The GOP’s pivots to so-called “welfare reform,” what’s at stake in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and the latest on tax & more In Case You Missed It. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
Literally at the same time Trump and his colleagues in Congress are working to ram gargantuan tax cuts for billionaires and wealthy corporations through Congress without a single democratic vote, they’re making no secret of how they want to pay for them. By slashing vital programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and more. To help us unpack where they’re headed — and what they mean when they use buzzwords like “entitlement reform” and “welfare reform” — Rebecca talks with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). Next, when David Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop five years ago, they had no idea their search for the perfect wedding cake would take them to the United States Supreme Court. Following oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case earlier this week Rebecca talks with Sharita Gruberg, LGBTQ policy guru at the Center for American Progress about what’s at stake. But first, Jeremy Slevin brings some holiday cheer — plus updates on the tax fight, government shutdown, and more — for another installment of In Case You Missed It.
This week’s guests:
- Congressman Jim McGovern, of Massachusetts’ 2nd District
- Sharita Gruberg, Associate Director, LGBT Research and Communications Project
For more on this week’s topics:
- Read up on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the consequences of denying service
- Read Rebecca’s tweetstorm on the USDA letter on nutrition assistance and how it’s the first shoe to drop as the GOP pivots to so-called “welfare reform”
- Don’t stop calling… trumptaxtoolkit.org has everything you need to tell your member of Congress how you feel about the #GOPTaxScam
This program aired on December 8th, 2017
Transcript of show:
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. This week the GOP sets its sights on so-called welfare reform, I talk with Congressman Jim McGovern about what that means. Next, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cake Shop case this week. I think with Sharita Gruberg of the Center for American Progress about what’s at stake there depending on how the case. But first, what’s that I hear?
[Wham’s “Last Christmas” PLAYS]
JEREMY SLEVIN: You can’t say it before I play the music!
VALLAS: Well I did. It’s Jeremy, it’s Jeremy Slevin and he’s brought Christmas into the radio studio.
SLEVIN: It’s like a middle school plays. “What’s that I hear?” And then the music queues.
VALLAS: Well I heard it coming down the hall from a distance.
SLEVIN: Now I play it longer because of that.
VALLAS: Jeremy, but thank you for that. I really needed that after this particular week. Jeremy why are you [LAUGHTER]
SLEVIN: Ok, Ok, this is the real fade.
VALLAS: Why are you in such a Christmas mood, Jeremy?
SLEVIN: I don’t, whoa, I can’t hear anything but I’ll keep talking. [LAUGHTER] I think it’s just delirium from this tax fight.
VALLAS: I think that’s fair.
SLEVIN: It’s exhausting.
VALLAS: It’s a good thing it’s Friday.
SLEVIN: It’s Friday, I need something to cheer me up and so why not listen to “Last Christmas” by Wham? The great ’80s hit.
VALLAS: Well and I hope we listened to just a short enough period of it to be within our rights, legally. Anyway so Jeremy,
[MUSIC PLAYS VERY BRIEFLY THEN STOPS]
SLEVIN: Ok, I’m done let’s talk.
VALLAS: Jeremy needs a vacation everyone. Don’t worry he’s going to get one, I promise.
SLEVIN: [INAUDIBLE] more week.
VALLAS: As his boss. So you’re fried, I’m fried, America’s fried and it’s all because the Republican congressional group of folks as it is traditionally called.
SLEVIN: I think that’s the official name.
VALLAS: It’s the technical term. They are continuing to try to ram through gargantuan tax cuts for the wealthy, for corporations without a single hearing or Democratic vote for that matter. And folks are clamoring; they all want to know what’s the latest? There’s been a lot of quiet in the media when it comes to the tax fight. What’s going on, are they still trying to —
SLEVIN: Which is a shame because I think now is the most important time if ever there was one to stop this. So last Friday, last Christmas, last Friday the Senate actually it was Saturday morning because it was 2:31 am, the Senate passed this tax bill. As many people know, it was basically written on pencil, there were major changes last minute. Many members didn’t know what they were voting for. It now has to be resolved between both chambers. So either the House can pass the Senate bill.
VALLAS: Something called conference.
SLEVIN: Yes, either the House can pass the Senate bill and that’s it. But since there are so many mistakes and screw-ups in the Senate bill that’s not going to happen. So what they’re doing is they set up a conference committee to negotiate the differences between the bills which means that both chambers of congress have to vote on this again and if we know anything the Senate, we were two votes away from killing it which means that both chambers of congress have to vote on this again and if we know anything, the Senate we were two votes away from killing it in the House we were 11 votes away from killing it which is pretty close in a chamber of 435 members.
VALLAS: And that’s of the Republican group of wait what did I call it before I can’t even remember the technical term I made up.
SLEVIN: I don’t even know the members of the congressional —
VALLAS: Sorry, continue.
SLEVIN: So this is the week. They are in crunch time right now and people are now learning ironically after —
VALLAS: I have to say I love how surprised a lot of people have been about how many mistakes are actually in the bill. There have been headlines that literally have been like “Breaking: Errors in Bill Handwritten in Crayon in Middle of Night”. Like literally, that’s the news right now.
SLEVIN: Well that’s what happens when you pass it at 2:30 AM and you’re literally writing in the margins. I mean —
VALLAS: And no one has had a chance to read it.
