An Interview with Jeb Bush

by Matt B. on December 15, 2010

Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999-2007.  I interviewed him on November 18 at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

You’re a Catholic, and you famously argue that you are unable to separate your faith from your politics – that, in fact, you tried not to as governor. As you know, Jesus spent much of his time among the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. Does Jesus’ ministry impact the way you think about your obligations to live in solidarity with the oppressed? If so, what does that look like and how does it affect the way you think about public policy?

 

Yeah. I think if you’re a Christian – you can rationalize it; I’ve never tried. You’ve got to take the full loaf of bread. You can’t just take the parts that are convenient for you in your particular ideology. So, when I made that statement, I think it’s very hard to leave your faith at the doorstep and just walk into the government building and try to be governor. I think people shouldn’t expect that from public servants and in fact, they should encourage people’s faith to be an element of what they believe.

So, the way I attempted to act on my faith as it relates to the ministry that Jesus had with the poor was to put them in the front of the line. I’ll give you some examples.

The two most prominent examples would be programs for the developmentally disabled and the child welfare programs that the states were responsible [for] administering.

So, in Florida, the first month that I was governor, January of 1999, a federal judge in Miami was – I didn’t even know this was going to happen until I became governor – was prepared to take over the program for the developmentally disabled, which you may know is a joint federal-state program funded by Medicaid. Extremely expensive when you institutionalize people with severe emotional, developmental, and physical challenges. The Med Waiver program is the means by which adults can stay with their families out of institutionalized care. They receive services. There was a waiting list that was double the number of people that were receiving services. The Legislature had not funded the program adequately – not even close.

Well the judge was going to take it over. I went him and said, “Look, this is my priority.” I actually talked about it from the perspective of, not from an ideological point of view, but I think as conservatives, that’s the appropriate role of government – is to take care of those people that cannot take care of themselves. Liberals and conservatives may disagree on the definition of who is appropriately in that group but I don’t think anybody can argue that someone who is severely disabled shouldn’t be at the front of the line.

So, I went to the Legislature as a conservative. Republicans were in charge. I effectively said we needed a 50% increase. I actually used the threat of the federal judge taking the program over to successfully get that money and then, we ended up – I think it was over a five- or six-year period we ramped up to spending from about 500 million dollars to a billion two.

That’s an example. And the child welfare system, like it is in most states, it’s kind of last in line because babies and children that are abandoned, or neglected, or abused temporarily or abused permanently, they don’t have anybody at the halls of the capital – or they have some people, that’s not fair – but there’s not a big constituency. Our system was just in incomplete disrepair again.

So, we created a whole brand new system over time and it took a while but we doubled the funding, we created a community-based care model – the first of its kind in the country – and measured things better. We had some tragedies that accelerated it under my watch. And eight years later Florida has a model developmentally disabled program and a model child welfare program. It was simply based on this – I actually think my faith was the driving force of thinking about it differently.

I want to make sure I’m paraphrasing correctly – [that it’s] government’s job to take care of folks who can’t take care of themselves. I want to ask about what’s going on in DC right now. Republicans in Congress want to extend tax cuts for people making more than a quarter million dollars a year. Given that we know that unemployment insurance does more to stimulate the economy than tax cuts for the wealthy – those in need spend the money right away, whereas the wealthy save some of it – doesn’t it make more sense to prioritize relieving the suffering of those who are out of work than-

 

So, this is where the caveat that I described to you, a person who can’t take care of himself, in my mind, is a baby whose mom has lost the maternal instinct to love that child with all of her heart or a person who literally cannot feed himself or herself or bathe herself or himself.

What about folks who just can’t find jobs because there aren’t any available?

