumulty. She's national political reporter with the Washington Post. Ron Elving, he's senior Washington editor at NPR, and John Stanton from BuzzFeed. Now we've got a question from Twitter. Here's the question: "Did unemployment benefits get extended in the new budget that passed?" That was the issue we were just talking about. Certainly they've been talking about long-term unemployment benefits for months. Did it get passed, Ron?
ELVINGNo. It was not part of the budget bill that was passed. They called it an omnibus. And there were an awful lot of things on that bus but not unemployment benefits, which is important, first of all, for about a million-and-a-half Americans whose benefits have not been extended since the end of last year, people who are long-term unemployed. And that number's going to get larger, by the way, with every passing week and month as we go through the year.
ELVINGIt's also important because not being part of the budget, anything that the Senate does that would extend these benefits is probably going to need to have attached to it what they call a pay-for, something that would offset the cost of extending those benefits. And that runs about $6 billion every three months. So if Congress wants to extend them 90 days, they need $6 billion from somewhere. And thus far in all their negotiations, the senators have not been able to come up with that money.
PAGEThere were all these reports this week that a deal was close, that maybe they were going to work something out. But it didn't happen. Were they in fact close? Are they close?
STANTONI think it's certain there are a handful, particularly in the Senate, of Republicans that want to get this done, I think. But the problem is that Democrats didn't really like some of the pay-fors. Republicans wanted also some fundamental changes to the program that Democrats were not comfortable with. And I think that they never really got quite as close as people thought. And I do think that this may get pushed to the debt ceiling fight or some other point where there is a hard line for Congress to have to act on something.
PAGE1.3 million Americans lost their extended unemployment benefits when that program expired just after Christmas. Well, let's talk about the debate over the debt limit. The first debate over the debt limit is when there needs to be a debate over the debt limit. Ron.
ELVINGWell, last fall when we got the deal that reopened the government after the shutdown in October, they set a couple of dates, Jan. 15 for this omnibus we've been talking about, and then Feb. 7 to raise the debt limit so that the federal government can continue to roll over its previous obligations and issue new debt.
ELVINGIt doesn't look as though the federal government is going to run out of money and run out of borrowing authority by Feb. 7, somewhere a few weeks later perhaps. And the Treasury can take extraordinary measures as they always do to move things around and sort of forestall the moment of doom. But it is coming. And whether it's the latter part of February or the latter part of March is really just a matter of a few days. So this is the next crisis.
PAGENow Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said that the Treasury Department could manage until May. The Treasury Department then said, no, they couldn't. So that date will come sooner than that. Karen Tumulty, you're just back from New Jersey. What in the world is going on there?
TUMULTYYou know, that is what everyone in New Jersey seems to want to know. I was in Trenton for Gov. Christie's state-of-the-state speech, which comes on the heels of this scandal -- and I think we can now call it a scandal -- over the closure last fall of the couple of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge and a gigantic traffic jam that resulted. The ostensible explanation is that someone somewhere was trying to punish a mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. who did not endorse the governor.
TUMULTYBut the more people I talk to -- and I'm talking about Democrats or Republicans -- just don't buy this. They -- you know, whatever the explanation was for this act of retribution against someone, it just doesn't make sense that it was because a part-time mayor four or five months before that had not endorsed a governor who was on his way to a landslide victory. So it was just very funny. I talked to the majority leader of the Senate and she said, we just all walk around all day long saying, what do you think?
PAGESo you saw Gov. Christie up close. How do you think he's feeling about this?
TUMULTYI think he's feeling besieged. And there are now two investigatory panels. There is a federal investigation possibly into whether money that was used for Superstorm Sandy advertising in the wake of that was actually, you know, used for his personal aggrandizement. There is subpoena power now. And he is going to have, you know, a rough few months here.
STANTONThere is an upside though that he's starting to see, which is conservatives who have, for a long time, beaten him up are starting to rally around him now. And he is starting to see a lot of Republican donors if for -- if maybe instead of, you know, trying to rubberneck maybe. But they're starting to line up to try to give him money and to be at his events. And so on his national level, that could actually be a good thing for him in a weird way.