SLEVIN: Right. Set aside the substance for a second like the sheer damage this does to our democratic process, never has a major piece of legislation been rammed through like this. Maybe the repeal of the Affordable Care Act but with zero hearings and basically totally re-written on the fly the night it was passed.
VALLAS: So take us to what’s next. You mentioned that there’s either got to be conference or the chambers have to pass the same bill. We’re hearing it’s likely to be conference now the house has appointed it’s so called conferees for that process. The members of the House who are actually going to participate in the conference committee. When are we expecting to hear something out of that? What are the next steps if they move forward along those lines?
SLEVIN: So that’s the $1.5 trillion question.
VALLAS: Indeed it is.
SLEVIN: So they, the conferees are meeting as we speak. They’re meeting into the weekend. It’s operating on a full partisan process to know when, surprise, Democrats are having little say in it. They could have a deal any day. So they could have a deal this weekend and vote next week. The very latest we think would be the end of next week. So basically we have a week to raise hell. There was a great video this morning of a man with ALS, a lawyer and activist on the plane with Jeff Flake going back to Arizona who confronted Jeff Flake and they had a basically 11 minute back and forth. He went through ever provision of the bill in detail and questioned Jeff Flake on it.
VALLAS: And got it all on video.
SLEVIN: And got it all on video and it’s like, I hate to say going viral but it’s everywhere.
VALLAS: It’s also birthed one of the best hashtags in the history of Twitter, wait for it, wait for it, #FlakesOnAPlane. That’s right, that’s what it is. No but in all seriousness, the videos are amazing. It’s a whole 8 part video series totally worth watching because this guy who is incredibly informed as Jeremy said is a lawyer and an activist but also someone who himself would be personally devastated by this bill and particularly the health care components of it. He literally grills Jeff Flake to say like do you even know what’s in this bill and what this is going to do to people?
SLEVIN: Yeah. I think it would be helpful because as we mentioned, people are just learning what’s in the Senate bill.
VALLAS: Let’s do a little recap.
VALLAS: Reminds us, Jeremy.
SLEVIN: So to remind people of the bare bones of this bill which didn’t change dramatically. It is a giant, giant, tax cut for corporations. It brings the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. That is the bulk of this bill. The remainder of the bill collapses tax rates and includes some goodies for really rich people like peeling back the estate tax for people with five and a half million dollars or more in their estate value. Rolling back the alternative minimum tax, which makes sure millionaires pay a minimum amount of taxes.
VALLAS: Millionaires like Trump.
SLEVIN: Yeah so what we found out after the Senate bill passed is that they stuffed all sorts of like lobbyist goodies in at the last minute.
VALLAS: Oh you left out one other piece, sorry, that people need to know about the bill if we’re recapping. It also raises taxes on about 83 million middle class families. Right so Trump can call it a Christmas gift for the middle class all he wants but queue the music.
SLEVIN: Whoa, whoa, I gotta go to Spotify.
VALLAS: Oh sorry.
[Wham’s “Last Christmas” PLAYS]
But this, much as Trump says this is what you’re getting from this tax bill, middle class, this is not what you’re getting. Instead you’re getting — Cut the music, Jeremy.
SLEVIN: You want me to go to the chorus?
VALLAS: Well I was going to say instead you’re getting and I was going to be like some kind of horrible silence.
Or tax increases, anyway! So continue with your recap.
SLEVIN: Yes, all the individual provisions expire, raising taxes on millions. So what happened last minute in the senate is they added a, a last minute gift for Trump himself. Basically the loophole that benefits Trump which allows real estate companies to get additional loopholes on their taxes. They added a $2 million additional tax break for him. They also added an oil and gas loophole at the last minute put in by John Cornyn. Rand Paul got a carve out for car dealerships that limits their interest deductibility. Rand Paul, also a big recipient of donations from car dealerships. They put in a loophole for cruise ships at the last minute. It allows cruise ship companies to pay almost no taxes to the U.S. because most of them are based in Panama. And lastly Ted Cruz, our great conservative warrior added a provision that basically allowed people to put their private school savings into tax free account, which mainly benefits ultra-wealthy families who send their kinds to private schools and of course the bill already limits state and local tax deductions, really hurting the public education systems. So we’re seeing increasing incentives to shift public funding and public wealth into the hands of wealthy people.
VALLAS: And one thing that has not changed about this bill in the slightest is how they want to pay for it of course which is by jacking up the deficit to the tune of about $1.5 trillion, why Jeremy said this was the $1.5 trillion question. I see what you did there. And meanwhile and this is part of what has sort of been, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, maybe I shouldn’t be but I am. One thing that’s been surprising to me in the past several days has been how brazen so many Republicans have been about what comes next to them. And that’s, I mean literally it’s like they already have their hands in the piggy bank saying and we’re going to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and nutrition assistance and all these other things that we knew they wanted to cut because of their budgets but they’re literally coming right out and saying it. We’ll talk more about that later in the show with Congressman Jim McGovern. But Jeremy, what can people be doing right now since this moment is critical as you said. It’s not the, it’s always hard when there’s no vote in sight, there’s no specific action that Congress is about to take that’s clear. People kind of wonder what is it I should be doing? Should I be doing anything? What’s the answer there?
