Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Jacob Lew, 4/14/2011
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
See below for an answer to a question (marked with an asterisk) posed in the briefing that required follow up.
*The President will file and release his taxes on Monday, April 18, 2011.
1:51 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for being here. I don't have any opening announcements to make. I have with me today Jack Lew, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget -- someone you all know very well.
What I'd like to do is have the top portion of this briefing, if we could take questions that you might have about the President’s speech yesterday, the policy vision he laid out and the process that he’s put in motion to try to realize that vision -- we'll do all those questions at the top. Jack is here to answer a significant portion of them; others I might answer. But Jack is going to have to leave at a point after that and I don't want to have to restart the briefing. So if we can do -- I'll go on and answer questions on other subjects, but let’s do this subject at the top and then we can move on to other things.
With that in mind, I'll start with the Associated Press.
Q Thank you. Jack, the President is calling for a trillion dollars in tax revenue over 12 years, and that's in addition to the roughly $700 billion from the expiring Bush era tax provisions. Can the President guarantee, though, that extra trillion dollars is not going to touch anybody but that top 2 percent of earners? And if that's the case, does that mean that the wealthiest Americans are going to have like a $1.8 trillion new tax burden over 12 years?
MR. LEW: To be clear, the expiration of the tax rates that were in the Bush tax cut are assumed in our budget, because the President, as he said yesterday, will not agree to extend them again. On top of that, the President has proposed that we go through a process of tax reform where we broaden the base and we eliminate exclusions and preferences, tax expenditures. And if you look at where the benefit of those tax expenditures go, the vast majority of special provisions and preferential rates are for those with the highest incomes.
And it’s certainly not necessary to have broad-based tax increases in order to get the savings that were in the package that the President outlined yesterday.
Q You say most of the benefits go to -- does that mean that those are the only places that those savings will be targeted?
MR. LEW: In order to achieve the savings that were outlined yesterday in the framework, it is not necessary to go below that point, to go below the threshold, and that's what the President has proposed.
Q It’s not necessary to go below $250,000 at all? No one under $250,000 will get a tax increase?
Q It’s $250,000 for families, $200,000 for --
Q So no tax increase for anyone making under $200,000 individually?
MR. LEW: Obviously we're talking about a proposal -- the President has put forth a framework and that is what the President has proposed, yes.
Q If I could follow up, the tone of the President’s speech yesterday -- he talked about the Republicans’ pessimistic view of America and how they want to break the social compact. Then he talked about finding common ground. And I'm wondering what part of the pessimistic vision he can embrace. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: A fair question, Jim, but I think I would point out that what the President did yesterday was describe the vision put forward by the House Republican plan and describe his own vision, the vision that he thinks is preferable and which is embodied in the proposal he then put forward.
What is true is that these are competing visions and that these are contentious issues. There’s a long history in Washington of contentious issues being resolved in a bipartisan way. It’s been done -- Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill; George -- the first President Bush, as President Obama pointed out yesterday; President Clinton with Speaker Gingrich. Just because there’s a lot of heat in these discussions, in these debates, a lot of firmly held convictions, doesn’t mean that we cannot come together and find common ground.
The President believes that. But he also thinks it’s very important to make clear what his vision is and to contrast it to the vision put forward in the House Republican budget. That's an important thing to do. But he still very firmly believes that we can find common ground, just as we did last week and in December, and as previous Presidents dealing in a similar divided-government situation, have done to achieve big things in the past.
So the confidence is there; the optimism is there; and he looks forward to the process that he initiated yesterday moving forward quickly because he thinks this is important work that needs to get done.
Q How does Social Security fit into that vision in terms of raising the retirement age to 70 perhaps? What’s the White House position?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I’ll -- Jack can handle the policy side of that. Go ahead.
MR. LEW: The President has on a number of occasions, including yesterday and going back to the State of the Union, made clear that he thinks that it’s important that we deal with Social Security and that we deal with it now. But Social Security is a different issue than these other fiscal challenges. The real problem is a 75-year problem. The problem is that we have an obligation to keep Social Security sound so the people who are working today and who are going to be retiring and getting benefits many years from now can count on the system.
Social Security did not cause the deficit we have now. Social Security ran a surplus for many, many years since 1983. And the Social Security trust fund was built up to a point where if we weren’t in the bad fiscal conditions we were in, it would be in fine shape. So it’s not fair to put it in the same place as other things that are being discussed for deficit reduction.