PAGENow, conservatives are pro-bad traffic or why are conservatives lining up the aisle?
STANTONI think they see -- they look at this, and they say, this is the New York mainstream media establishment going after him. The Democrats are piling on. The administrative White House is now sort of getting involved, and the federal government is investigating him. And this is the classic sort of he's a Republican that's getting attacked, and so we should rally around him.
PAGESo the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
PAGEHe's down in Florida this weekend, Ron, to do fundraising. This'll be a test.
ELVINGYou know, what was it the German philosopher said, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger? Maybe we are seeing those words made flesh here in this past week. It is possible -- it's conceivable that if he comes out of this without any of his key aides contradicting him saying he didn't know anything about it, and if he doesn't have some terrible smoking gun out there somewhere, Chris Christie could emerge as the man who defeated, as John was saying, the liberal media establishment and also defeated all the naysayers.
ELVINGAnd perhaps that could help him put behind him all those positions that make him unacceptable to the Republican base on issues.
PAGESo what doesn't kill me makes me stronger unless it kills me in terms of his presidential ambitions.
PAGEKaren, is it possible that this scandal ends his hopes of being the Republican nominee in 2016?
TUMULTYI think only if there is something there that we haven't come across yet. And, you know, there -- the byzantine politics of New Jersey are so strange. They're not really Republican against Democrat. There are all these sort of very shifting transactional alliances. I did you a favor last year. You owe me a favor this year. And I think we're all going to get a real kind of education in this. And the governor there is very powerful. There are only two state offices that are elected statewide in New Jersey, the governor and the lieutenant governor. Everybody else is appointed by the governor.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation with their calls and their questions. We'll go first to Steven. He's calling us from Pittsburgh, Penn. Steven, are you there?
STEVENYeah, I'm here.
PAGEOK, good. Well, do you have a question or a comment?
STEVENWell, yeah, my comment was that, you know, they're saying the Republicans don't want to extend the unemployment benefits. And they also are against raising the minimum wage.
PAGEMm hmm. And, Steve, what do you think about that?
STEVENI mean, I don't want to say, you know, over radio what I really feel. It's B.S.
PAGEWell, I'm sorry. Steven, I don't understand. Do you mean you think that there -- you disagree with the Republican position or you think that were mischaracterizing what their position is?
STEVENWell, from what I've been reading or what I understand, the Republicans don't want anything to do that has Obama's name on it, for one thing, you know. And, I mean, if they're so -- you know, saying that people don't want to work, but then they don't want to pay them. You know, they want to pay them eight, $9 for them to bust their ass at a job that just isn't worth it.
PAGEOK. Steven, thank you so much for your call. You know, we're going to be hearing more about these issues because of this theme of income inequality, income mobility that we believe we're going to hear about from President Obama in his State of the Union and from other politicians. And I wonder if you think this is a powerful issue now, Ron.
ELVINGIt is in some quarters. We saw Bill de Blasio elected mayor of New York of course. And that was his campaign theme, continues to be his theme. So it has some validation from election results. On the other hand, is New York City typical of the entire American electorate? Probably not. Is it going to work for Democrats who are running for re-election to the Senate in states like Arkansas and North Carolina, as we mentioned earlier?
ELVINGIs it going to work for Democrats trying to hold seats in Montana and South Dakota and other places where retirements have really put the Democrats behind the eight ball? One thing I think it might help do is pass some kind of minimum wage legislation.
ELVINGTom Harkin, who is retiring from the Senate, he's been there since the early 1980s, and he has been pushing for a higher minimum wage and for a minimum wage that is indexed to inflation. Throughout his career, he has proposed a $10.10 minimum wage nationally. And that could at least get a serious vote on the Senate this year in Tom Harkin's swan song.
STANTONYou know, I've talked with a number of Republicans like Ted Cruz and others who have also picked up on this notion. And it's fascinating to listen to them talk about it because, for years, any time you said, you know, there is income inequality, the top 1 percent is making so much, and the bottom percent is -- 40 percent or whatever is losing ground, you automatically got hit with accusations of class warfare. And Republicans have essentially dropped that and has started to talk about this.