 

It’s not the same thing as the person who – that’s my point. So, the first question asked: how my faith involved decision-making and I answered it by saying that the people that Jesus ministered to were those folks. It impacted my faith. I mean, I’m not saying, look, being on the path towards being Christlike is on the path. I’m not suggesting that I’m anywhere near where one needs to be in acting on one’s faith. But when you get into economic policy, you could make a compelling case that raising taxes on people that are the likely – see it’s not a question of – extending a tax cut is one way to say it. That’s strange language though if a tax policy has been place ten years. In effect, it’d be raising taxes.

And raising taxes on people that create jobs will create a pretty significant deterrent for those jobs to be created to get people off of unemployment, which is ultimately the goal of every person that is receiving unemployment compensation today. So, to me, that’s not a faith question. That’s a question of ideology and a question of what’s the role of government.

Every dollar of these programs that we’re spending right now are not dollars that we have. They’re dollars creating a bigger debt that I won’t pay for – you will. It’ll be your generation that’ll pay for it, so there’s a lot of broader considerations I think that have to be brought into that equation.

Well, that is an argument that I’ve heard from a lot of Republicans on the Hill – Eric Cantor in particular – who argues that we need to extend [the tax cuts]. The argument I would make for using that language is that it was only a temporary program. It was never-

 

Ten years.

Ten years, but explicitly temporary [when] it was created for ten years. In any event, his argument has been, we need to prevent the tax raise or extend the tax cuts for those making over $250,000 because those are the folks…running small businesses and creating jobs. But in my understanding, the vast majority of small business owners don’t actually make $250,000. So, I’m wondering, in what sense are the folks who are making that much money actually those who are driving job creation in this country?

Well, that’s the place where facts can be used to advance one’s view. This is the argument – the back and forth that takes place all the time, which is a majority of people in small businesses don’t make 250, so therefore, jobs won’t be created or job creation won’t be hurt if you raise taxes on those that do. I think the other side of the argument is that a majority of the jobs created are created by small businesses whose income is over $250,000 because they use their personal tax return as the basis of their business. So, it’s a S corp. versus a C corp. S corps are done in a way that you’re taxed at the personal income rate rather than a corporation.

So, I don’t remember the exact data. If you already talked to Eric about it, he probably gave you the factoids that made the argument that a disproportionate number of the small business jobs are created by people who are a smaller number of the actual number of small businesses.

You could see how both cases would work. The fact is, our problem is that we spend too much. That’s the least the view that I have….

You don’t have to go way back into history to a point where, up to a World War II, spending was in the single digits as a percentage of GDP. World War II took that – part of it, Roosevelt’s social programs but mostly World War II – put that level up high and then it began to flatten out, and then it expanded in the 70’s, flattened out again and now, it’s expanded again to 25% of all economic activity. When you combine local and state governments, we’re defining who we are as a nation by not having – by default, we’re defining who we are as a nation by allowing government spending to allow us to live beyond our means.

So, one final one then: what specific proposals would you offer to meaningfully reduce the size of government?

I think I would ask your readers to go to Roadmap to America 2.0, which is the only specific plan that’s been proposed, that has been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, that is an honest, totally transparent, pretty darn provocative path to balancing the budget without raising taxes. And in that, it talks about eliminating the concept of discretionary and non-discretionary for starters. So, everything should be on the table, and there should be efforts made to cut spending in the military, reforming Medicare so that you can-

[House Budget Committee Ranking Republican Paul Ryan’s] proposal is a defined contribution plan for Medicare, where the government has a fixed amount and there are more choices and you create a totally different system than the one we’re moving towards with the passage of this law. It fixes the spending so it’s not growing at four times what the rest of the budget is growing, which it’s growing now. It requires a review of every other aspect of government.

So, I think there should be no sacred cows. I feel a duty for my children, really. I mean, you can’t blame anybody that’s under thirty-five years old for this. This has accelerated in the last two years but this has happened over a twenty-year period, at least. You could actually make the case it’s been longer than that, where we have not been investing in the longer-term things and we’ve been spending money in the here and now. And it’s not sustainable anymore.

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