It is a parallel and important challenge, but it’s not the same.
And we would very much like to engage in a process to work through Social Security where we learned in the 1980s -- I was involved in 1983; I was involved in 1981 and ’82, when we didn’t have such great consensus on Social Security; I was involved in 1983 when we did. When reasonable people look for the sensible middle, you can agree on Social Security. It’s actually not as complicated as a matter of policy as health care is. And we need to get to the process of having that conversation without coming with preconditions and lots of statements in advance.
The suggestion that we should be laying down a policy on Social Security -- my own view, as somebody who’s lived through battles on Social Security, is that’s not the way to advance the dialogue. As soon as one party lays down a position, the other party is taking that counter-position.
The way to make progress on Social Security is to say we’re going to protect Social Security for 75 years. We want to do it in a way that’s reasonable and balanced, and to have the conversation. So I think the President has shown leadership on it on a number of occasions, putting it out there in the frame, which I personally believe is the way you can make progress.
MR. CARNEY: Let me get to Jeff.
Q Thanks, Jay. May I ask kind of a wonky question? Another area where the Republicans and Democrats don’t necessarily agree is on the debt limit. Is the White House, is the administration preparing contingency plans now, already, for the possibility that the debt ceiling will not be extended, such as a through a staggered default?
MR. LEW: I think one of the very encouraging things about the leadership meeting yesterday was that all parties agreed that it’s unthinkable that the United States would not be able to meet its obligations on its debt. The full faith and credit of the United States is something that we have a real obligation and a trust relationship with our people, not to undermine.
And that’s why we’ve said these issues shouldn’t be connected. The debt limit should just be extended, and we need to have this urgent debate on our fiscal condition. I think that the Secretary of Treasury has made clear in his communications with Congress what kinds of flexibility he has as we reach a debt limit, and they’re very limited. It has been his view, and I think correctly, that there should be no misunderstanding of what our levers are, what are options are.
So we’ve been transparent with the Congress. There isn’t anything else that -- besides what the Secretary of the Treasury has shared with Congress -- and everyone should know that it’s not like the government shutdown; it will be a very bad thing if all of the cable TV stations have countdown clocks to government default. The fact of anticipation would in it of itself undermine our position as an economic power.
So nobody should be playing chicken with the debt limit. We should get it done. We should get it done soon, early, and get it out of the way.
Q Can you address the wonky part, though? Is the staggered default something that the White House is looking at in terms of contingency planning?
MR. LEW: We have outlined to the Congress all the levers that we have.
MR. CARNEY: Jake.
Q Jack, if you could help us understand some of the more stark depictions that President Obama laid out yesterday of the Ryan plan. He said that 65-year-olds would have to pay $6,500 more on their Medicare. He said 50 million Americans, potentially, could lose their health care. I assume that’s combined with the repeal of the health care bill. Is that right, or no, the 50 million number?
MR. LEW: I’d have to go back and check.
Q Okay. But in any case, he said that seniors wouldn’t be able to afford nursing homes; poor children would lose their health care; middle-class families who have children with disabilities would not be able to care for them. Could you explain how the Ryan plan would do that?
MR. LEW: So let me go through the pieces. It really flows from several different pieces of the Republican budget. On Medicare, the proposal that they’ve put forward is that we basically move from where we are now, which is a defined benefit plan, to a system which if we were in the private sector you’d call it a defined contribution plan. There is a bit of a disagreement as to what it’s called. The Congressman calls his plan “premium support.” We’ve called it vouchers.
I will just say that the people who designed the idea of premium support have said they don’t think it’s premium support. So this is not something that we’ve said. I mean, if you talk to Henry Aaron or Alice Rivlin, both of whom have embraced the idea of premium support at various points, they haven’t -- they’ve said that this is not what it means.
But the way it would work is that instead of getting a benefit package when we turn 65, which is what happens now, you’d get a check. You’d get the ability to pay a premium. The problem is it won’t cover the cost of the package. If the package gets more expensive, the retired person would be on their own. The estimate that the President used reflects the fact that between out-of-pocket expenses and premiums out of pocket, the senior citizen would have to spend $6,400 more.