STANTONThe cynical part of me says, well, they're talking about it in an off-year election year where they know nothing is actually going to get done. And this is sort of the only time they want to talk about poverty is when they can use it as a political ploy. But it is still sort of fascinating, frankly, to watch both parties at least say there is this problem. Now, whether they have vastly different ways of dealing with it but that the idea that they are both acknowledging it is, I think, new.
PAGEWell, our caller Steven noted that the Republicans as a group are generally against raising the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment insurance. But, as you say, Sen. Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul, Congressman Paul Ryan, they've all tried to -- they've all talked in a serious way about how to address poverty.
TUMULTYThat's because there is a very real sense in this country among the middle class that they are getting left behind, and a very real fear that life for their children is not going to be as good as life has been for them. But there is also a very real disillusionment with government and a real sense that, you know, government can't get anything done anymore. Government can't get anything right anymore. And I think it's going to be those two ideas that are going to come into conflict here as government tries to tackle this problem.
PAGEAnd, you know, the experiences with the Affordable Care Act and the botched rollout this fall of the website I think may reinforce the idea that government couldn't undertake those kind of big anti-poverty programs that LBJ launched 50 years ago.
ELVINGThat's right. And as, you know, has been suggested, the healthcare metaphor, the bad months, the bad weeks at the beginning of the program, if that continues to characterize the program as it goes forward for the next six to eight to nine months, Republicans believe that's all they need, not just that it's their ace. It's the only card they need.
PAGEWe'd also note that we hear a lot of anecdotes from people who have signed up for healthcare sometimes for the first time, people with preexisting conditions that have found affordable healthcare for the first time, so definitely two sides to that story. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's talk about the Supreme Court heard two important cases this week, one involving presidential recess appointments. What's the issue there, Karen?
TUMULTYWell, the recess appointment, the idea that the president should be able to do some appointments while Congress is out of town is a tradition in this country that goes back to the era when it took days and weeks sometimes for Congress to come back to Washington once they were gone. But the flashpoint on this one is some appointments that President Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 during a congressional recess. He said he needed these people in there or that the board was not going to be able to function.
TUMULTYSo the court is going to take, I think, a pretty broad and deep look at the entire practice. But there's a pretty good argument, I think, made on the editorial page of The Washington Post today that the real place where this ought to be being looked at is in the United States Senate and its own rules for dealing with this practice because every president has used it.
PAGEWe saw in the questions post by the justices a lot of skepticism about whether the -- about the president's ability to make these appointments, especially if the Senate says it's in recess even though they're not actually doing anything. How important is it to the White House to be able to make recess appointments?
STANTONI think it's less now that Harry Reid has rejiggered the rules in the Senate and made it easier for him to move some of these things. And I think at this point, as Karen says, it sort of shifts back to them. The case is sort of maybe of six months or whatever too late in some ways. But, you know, this question has been out there for, you know, 100, 200 years really that -- going back to Andrew Jackson and some of his appointments. And it's always been a thing that sort of periodically pops up.
STANTONAnd administrations look to these as ways to get people in, particularly in the second term. They want to, like, get someone in so they can put on their resume that they were, you know, the assistant secretary to the whatever, you know. And this is a great way to help a donor out. And so, you know, this could become an issue for him, especially if the Supreme Court tightens the rules.
ELVINGYou know, this is looked upon as a question of presidential power, and surely it is. And it's been used by presidents, as Karen suggested, all the way back so as their way to get around the Senate. It's also a question of the power of the Senate because, in recent years, the Senate has increasingly used its power to hold up appointments and to force presidents to use the recess appointment power and then foreclose the recess appointment power by having these 30-second sessions of the Senate every single day, so they're never, ever, ever in recess.
ELVINGBoy, you want to talk about something that's a bit of a theater event, that theater event, 30-second sessions of the Senate. So they've pushed their power to stymie the president's power to appoint people. That happened under Bush. It happened under Obama. It happened under Clinton. It's the Senate asserting its absolute power for one individual senator to hold up the president's appointment power. That's what's really brought this to the Supreme Court.
