Jan Schakowsky, is an old-fashioned liberal, definitely left of center and proud of it. In a rally last week at the Goudy Elementary, a CPS school, she previewed her “Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream Act,” a bill unabashedly modeled on FDR’s WPA (Work Progress Administration), which put the unemployed to work repairing and building the Great Depression’s ravaged city- and farm-scapes.
In a telephone conversation Thursday from her vacation home in Michigan City, Indiana, Schakowsky told me that she voted against lifting the debt ceiling earlier this month because she couldn’t stomach voting for a bill that cut programs that help regular people while not raising taxes on the rich. She served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission (aka National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) tasked by President Obama with figuring out how to bring down the deficit, and her name was mentioned as a possible pick for the super committee of 12 that is currently tasked with same. She assured me she wasn’t slighted, and pivoted to describing the “wonderful” Michigan City Zoo, which was a 1933 WPA project.
She has been telling her constituents—many of whom are terrified by the prospect, or reality, of foreclosures and job loss—that it’s the Republicans’ fault; that her craven colleagues across the aisle, kowtowing to the Tea Partiers, would rather the American economy collapse than have Barack Obama win re-election.
Feisty and articulate, the 67-year-old, seven-term congresswoman represents parts of the Chicago’s North Side and the north suburbs, including Evanston, where she lives with her second husband, Robert Creamer.
Here’s the part of our conversation focusing on her jobs bill, which she promises will put more than two million people back to work and bring down the 9.1 unemployment rate by 1.3 percent—evidence that she is not over promising. Check back Monday for part two of our hourlong conversation, in which Schakowsky muses on why the president should vacation wherever he likes and why she had to leave the room to control her tears during a meeting with constituents earlier this week.
CF: You’ll be introducing your jobs bill after Labor Day when Congress returns from its five-week vacation?
JS: Yes, but let me give you some background. I’ve been very involved in making economic proposals since I was on the Simpson-Bowles Commission. I didn’t vote for their recommendations, but I did propose an alternative that achieved the same goals of primary budget balance by 2015—but without putting the burden on middle-class people and poor people and seniors. Then following the lead of 81 percent of Americans [according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll] who feel that the best way out of the deficit is to tax millionaires and billionaires, I introduced my “Fairness in Taxation Act,” which sets new tax brackets starting at 45 percent for people who have taxable income of a million dollars in a year. For a person making a billion, the tax rate would be 49 percent. [My jobs bill] rests on the very simple idea that if you want to create jobs, then create jobs. My legislation would put 2.2 million people to work right away—over two years—doing things that need to be done in our country. The cost of the bill is $227 billion—$113.5 billion for each year, 2012, 2013. The jobs would include my school improvement corps that hires 650,000 construction and maintenance workers to fix up schools all across our country. We’d have a park improvement corps, 100,000 for young people… conservation projects on public lands, restorations and rehabilitation. We’d have a neighborhood heroes corps; we’d hire 300,000 teachers, 40,000 cops, 12,000 firefighters, health corps grants to hire about 40,000 healthcare providers; community corps, 750,000 jobs including energy audits, conservation upgrades, recycling, reclamation. And we’d have a childcare corps—100,000 jobs in early childhood care and education through additional funding for the Early Head Start program, which is now on the chopping block. And the idea here is that these would be good jobs that would allow people to actually become consumers. What businesses need is not so much tax cuts and incentives, but rather customers. Of course we need infrastructure. The corporate community, the business community—everybody needs good roads to get their goods to market and move around the country, and certainly in my district there’s so much demand for the underground infrastructure—for water and sewer, these are absolutely crumbling. Many of them are over 100 years old. Do we have to wait for another total disaster like in Minnesota? We have a lot of bridges in Illinois that have been certified as needing repair.
CF: And it’s paid for by increases in taxes?
JS: Right, eliminating some of these tax breaks, these tax expenditures for oil companies or corporations that ship jobs overseas. So the money is there. This idea that America’s broke—and we can’t afford to do any of this—is completely wrong and counterproductive. The idea of trying to somehow restore our economy by cutting the federal budget is absolutely wrong. It’s just the opposite. Most economists say that further cuts would actually cost jobs, and could potentially lead to a double dip recession.
CF: You voted against lifting the debt ceiling.
JS: I’ll tell you honestly, if it had been a tie, I would have changed my vote. You cannot let the USA just default, but I thought that the deal was not a good one. I didn’t want my name associated with something that I thought was a very bad deal. These votes are forever; they’re part of a historical record, and I did not want to support something that was 100 percent cuts. We do not know yet exactly what those will be, but since the Republicans are in charge of the House, we already know that they’re willing to literally take food out of the mouths of hungry children. They voted in their so-called “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill to cut the Women, Infant, and Children program [WIC] for pregnant women and then their babies. I understood, the president had a metaphorical gun to his head, the clock was ticking.
CF: Did President Obama lose the negotiation? Was he out-negotiated? Were you disappointed?
JS: We lost the election in 2010; that’s the problem. [Obama] is not going around saying, “What a great deal,” at all. You really do have people within the Republican party, being led by the nose by Tea Party members; they are willing to bring the economy down. When you’re dealing with that level of irrationality, it’s hard to cut a good deal. But nonetheless it wasn’t, and I didn’t want to sign on to it and have my name attached to it in any way.
CF: I heard Alan Simpson [the former Republican senator from Wyoming], your colleague on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, really unleashed an attack on Sen. Max Baucus, [a just-appointed Democratic member of the super committee of 12] charging that he didn’t come to the meetings and he didn’t do much. I was kind of surprised.
JS: Alan Simpson has repeatedly gone out of his way to compliment me on the fact that I issued my own plan. He identifies with me in a way, because he, like me, speaks his mind. He wrote me a very interesting personal message. He stuck his foot in his mouth about social security—something weird, like 360 million tits and people sucking off of it [He called Social Security "a milk cow with 310 million tits."]. I mean it was just horrible. So he wrote me a note. I thought he had written perhaps to everyone on the commission, but he didn’t, saying that he really apologized and he’d try to do better, and he knows I must have been very hurt by it.
CF: How are you feeling about President Obama these days?
JS: I’m very pleased that he has talked about and plans to introduce a very meaningful jobs program. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been in touch with the White House and hope that it’s something along the lines of what I’ve recommended—that creating jobs will be included.
CF: Have you talked to his people about your bill?
CF: To him directly?
JS: No, I haven’t. I’ve been sending emails pretty much to everyone, [director of the National Economic Council] Gene Sperling and [White House senior adviser] David Plouffe, and making sure that my bill has been circulated through the people who are helping to make decisions in the White House. I feel the contrast between President Obama and the Republicans. [GOP lawmakers] are completely out of touch and completely on a dangerous path. All the gains really pretty much since 1980 have gone to the wealthiest Americans.
CF: Would you be in the category of people whose taxes would be raised—not just millionaires and billionaires, but as a couple making more than $250,000 a year?
JS: Yes, not in the millionaire category, but in the $250,000-plus. Well no, actually, because we file separately. My taxable income doesn’t hit the $250,000 mark.
CF: But your husband’s would?
JS: No, his wouldn’t either hit the $250,000, but we’d gladly pay more taxes than we pay right now.
CF: Should President Obama wait until after Labor Day to give his jobs plan?
JS: I think two things are happening. One, I think they’re working on it. And two, Labor Day is not very long away. People will be paying more attention. He’s certainly out there talking about the issue and listening to people, which I think can inform what he comes up with which I think is a good thing.
Photograph: U.S. House of Representatives