SLEVIN: So people should be continuing to call their members of Congress, to put any pressure on their members of congress. We have two resources you can go to. One is Trump tax tool kit, that’s at Trumptaxtoolkit.org, where there’s a list of the key members who will stop this bill. And there’s also a number to call, your member if that member is not on that list. We recommend that people go there to stop this bill. Another resource is resistancenearme.org which has a map of all of the events across the country so if people want to take direct action at their member offices they can do so. This is a critical moment. And I think we’re seeing how unpopular this is. A recent poll came out again that finds it in the 30s, it’s the most unpopular piece of major legislation in modern history. And members are rational hopefully and will act if they feel the heat.
VALLAS: And I want to give out a plug as well to a really cool tool that our friends at the Indivisible team have created which is for folks, I mean I get the question on twitter all the time. I live in a blue state or my member of congress or my senator; those people are Democrats. What do I do? Should I be calling them? Well the answer is number one yes you should be calling them because even though Democrats have stood strong and held the line and said no to these bills both in the House and the Senate, not a single Democratic vote for either of these bills. These members still need to be hearing from folks about how they feel. It’s important that they be hearing from their constituents but meanwhile, at Indivisible.org you can also find a blue state calling tool which actually enables you to make calls to folks in red states to help educate them, help them in turn education their members of congress about how they feel. So Indivisible.org, shout out for their great blue state call tool.
So Jeremy, other stuff going on this week, we haven’t had a true in case you missed it in a while. I feel like maybe that Christmas music gets to be our in case you missed it music. But a lot of talk about a government shutdown, which just got averted on Thursday.
SLEVIN: I think there are two, obviously as they’re trying to ram through tax cuts for millionaires they’re also trying to keep the government open and having a hard time doing it. So just hours ago, just yesterday they finally passed a bill that keeps the government open for two weeks. And Republicans wanted to do that so they could have time to do tax reform. The government was set to shut down at midnight tonight, Friday night. So now they bought themselves two weeks more time. Of course the question is what are Democrats going to get in order to support this bill. Republicans historically have not been able to get right wing Tea Party freedom caucus members to support any bill virtually that keeps the government open because they demand gigantic cuts to government spending. And Democrats are rightly saying that if you’re going to, as the majority party that controls both houses of congress and the presidency. If you’re going to ask us to support this bill then you’re going to need not kick thousands of DREAMers out of the country who came here as children. You’re going to need to fund the government at adequate levels. So this showdown was averted this week and is now going to bump up right against Christmas. So the potential good news is we could have a real DREAM Act finally to protect people who came here as children. We could get maybe some real funding for vital programs but it’s far from certain.
VALLAS: So a key moment of leverage for Dems to actually get Republicans to work across the aisle on things that I would say are basic human rights kind of issues that Republicans have been incredibly [INAUDIBLE] on. So one other thing that happened, oh and actually before we move on I have to say so they managed to keep the government open for two weeks. Golf clap everyone, golf clap to Republicans, keeping the government open for two more weeks. But what happens in two weeks?
SLEVIN: So in two weeks if they can’t get a deal we have a government shutdown present for Christmas. So I think they’re smart enough not to do that. But I think it’s up to Republicans to act responsively to not shut down the government right before Christmas and act responsibly not to jeopardize the status of millions of people who are in this country. So this could all come to a head while people are home making their turkeys or hams or whatever people do on Christmas. I am Jewish.
VALLAS: Their seven tofus. We this year in my family are doing for the first the feast of the seven tofus.
VALLAS: People who know my family won’t be surprised by that.
SLEVIN: All our listeners.
VALLAS: We are very, very excited about this hear in the Dopkins-Vallas household and we’re all sending in recipes to see whose are going to win because you can’t just start with a list of seven tofus you have to start with I think we’re at like forty recipes for tofu and we’re trying to winnow it down.
SLEVIN: Winnow it down, you should have a tofu competition.
VALLAS: Well that’s kind of what this has become to be honest. You’re invited Jeremy, you’re invited up in Boston. So last thing that happened this week that I wanted to call out because it’s just too shameful and also somewhat inadvertently amusing I shall say not to call it out. The Trump administration made this big commitment that they really cared all of a sudden about homeless veterans. They did that earlier this week Jeremy but then what happened next?
SLEVIN: So four days after they had this big splashy announcement we find out that Republicans are slashing this program. I mean, also the gall to cut a program that helps homeless veterans and what they were doing is they were shifting it to what’s called the CHOICE program which lets veterans get healthcare outside the VA system. They were like taking from Peter to feed Paul. They were cutting assistance for homeless veterans which has bipartisan support and has been widely hailed as really successful. We have a homelessness among veterans crisis in this country. Politico caught wind of this because they were at this event four days before and then the Trump administration again reversed course so thankfully the good news for now is the VA has now halted plans to cut this homeless veterans program after this outcry. The sad thing is there are so many actions like this that don’t get the press attention and they don’t reverse. So who knows we got to keep an eye on several months from now. They may go back and cut this veterans homelessness program.