PAGENow, Justice Kagan who is, you know, friendly enough to the administration, said at one point, it really is the Senate's job to determine whether they're in recess or whether they're not, which raises a question about whether the White House can determine that the Senate's not in a real recess. Karen, the other case involved the buffer zone that Massachusetts has set around abortion clinics to make protestors stay back 35 feet. How did that questioning seem to go? What's your sense of what the Supreme Court is likely to do in that case?
TUMULTYWell, once again the court seemed sort of skeptical of the Massachusetts law, which I think holds protestors back something like 35 feet. And once again, Justice Kagan, certainly no opponent of abortion rights, was saying that just seems like a little bit too restrictive. The question here, in terms of free speech, is they're allowed to protest, but should they be allowed to get close enough to have conversations with individual women as they are going in to get abortions to try to talk them out of it? And is that protected by free speech as well?
TUMULTYThese are laws that Massachusetts put into place after some horrific violence outside of abortion clinics back in the 1990s. But there is a question of whether the abortion protestors are being precluded from exercising their free speech rights.
PAGEJohn, several of the stories on this noted that Chief Justice Roberts is likely to be the tie-breaking vote in this case. He asked no questions, so we have, I think, no early indication of what he might be thinking.
STANTONWell, he's been a bit of a zephyr, frankly, on the court. You know, he wrote, I believe, the Obamacare decision, and he has not always gone the way the conservatives had hoped. And there have been a lot of grumblings that maybe he was a closet liberal, which I think is definitely overstating that case a little bit. But, you know, here is a great example of where he's going to have to balance his fuse on the First Amendment versus abortion.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio for the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup: Ron Elving of NPR, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, John Stanton of BuzzFeed. And let's get our callers join our conversation. We'll go to Bob. He's been very patient in holding on for almost the entire hour. He's calling us from Miami, Fla. Hi, Bob.
BOBHow you doing, ma'am?
BOBI just wanted to say, we're making a huge mistake with the NSA. You know, I watched a documentary on HBO about Mumbai. Fareed Zakeria narrated it. And, you know, these guys were talking on the phone. They've done some planning. And I'm almost certain, if we had an apparatus -- if they had apparatus like the NSA, they would have caught those guys. I'm a student of history. I know about the whole (unintelligible). But in this case, I want to be safe on the streets and safe in the air. I want your thinking about that.
PAGEBob, thanks so much for your call. We've got a similar email from Marcus. He's writing us from Greenville, N.C. He says, "I can never understand the media's attitude about the NSA. The statement that the courts allow the NSA to do whatever they want makes me wonder if you think it would be better if the courts were rejecting the NSA's attempts to access phone records. Couldn't it also mean that these agents have a very important job that they take seriously, unless they only invest time investigating the most credible threats?" What do you think, John?
STANTONWell, yes. I do think that most NSA agents are probably, you know, that they're patriotic folks that are trying very hard to do their job. You know, I think part of the reason that you see a lot of skepticism, though, frankly, from the media is that our job is to be skeptical, and our job is to be the watchdogs of government. And the NSA has conducted surveillance on reporters, and there is this idea that that is when you start to step into some sketchy boundaries, particularly on the First Amendment and on people's freedom.
STANTONAnd I think, you know, maybe there should be more of an NSA presence than the media sometimes believes. But our job, to a certain degree, is to play that sort of devil's advocate on this. And you say, well, you know, you're overstepping bounds because if we don't, at some point, I do think you start to find yourself in a position where people's freedoms are being limited to an extent that most people would not be comfortable with.
PAGELet's go to Little Rock, Ark. and talk to Paul. Paul, hi. You're on the air.
PAULHi. Thanks for taking my call.
PAGEYes, go ahead.
PAULIn regards to the NSA data collection thing, you all mentioned earlier that Obama was planning to mention at his speech about privatizing the collection of data. I wanted to know, what benefit do you think privatizing it would be versus the government collecting it? Wouldn't it essentially be the same issue if the government was collecting it versus, you know, private citizens collecting it? And I'll take that answer off the air. Thank you.
PAGEOK. Paul, thanks for calling. Karen has also written us an email, and she asked, "Could you explain the reasoning that we should trust the commercial private sector with our phone records rather than the government? Is it really supposed to make the people who worry about this kind of intrusion feel better?"
TUMULTYWell, the private sector already has them, I mean, because we carry private phones, and we make private calls on their private lines. So I think it's just -- it's a question of, you know, whether the government should have access to something that, you know, Sprint and Verizon already have.
PAGEThe phone companies have made it clear, though, that by and large they do not want to be responsible for holding on to this data.
ELVINGThere is no third party that is eagerly running up the sidewalk saying, hey, when you push this off your front porch, President Obama, we'd love to have it. So we are really not certain who or whom Congress is going to give this wonderful honor to or whom Eric Holder, the attorney general, whom the president is planning to task with this recommendation is going to choose to have this extraordinary responsibility and of course the public disapproval that will come with it.
PAGEHow much it will cost, whether you trust the -- for the privacy procedures as some kind of third party. And for the president to say if he does, as reports have suggested, to say that let's consult with Congress to work out a deal, I mean, isn't that kind of a punt giving Congress' record in resolving issues?
STANTONYeah. And I think, you know, members of Congress, like, don't want to have this thing back on their lap. They've done everything they can to get the responsibility for this off themselves. And I think that they're going to be very loathe to take this up.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from someone in West Virginia, mrhwildwoodflower who asked, "Would you please explain how a facility that treats coal with a dangerous chemical is classified as a storage facility not subject to inspection?" Now we assume this is a reference, of course, to that disaster in West Virginia that has tainted the water supply there. Tell us more about what's happened.
TUMULTYWell, the paradox here is that the coal is being treated with this chemical because they are trying to clean the coal. It is -- so that it will have fewer air emissions. But I do think the fact that the facility hadn't been inspected for as long as it had been is, you know, that's the first avenue of investigation here. The water has been declared drinkable now, except for pregnant women. I don't think that if I were, you know, non-pregnant, non-woman person, I'd feel terribly excited about drinking water in West Virginia that pregnant women aren't supposed to drink.
PAGEIs there a lesson here? I mean, what should we take from this incident which resulted in 300,000 people being told they should not drink the water?
STANTONWell, you know, I think the one big take-away is that the government and state governments and federal government is woefully inadequate when it comes to inspections. There are thousands of regulations, and, you know, there is a very heated debate on when some of those should be taken away. But to a certain degree, if they're not even able to investigate them at all, if they're not doing inspections at these places, it doesn't matter how many regulations you have at the end of the day. You know, they just don't have the manpower to look at all of these things.
TUMULTYNot too comforting for people who are looking to have a drink of water.
TUMULTYBut it's sort of ironic too because a lot of people in West Virginia, because of the coal industry, consider the EPA sort of public enemy number one. And I'm wondering if they're having a little bit of a reassessment of that this week, too.
PAGELet's talk to Maggie. She's calling us from Lynn, Mass. Maggie, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
MAGGIEThank you for taking my call. I have a couple of complaints to make about the Supreme Court debate, I guess you could say, about the protesters with regards to Planned Parenthood clinics. My first point is that the people claiming to want conversation, these women going into the clinic do not actually want conversations. These are mature adults in a conversation agreeing to disagree and respect each other's choices.
MAGGIEThese protesters, I have yet to see a protester who is doing that outside clinics that you see. My second point is that these famed protesters are nowhere to be found outside urologists' offices wondering if each man that goes in is going in for a vasectomy. This is a discrimination issue as far as I'm concerned. They are targeting women who are entering Planned Parenthood clinics and leaving the other half of the biological equation alone.
PAGEAll right, Maggie. Thanks for your call. I'm not sure that anti-abortion protesters would have the same view of vasectomy as abortions.
ELVINGPossibly not. But this is certainly an inequity in biology that goes back a great deal back from history. And that is a very important part of this whole argument. And it comes up very often when we go to the Supreme Court and we hear the different viewpoints of the men and women on the Supreme Court. But in this particular week's arguments and the questions that were asked, perhaps the sharpest distinction was being drawn between Justice Scalia and Justice Breyer, which is frequently the case.