VALLAS: So in sum the Trump administration was against homeless veterans or veteran homelessness before they were for but they’re against it again now so don’t work guys, we’re back on track. The Trump administration for you ladies and gentlemen. So that does it for in care you missed it but my conversation with Congressman Jim McGovern about the GOP pivot to what they’re calling welfare reform, what will that entail. Don’t go away more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Literally at the same time President Trump and his colleagues in congress are working to ram gargantuan tax cuts for billionaires and wealthy corporations through congress without a single democratic vote or even a single hearing they’re making no secret of how they want to pay for it. And that’s by slashing vital programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition assistance and affordable housing. To help us unpack where they’re headed and what they mean when they use buzzwords like entitlement reform and welfare reform I’m joined by Representative Jim McGovern. He’s a long serving Democratic member of congress from Massachusetts. Congressman McGovern, thank you so much for joining the show.
CONGRESSMAN JIM MCGOVERN: Well I’m happy to be with you.
VALLAS: So to kick us off here, Robin Hood in reverse has always been the GOP’s playbook and their most recent budget proposals released earlier this year were basically a hit list of programs they want to slash. But is it surprising to you to hear them say out loud and so transparently while they’re trying to do the thing they call tax reform that is actually tax cuts for billionaires and corporations that next on the docket is cuts to these kinds of programs?
MCGOVERN: Well I’m not surprised because Republicans have never been very enthusiastic about programs that feed people in our country who are hungry or provide them healthcare or provide them some sort of security. They’ve always been opposed to that. They’ve had this kind of approach to government, the survival of the fittest and you know if you’re well off, great, if you’re not too bad. But we have a group of Republicans that are just determined to undo all government and it is scary because if they succeed with their agenda a lot of people are going to be hurt.
VALLAS: Meanwhile and maybe this won’t be surprising to you either but I’ll have to confess having been surprised to hear them dress their very typical calls for cuts to these programs up in their same standard language about deficit reduction and unsustainable deficits. Was it surprising to you to hear them say that and use that sort of context or at least their stated imperative of why they need to cut these programs when literally just days ago they voted to jack the deficit that they claim to hate up so massively all to give tax cuts to the wealthy?
MCGOVERN: Right I mean over a trillion dollars in deficit, in debt will be added to the budget will be added to their tax plan. Look I mean you know it’s an understatement to say that the Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy but they are. And in this age of Trump you know they say whatever they want to say. Even though they know it’s not true. I mean they say up is down, black is white, round is square, you know facts don’t matter. And with regard to their tax bill I mean this is not a tax cut for the middle class. Basically this is a tax giveaway to big corporation, to those who are very well of and those who are very well connected. It will be a tax increase on middle class families and it will be a tax increase on those struggling to get into the middle class. So they’re just lying about what their tax bill would do. Even about what their budget will do, it wouldn’t cut fraud waste and abuse, it will gut programs that help a lot of working families in this country. So this is hypocrisy as usual and quite frankly it’s sad.
VALLAS: So part of the reason that people are especially paying attention this week when Republicans such as Paul Ryan and others talk about quote unquote, “welfare reform”, some people are using the phrase entitlement reform, sometimes they’re used interchangeably. Here I want to focus on programs that typically think about as anti-poverty programs. And that’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a letter and that became public this week to state food stamp administrators, state folks who administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in their states which some people have interpreted as the Trump administration basically saying they’re not going to wait for so called welfare reform legislation and actually encouraging states to take steps on their own to make it harder for struggling workers and families to access nutrition assistance when they need it.
MCGOVERN: Yeah so we’re going to have to wait and see what USDA really is up to but they haven’t been very forthcoming with us. But I don’t have a good feeling about this. I mean Republicans have for years wanted to block grant programs like SNAP, they’ve wanted to cut programs like SNAP. They have presented as fact a version of SNAP that is clearly not true. Basically they say it’s a program that helps people who are lazy, it helps encourage dependency. None of that is true. Of the people on SNAP the vast majority are not expected to work. Those people are kids, they’re senior citizens, they’re people who are disabled, of those who can work the majority work. The fact is they earn so little they still qualify for the SNAP program. SNAP is a program that provides people food. There are some things we can live without but food isn’t one of them. And by the way the average SNAP benefit is about $1.40 per person per meal. You can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that. We should be talking right now about expanding the SNAP benefit so that people have the resources to buy not just food but nutritious food for their families. And we ought to remind people that this program is incredibly successful. It is one of the most efficiently and effectively run programs by the federal government and has very low fraud and error rate and it is a program that also is an economic stimulus as well. People have to use SNAP to buy food, helps our farmers. Helps our grocers, it helps economy overall. But this is a good program and they shouldn’t screw around with it. They ought to understand that to the extent that SNAP needs to be improved, it is that the benefit is inadequate. Most people on SNAP end up having to go to food banks at the end of the month because the benefit doesn’t last as long as it should last.
VALLAS: So sticking with one of the themes in what you just talked about is the huge gap between what Republicans make it sound like these programs are about and then the reality of who gets helped by them. A number that I always like to remind people of is that 70% of Americans will turn to at least one means tested program at some point during their lives. So it’s not as though there’s these programs out there for some them over there while the rest of us are footing the bill. But that seems to be the GOP playbook is to flat out lie about what these programs are, who they help and to make them into something for sort of couch sitting, bon bon eating lazy people like the ones that you hear Fox News talk about.
MCGOVERN: Right you know and they promote this myth that somehow programs like SNAP promote dependency. The bottom line is the average time that households are on SNAP is 12 months or less. And we brought up to the hill to do briefings people who had been on SNAP at one point in their life who are now really quite successful who have come up to remind members of congress how important that benefit was when they needed it and to say thank you and thank you for believing in them and supporting them during a rough patch in their lives. But look this congress and this Republican majority has demonized poor people, has belittled their struggle, has blamed them for all of our economic problems, has tried to characterize them as lazy as I point the vast majority of people on SNAP who are able to work actually do work. I wish there was more of an outcry about making sure that work pays in this country. If you work in this country you ought not to have to live in poverty and yet that’s the reality for so many people in this country. And so this is a good program and it’s a program that helps ensure that people have food on the table. I mean I don’t, I approach this issue as somebody who believe that food ought to be a fundamental right for everybody. As I said before you can live without certain things, you can’t live without food. And the fact that we still have a hunger problem in America and that we haven’t addressed this issue the way we should is very, very costly. All these avoidable medical costs that are associated with food insecurity. You know I mean kids can’t learn if they go to school hungry. Workers aren’t productive if they go to work hungry. Senior citizens who have to make choices between prescription drugs or putting food on the table and they choose to take a prescription drug on a empty stomach and they end up in a hospital. Women who are pregnant don’t give birth to healthy babies unless they have adequate nutrition. And so we need to take this issue more seriously than we have but we certainly shouldn’t be trying to make it more difficult for people to be able to get the benefit when they need it and we certainly shouldn’t be demonizing people who are struggling in this country. I mean one of the things government is there for is to help people who are in need. Who are going through vulnerable periods in their lives.
VALLAS: I’m so glad that you mentioned the intersection of the poverty wage that is the federal minimum wage in this country, it’s been stuck at $7.25 an hour for the past almost nine years because Republicans in congress refuse to raise it. And as our listeners will know many people on SNAP are low wage workers for whom wages aren’t enough to keep food on the table and provide for their families. But yet what you hear throughout the GOP’s rhetoric and this was all over that USDA letter we were just talking about to state administrators is this phrase self sufficiency. It’s all over the place when Republicans talk about people struggling to make ends meet. They just need to be self sufficient yet that doesn’t really seem to pan out when it comes to their views on wealthy corporations or the richest people in this country.
MCGOVERN: And again as I said before, the majority of people who are able to work who are on SNAP, work. I mean believe me, if they had a choice between working at a job that pays so little that they need to rely on public assistance the put food on the table or working at a job that pays them a livable wage so they can go out and not have to rely on public assistance, they would prefer the latter. But the fact of the matter is that the jobs that are out there keep people in poverty. So these people are not lazy. They are working and they’re hoping that some day maybe they’ll get a promotion or they’ll be at a state where they won’t have to rely on programs like SNAP. But the reality in this country right now is that we have millions of people who are working who are still stuck in poverty. And so when I hear Speaker Ryan or I hear Republicans talk about self sufficiency I respond by screaming the reality that I just said to you. That people are working out there. They’re working and they’re working harder than ever and they are still stuck in poverty so let us address the issue of wages. Let’s help lift people up. And by the way there are still parts of this country that are still having a difficult time recovering from the bad economy that we recently experienced. Some of these people live in rural areas where there are no jobs. They live in rural areas where there is no public transportation to get them to a place where there might be a job training program. How do you turn your backs on those people? And I also try to remind people that people in this country who are food insecure who are hungry, they defy stereotypes. I mean they’re veterans, they are people who are working full time jobs. They’re senior citizens who have spent their whole lifetime giving back to our community and our country. I mean they are kids, these people are our brothers and sisters and congress treats them so poorly. I mean we have, you mentioned the flexibility whatever that means the USDA is trying to urge states to try to embrace. We have an example of what that means. We have Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who is moving forward with drug testing some food stamp recipients. You know what I have an idea. Let’s go drug test Scott Walker. You know maybe people who have stupid ideas like that ought to be drug tested. Because that is insulting. We’re not saying drug test big heads of defense contractors who get billions of taxpayer dollars. We’re not talking about farmers who get crop insurance, we’re not talking about testing any other recipient of government money but he’s talking about drug testing poor people. I mean that is just offensive and insulting and that’s the kind of stuff that is coming out of this Republican congress. What we ought to be talking about is how we solve this problem. We ought to be developing a holistic plan that ends food insecurity and hunger in this country once and for all. And yes, one of the ways we do that is to provide people more opportunities but you cannot take food away for people in places where opportunities don’t exist and again, we ought to dispel this notion that somehow that you hit the jackpot if you are poor enough to qualify for SNAP. Because again, that benefit is really measly. It’s a dollar on average, a dollar forty per person per meal. I cant even buy a Dunkin Donuts coffee for that. And if I go to Starbucks, forget it. But the bottom line is that is it. That is what we provide people to be able to feed themselves and their families. And the real scandal is that we should be debating how we strengthen that benefit because the status quo is costing us dearly. Again, the lack of access to nutritious food, the lack of being able to not have to rely, to be able to, lack of your ability to be able to go to the supermarket and get what you need for your family. Those things all have a consequence and we could do so much better. Hunger is a political condition when all is said and done. We have the resources, we have the know how, we have everything but the political will and that needs to change. I would just say that rather than spending money on a tax cut for corporations, maybe we ought to invest more in struggling families in this country. Maybe we ought to provide them the support they need so they can support their families and I think that’s one of the tragedies of this congress is that the priorities are so misplaced.