ELVINGAnd in this case, Justice Breyer was asking, were these conversations or were these essentially protests where people were being allowed to harass the women who were entering the clinic or, for that matter, the workers who were going to work at the clinic? And Justice Scalia, who is anti-abortion rights, said, this is a counseling case. These women are coming -- these men and women are coming to these clinics to counsel people who come to the clinic, to counsel them, to ask them questions, to have conversations with them.
ELVINGAnd the justices were clearly uncomfortable with the idea that you would have to have a buffer zone to limit or restrict conversations that could be called counseling whereas we have lots of things in the law and have seen for many, many years the principle of restricting protesting groups at, say, a national political convention. People are given very carefully prescribed areas where they may protest.
TUMULTYAnd on the question of agree to disagree, I mean, it's a question where one side believes that this is a fundamental civil right. The other side believes it's murder. I don't think -- I mean, this is the kind of question that anyone's ever going to agree to disagree on.
PAGEIt's really been a difficult one in American politics. Let's go to Houston, Texas and talk to Mark. Mark, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARKHey, thanks for taking my call. My question or comment really has to do with the NSA collection of call detail records. And I just wanted to point out that every prosecutor, state and federal, with a grand jury subpoena with very little oversight can get the exact same information on citizens. I just think it's unfairly hamstringing the NSA to require them to have some additional judicial procedure to get information that's pretty freely available to criminal investigators. And I'll take the answer off the air. Thank you.
PAGEOK, Mark. Thanks for your call. John?
STANTONThat is, to a certain extent, is true. But, you know, there is the difference which is that this is a dragnet kind of a situation where they're just collecting everybody, whether or not you have ever done anything, whether or not you have really any kind of connection potentially to any terrorism. Whereas in a criminal case, you would have to be part of that criminal case for them to begin the process to getting at your information.
STANTONSo there is a bit of a difference. And the NSA is not going to go through and, you know, grab every single person's individually. That would be so time intensive. They wouldn't get anything else done.
PAGELet's talk to Gary. He's calling us from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Hi, Gary.
GARYHi. Hi, Susan. If you could -- if Karen Tumulty could pay strict attention to this call. I've run for office numerous times in New Jersey. There's more to this Christie story. The corruption there is just incredible because there is a rigged ballot in New Jersey. I checked every ballot in 49 other states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico, and no other state is the ballot set up with columns of endorsed candidates like it is New Jersey.
GARYAnd that happens in the primary. It happens in the general as well. And as you know, there was a special election there for U.S. Senate, and Christie blew $24 million for that election. He did that because Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan in any other state in the country would have been in their own separate square on a ballot, and there would have been five independent candidates separating Cory Booker from Barbara Buono.
GARYBut in our state, Cory Booker, had there not been a separate election, would have been an eighth of an inch above Barbara Buono and not separated by the independents. In our state, those independents are shoved off to the side in columns like column B, C. It could go out to column Z if there are enough candidates.
PAGESo, Gary, let me just ask you. You've been active in New Jersey politics. Do you have theory on why this action was taken to close down lanes on the George Washington Bridge?
GARYSure. It's corruption, I mean, they're corrupted from the time they ever decide for office. They have to make -- so it's the culture of corruption. They have to make promises with the party chairman to be in that rigged column in order to win in the primary. In 2009, Christie ran against Steve Lonegan. Neither one was more well-known than the other, but they had a go. They had to crisscross the state. You can go to 20 counties and kiss the ring of party chairman in any of those counties to be in the column.
PAGEAll right, Gary. Thanks so much for your call. Karen?
TUMULTYYeah, it is a really remarkably unique state in New Jersey. I can go through a couple of the kind of total theories. And based on absolute nothing but speculation, I mean, if it wasn't about the mayor's endorsement, there is some question about whether Gov. Christie or his ally probably were trying to get back at a state senator who had crossed him on a judicial nomination.
TUMULTYAnd there's also a billion-dollar redevelopment project taking place right at the foot of that bridge that is -- the value of which is very much dependent on the ability to sell it as easy access to the George Washington Bridge. So from these three scenarios have been spawned 10,000 conspiracy theories.