VALLAS: Well if it makes you feel any better you’re not the only one shouting at the TV when this stuff gets said. I’m doing it with you so here’s hoping we won’t be alone. In the last 30 seconds I have you for, Congressman do you think that the public still buys Speaker Paul Ryan and to any extent President Trump as champions of the forgotten man and the forgotten woman or do you think that the tax fight has laid bare what they’re really after?
MCGOVERN: Well I think the tax fight has laid bare what they’re really after. I think their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and come up with a replacement that would throw 30 million off of health insurance, I think has shown who they really are. I really believe that a lot of people who may have supported Paul Ryan or Donald Trump in the last go around are now seeing who they really are. These aren’t champions for the forgotten man or woman. And they certainly not withstanding all the rhetoric, are not champions for people struggling in poverty. I mean they are the problem, they are the enemy of so many people in this country who are struggling, who are trying to make ends meet. And you know and people need to stand up and they need to fight back. But I have to tell you, when people complain to me about programs like SNAP my response is usually I’m proud to live in a country that has a program designed to make sure that people don’t go hungry. I’m proud to live in a country that has programs like Medicare that guarantee health care for our older population. I’m glad we have programs like Medicaid. I believe that everybody is important. That nobody should be invisible in this country and that the whole purpose of government is to be there for those who need a little helping hand during a very difficult time. Donald Trump doesn’t need government. He’s a billionaire. But there are millions of families in this country that do and they’re every bit as important as he is. And I’m sick and tired of listening to so many of my colleagues beat up on poor people, beat up on people struggling to get in the middle class and treating them as if they’re not equal. They’re not as important. They are every bit, we are all the same and we have to start treating each other with more dignity and respect and that’s why I’m hoping people are standing up in this country and fighting back. We need to take back our country. We need to do that in the next election. In the meantime we need to be doing a lot of damage control and we need to keep our eye on the USDA so they don’t screw around with this important program. I don’t want to go backwards I want to go forward. And that’s what I hope we do.
VALLAS: Well the silver lining of the healthcare fight has certainly been in my view that Medicaid has become equally popular to Social Security and Medicare in ways that people actually now recognize and many in the mainstream media.
MCGOVERN: And we’ve learned that in these state elections. Virginia, the number one issue was healthcare. In Maine you saw Medicare expansion in their health care system. So you are absolutely right but again, the fact that we have to fight to make sure that congress doesn’t mess around with food benefits or health care, I mean give me a break! I know most of the people who serve here are well off and well connected and made them millionaires but boy health care and food ought to be a right and we ought not to be diminishing that benefit, we ought to be talking about expanding that benefit so that people truly have security and so we’re in some fights. Again we have to find out what the USDA is going to do. We’re not quite sure. You know what they’re up to my gut tells me they’re up to no good. But we need to keep an idea on that. We need to watch this next farm bill. We need to watch very carefully what Paul Ryan means by entitlement reform and we have to make sure that he doesn’t view programs like SNAP as an ATM machine to pay for the corporate welfare that is part of their tax bill.
VALLAS: And here’s hoping that ends up being the silver lining of the rest of this fight is that people understand nutrition assistance, affordable housing, health care, all of those things are right there with Social Security and Medicare as what your colleagues should view as a third rail. I’ve been speaking with Congressman Jim McGovern, he’s a long serving Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts and a long time champion of the SNAP program. Congressman McGovern it’s been great to speak with you and thank you so much for joining the show.
MCGOVERN: Thanks for having me.
VALLAS: Don’t go away more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. When David Mullins and Charlie Craig walked into Masterpiece Cake Shop, a bakery in Denver Colorado five years ago they had no inkling that the encounter would take them to the United States Supreme Court. All they wanted, after all, was a wedding cake. This week that case was argued before SCOTUS’s nine justices and here to unpack what’s at stake in the case called Masterpiece Cake Shop, is Sharita Gruberg one of the gurus on LGBTQ policy at the Center for American Progress. Sharita thank you so much for joining the show.
SHARITA GRUBERG: Thank you for having me, long time listener, first time participant so very excited.
VALLAS: Well thrilled to finally have you on the show. Just to kick us off, remind us what’s at issue in this case, what are the facts, how did we get here?
GRUBERG: Sure. So as you said, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were planning their wedding and they were doing all the things that couples always do when they’re planning their wedding. And this was back in the days before we had marriage equality also so they were already facing discrimination on that front. But they were going to go select a cake, they had their mom with them, or I forget if it was Charlie or David’s but one of them had brought their mom too. It was a family affair.
VALLAS: It’s what you do, right? You bring the family, it’s a big thing, it’s exciting people are like yeah, the cake.
GRUBERG: Right. And they go into a bakery and the baker when he realizes that the cake is for a gay couple says no. they didn’t even get to what the cake would look like, if there would be writing, like anything —
VALLAS: Vanilla or chocolate.
GRUBERG: They didn’t get far at all. It was oh, this is for two men getting married. I’m not doing that. So they left and they were crying and crushed because it is your most joyous day is suddenly a source of shame and pain. And that’s kind of on of the foundations for our public accommodations laws. Is so that everyone is able to participate fully in our businesses and public spaces. If you’re a business and you’re open to the public you’re open to everyone on the same terms. This has already been decided. It’s been how it is in this country for 50 years. And although same sex couples are not a protected class under federal public accommodations laws, in Colorado as well as 21 other states and over 100 cities and counties in the U.S. they are because there is a recognition that these are public spaces and we want everyone to be included and accepted and not be humiliated and/or excluded. And so the thing that we’re talking about right now is not the baker’s right to pick and choose who he serves, that’s not a right that you really have if you’re a public accommodation. It’s the right to not be discriminated against and to not have a special exception in a general group of laws you don’t agree with the law.
VALLAS: Now the bakers says you know what, to tell me that I have to bake a cake for this particular couple even though on religious grounds I don’t agree with gay marriage that would violate my First Amendment rights because my cakes, my cakes are a form of expression. I’m a cake artist. He actually likens his cakes to the art of Jackson Pollack, saying that they deserve protection as free speech, no less than Pollack’s canvases. So setting aside the quality of these cakes and whether they are indeed are Pollack style masterpiece as the name would suggest, doesn’t he have a point how is a cake different from say a painting?
GRUBERG: So this gets us in a really difficult situation. Because if a cake is art what isn’t art? What is not First Amendment protected speech if you’re going to say a cake is. Is a very artisitic hairstyle art? Is a gourmet meal where there’s a lot of chefs who I would consider art is they make delicious food. Is that art and these were some of the issues that were raised in oral arguments with the court. And the lawyers for Masterpiece were like oh no that’s not art. But I think that’s offensive to the chef or the hair stylist. So it’s hard to draw a line there if cakes are suddenly works of art. What isn’t a work of art if a cake is? Courts have been pretty conservative in what forms of expression they’re willing to extend for First Amendment protections to. For good reason because you don’t want a situation where you can, a hairstylist can kick out an African-American person because they’re like oh I only do white people hair because that’s how I express myself or that’s my art form. So you’re getting into really dangerous slippery slope if you decide that a cake has First Amendment protections and that you can somehow read into a wedding cake the political opinions of the baker.
VALLAS: Well and the couple’s lawyer pointed out that if claiming a speech or religious right gave someone an out every time they came across a law that they didn’t like he and this is a quote, “we’d be in a world in which every man is a law unto himself.” And notably that’s actually that’s the lawyer for the couple who was discriminated against here quoting Justice Antonin Scalia who is turn was actually quoting a 19th century decision as part of a decision he wrote in another case in 1990 so they really used Scalia’s words there actually to make their case.
GRUBERG: You’re right and this isn’t a new issue. We’ve already litigated this. There was a case in the ’60s where a barbeque joint didn’t want to serve black people because of the owners’ religion opinions. And the Supreme Court was just like absolutely not that’s not how this works. You don’t get a special exemption from general because you want to discriminate because of your faith. We have really strong protections for religion in this country. It is in the First Amendment, it’s one of the foundational beliefs and principles of this country is freedom of religion. But just like any other freedom there are limits and the minute your beliefs start harming other people is when you no longer have this free reign to inflict harm on others. That’s a right that you don’t have.
VALLAS: So I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a second and I’m not going to do it with a hypothetical straw man I’m going to do it with Ben Carson because he did it for us so why not let him speak for himself. So Ben Carson now currently the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, previously a presidential candidate as many may remember. When he was running for president he basically said why is this such a big deal? Can’t LGBTQ folks just take their business elsewhere the way he put it was actually if they’ve been turned away by a bakery can’t they simply quote, “go right down the street” to buy a wedding cake at a different shop. Well doesn’t he have a point?
GRUBERG: Well there’s two issues with that. One is that we have a right to be treated with dignity and respect and the service refusals create really dignitary harm for people. And so it’s not just as easy as going somewhere else. Like as Charlie and David found they were crushed and that has an impact on how included you feel in society. And your willingness to go somewhere else. Like the couple that was discriminated against in the Arlene Flowers case downsized their wedding because they just didn’t even want to be in a situation where they could be refused again. And then it also presupposes that there is somebody else down the road that you can offer service but we did a study of service refusals and found that for people who don’t live in metro areas, LGBTQ rural foolks or people on a military base which was one of the examples used in a brief filed in the Supreme Court it’s really hard to find another service provider. So for 4 in 10 non-metro LGBTQ people in a survey we did they said it would be very difficult or impossible to find the same type of service at a different retail store selling wedding attire for example if they were turned away. 3 in 10 said it would be difficult or impossible to find a different bakery if they were turned away. So in addition to the dignitary harm that LGBTQ people face when they’re refused service there’s this other layer of it’s really not that easy. You’re also more likely to not even try if you face discrimination because there is that really significant harm to your sense of inclusion and you don’t want to go through that again. So another survey we did found that one in three LGBTQ people who experienced discrimination in the past year avoided stores, restaurants or other public places because they just didn’t want to even be in that situation again. And you know that’s really disturbing for those contexts but think about a hospital think about a doctor’s clinic. We’re not just talking about cakes here, we’re talking about being able to refuse to serve on a whole range of different things that people need every day.
VALLAS: And hearing you just describe this situation it is really impossible to think of this independent from the battle in the civil rights era for black people to sit at the same lunch counter and be served by the same restaurants that were saying they were whites only, really is the same issue here. So what’s at stake here if the court sides with the cake shop? Obviously bad news for LGBTQ folks who are trying to now exercise their rights to get married because you got to have cakes and flowers, that’s part of it. I’m being glib but there’s obviously a much broader set of implications here if the court does side with the baker. Does this signal a massive reversal of civil rights and inclusion in this country.