ELVINGWhat we all want to know is, what did Bridget Anne Kelly mean when she said, time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee? What did she mean? Time for it, why? Time for those problems to be problems for whom?
PAGEAnd I find this to be one of those classic sentences that we will be quoting for decades. It's going to be like gambling in the casino. It's time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls and questions. We're reading your emails. Here's an email from Jane. She writes, "In light of the tenuous compromise on the budget, what is the status of completing the farm bill?" Man, we spent months talking about completing the farm bill. What's the status?
STANTONIt looks like they're going to get something finally on the side.
PAGEI've got to say, I've heard this before. Next week we're going to finish the farm bill.
STANTONI know, I definitely know that I've said before. You know, I was talking to some folks that are working on it this week. They seem to be more hopeful than they were even at the end of the year, frankly. I think it's still coming down to some questions about the milk prices, and I think to a lesser degree with the SNAP program, which they seem to sort of figure out at this point. But I think, you know, everybody is pretty tired of this issue hanging around their neck and periodically jumping out and biting them in the butt. And I think so finally they're going to try to get it done.
PAGELet the record show, Susan Page, proud native of Kansas, wants them to finish the farm bill.
TUMULTYI think all of America, everybody aware of the farm bill is like, why can't you finish the farm bill? It didn't use to be such a big partisan deal.
ELVINGWell, one of our neighbors in Kansas was Oklahoma, and Frank Lucas, a congressman from Oklahoma is chairman of the House Ag Committee and he has to work this out with John Boehner. But they have got a compromise now on food stamps, the SNAP program that John mentioned. Instead of it being cut by $39 billion as they wanted in the House, it will be cut by $9 billion, which is a little closer to the Senate's number before.
PAGEWe want to wish a happy birthday today to Michelle Obama. She's 50 years old. She has -- in an administration that's had a lot of problems, she has been enormously popular with Americans.
STANTONShe is. Everybody loves her. You can't find a person really out there that thinks poorly of her, frankly. And it's a testament to her ability just to keep her head above the fray, to not get involved in things. She just takes it on. Some issues that are difficult -- childhood obesity is a very difficult issue in this country, frankly, even to talk about in some cases. But she has not had the problems, let's say, Hillary Clinton did or others when she has sort of put herself out there in the policy front.
PAGENow, Karen, you actually wrote a 50th anniversary -- 50th birthday piece on Hillary Clinton...
TUMULTYTurning 50, yes.
PAGE...when she turned 50 in 1997. Two women like each other or not like each other?
TUMULTYIt was so different because Hillary Clinton was so bruised and battered from what she had been through on healthcare. And she has essentially been in near seclusion for a couple of years before her 50th birthday and was sort of trying to reemerge as a public figure. It was just so -- and she was also, I think, an emblem of her generation in a way that Michelle Obama has not had to sort of carry all of that baggage either.
ELVINGIt's a challenge to imagine Hillary Clinton in seclusion, but Karen is absolutely right. She was held responsible for the failure of what was called Hillarycare, which was the attempt to pass Obamacare back in 1993, '94. And when it failed, she took a lot of the heat for that. One wonders what would have happened to Michelle if we were all referring to this Obamacare that as we call it the Affordable Care Act as Michellecare.
ELVINGThat was just not her role. They chose to go a completely different route. And that has been successful for her certainly, probably in the long run also preserves her as an asset for her husband.
TUMULTYAnd Mrs. Clinton had gone off to write "It Takes A Village" and that was her sort of first step back toward rehabilitation.
PAGECan you picture Michelle Obama running for office after leaving the White House the way Hillary Clinton did?
STANTONNo, I don't think so. I think that she is -- she seems to be more than willing to go ahead and have a something of a private life. Although I keep wondering, they're going to be young people, relatively speaking, when they're not -- what do you after you're the president and the first lady of the United States? There's not really the next step from there that's obvious.
PAGEThe White House party is on Saturday night, and we understand that Beyonce is going to be singing the songs. Well, thanks to our panel for this hour on the Diane Rehm News Roundup. Ron Elving from NPR, Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post, John Stanton from BuzzFeed, thanks for being with us this hour.
ELVINGThank you, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Tuesday. Thanks for listening.
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