GRUBERG: Right, 100% yes. So for LGBTQ folks you’re in a situation where you could go to a store and it could say no shirts, no shoes, no gay people, no service. Like it’s and this was a question that came up in oral arguments that they really couldn’t answer. It’s not and again, it’s not just cakes and florists. It could be any kind of restaurant or public accommodation and even beyond that you’re putting at risk access to health care, employment any of the protections that currently exist could be undermined if you recognize that an individual has a right to refuse to follow the law. Because of their personal beliefs, that opens up the flood gates. And not just for LGBT people, you could have a hotel that refuses to rent a room to an unmarried mother because they don’t agree with her lifestyle. Or you could have other public accommodation refusing to serve an interracial couple because they disagree with them. Or rejecting to serve a sick person or a Muslim. I mean this is one of the issues with this case. If you rule in favor of the bakery you’re really opening the floodgates to undermining all of our civil rights protections.
VALLAS: In the words of the lawyer arguing on behalf of the couple who was discriminated against if those laws, and he’s talking about anti-discrimination laws, if those laws were subject to exemptions for anyone who could claim his product or service was expressive, they would become not a safeguard against discrimination but a license to discriminate. That’s what I’m hearing you say is really at issue in this case. So the, as I mentioned up at the top, the case was heard this week oral arguments and the justices doing the usual kind of questioning. What if anything can we gleen from those oral arguments and from the Justices questions? What do we think the likely outcome here is going to be?
GRUBERG: I mean honestly it’s hard. It was really difficul to figure out where Kennedy stands on this. Sotomayor and Kagan were asking a lot of really good questions about how sweeping this decision could be and the impact and they were pointing out like it’s not just cakes. They cited examples of a lesbian couple who was kicked out of a cab on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere and there’s another really horrific case of someone where a funeral parlor refused to bury them because they were gay. So they were bringing up like where is the line? And the lawyer for Masterpiece couldn’t find a line. There wasn’t really a line they could articulate and that’s a problem.
VALLAS: Because they were standing on that slippery slope you described.
GRUBERG: Exactly. They just kept saying well this is different. We’re just talking about cakes here. But the thing is if you say that any business with a creative element could have a license to discriminate if cakes are expression that can be exempt from public accommodations laws. And there was also an issue of the dignity of the individuals that came up a lot. And is a cake art is another question that was coming up a lot. Like where’s the line on defining that not just that artistic expression could have an exemption but you know if cakes are, then your dinner at a restaurant could be art. Kennedy was concerning because he did express a lot of sympathy for the religious beliefs of the bakers and seemed offended by the lower body, the Colorado Civil Rights division pointing out the history and the long history of using religion as an excuse for discrimination and I mean this is a fact. It is true that religion has been used as a cover for discrimination for centuries. And so hopefully Kennedy’s opinion that this wasn’t expressed in a kind enough way won’t lead him to rule against the basic rights and dignity of LGBTQ people. And you know he has a long history of prioritizing dignity and respect in his decisions. It’s something very important for him but I mean right now we don’t know.
VALLAS: So is this case, depending on how it turns out but just the existence of the case itself. Is this part of a broader attack on marginalized communities’ ability to participate fully in public life? Obviously it isn’t just about cakes. It isn’t just about the Masterpiece Cake Shop. People are familiar with the so called bathroom bills which set off a whole firestorm in North Carolina and really across the country. What’s the larger context here in which this case fits?
GRUBERG: Right and that’s a really good flag because LGBTQ people broadly face extremely high rates of discrimination. We did a survey that found one in four LGBTQ people had experience discrimination in 2016 alone. There’s a recent NPR study that found over half of LGBTQ people had faced harassment or discrimination in their lives so far. So it is wide spread. And the fact that we’re talking about undermining the limited protections that exist is really concerning. But it is part of this sweeping attack on rights that we’ve seen post-marriage equality. So we’re seeing these bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas and all over the place that are, if you can’t pee in public you can’t really function in public. Like you’re going to be constantly worried about what’s my escape route? Where do I got? And that –
VALLAS: As someone who pees a lot. And I’ll say that openly I could not agree more.
GRUBERG: It is so basic and fundamental to like being able to exist in public spaces. And then we’re also seeing erosion and attacks on rights and ability to adopt and form families. So there’s other ways. So in Texas there’s another case where the Texas Supreme Court said oh just because you have marriage equality means that you can be eligible for the same benefits as a different sex couple. Which is absurd but these are the fights we’re having. There is this whittling away of the wins that we’ve had that really calls to mind what we’ve seen over the years in abortion rights where it is, you’re chipping and chipping and chipping away at these rights until you’re really undermining these basic rights. And we really have to be vigilant in fighting against these attacks.
VALLAS: And we’ve talked on this show before extensively about attack on the Americans with Disability Act as well, specifically targeting the part of the law that requires accessibility in public accommodations so incredibly similar here. Sharita Gruberg is one of the gurus at the Center for American Progess who focuses on LGBTQ rights and policy. Sharita thank you so much for joining the show and we will have to have you back soon.
GRUBERG: Thank you for having me. Life long dream.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.