Now, we think that takes you back to what were the pre-Medicare days when many -- in fact, most -- old people couldn’t afford health insurance. Most old people don’t have $6,000 to spend out of pocket. And if you don’t -- if you have to choose between a health insurance premium and food on the table, that’s a very bad choice to force people to make in their retirement.
Q -- $6,400, where does that come from?
MR. LEW: It’s a combination of what the estimated cost of the Medicare package would be plus the out-of-pocket expenses under insurance. So it’s a calculation that’s been worked out based on where you would be under the current system versus where you would be if the Republican plan were to take effect.
Now, it’s clear how they get the savings. I’m not going to challenge that there are savings. What they’ve said is that the risk of escalating health care costs should be shifted from the commonweal, from the federal government, to the individual. And if you take that risk away from the Medicare program and say that each individual will bear it, it does reduce spending. But it doesn’t provide the kind of benefit package that we have today.
The argument that’s made is that the system will be competitive, there will be alternatives out there. It wasn’t the case before Medicare. We didn’t have lots of competition for retired people to get health insurance on their own. And the stark reality is it’s a very different world. It is not Medicare as we know it today. It’s not a defined benefit plan which everyone is participating in.
And in terms of the nursing home care and disabled children, that’s more of a Medicaid issue than a Medicare issue. Everyone knows that Medicaid is not one federal program; it’s 50 state programs. What the Republican plan would do would be to block-grant it, give a great deal of flexibility to the states, and lower funding, and tell the states you run your programs with less money.
Well, if you run the programs with less money, you have to ask what’s going to give. And where all the cost growth in Medicaid is, or much of the cost growth is, is long-term care for elderly people and disabled people. And it is just not plausible that in a world where the resources given to the states were so severely constrained, that with all the flexibility in the world, they’d be able to provide the kind of benefits, especially where it’s growing most quickly, which is in long-term care.
Q So you’re assuming that the states would take seniors on Medicaid and people with disabilities or parents with children with disabilities on Medicaid off because those are the areas that are growing the fastest --
MR. LEW: That’s where the cost growth is. The alternative would be to take away benefits from everyone else who gets benefits. I mean, the pie wouldn’t be big enough. So the question is, what would give? Clearly the areas of growth have been in the areas the President mentioned.
Q But it’s not actually based on anything factually in the Ryan proposal?
MR. LEW: Well, I think that -- we make policy based on projections and expectations of what’s going to happen. And I think it is a very reasonable projection that the kinds of choices created by the block granting and the reduced funding would make it impossible to have the mix that we have today. And the only thing that could be reduced in order to keep the growth under control would be that kind of long-term care and the care for disabled. It would be very hard to get the savings any other way.
So it’s a little more challenging than Medicare because it would depend on a lot of decisions made in the states. So I think there is a degree of variability. I don’t think that there is any question that it would put in motion a set of constraints that would require the results that the President described.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Chip.
Q Staying on Medicare, but on the President’s plan, he said yesterday, after going through some of the proposals he has, he said that will enable us -- Medicare and Medicaid, excuse me -- that will enable us to save $500 billion by 2023 and an additional trillion dollars in the decade after that, and then said, if we’re wrong then it would be given to this independent commission which would have more authority to act.
Number one, is $1.5 trillion really enough to make Medicare and Medicaid solvent or take them out of the category of something we really need to fear? Is that enough money? And number two, isn’t this proposal, to give it an independent commission, kind of the definition of kicking the can down the road?
MR. LEW: First of all, I think that it’s important to take a step back and remember that we’re not starting on square one. We’ve enacted the Affordable Care Act. We’ve put in motion the most sweeping policy changes that would give us in fact the ability to what we call bend the cost curve, lower the cost growth of health care in this country. And that’s the real answer to how do we deal with the problems of Medicare and Medicaid. It’s the answer to how do we deal with the problems of health care expenses in the economy generally.
It’s not the case that Medicare and Medicaid are growing faster than health care costs generally. Medicare and Medicaid are growing a little less than, or with, depending on what measures you look at, health care costs in the overall economy.
The Affordable Care Act put very important provisions in place to help us to start to bend the cost curve. I think that the independent panel that you’re talking about is -- it’s not a commission. It is a panel of experts that would set constraints on spending in these programs. And it would limit the growth in the programs to a level that would require changes in reimbursement practices and the like. It is a very real set of policies, and it’s not the same as a study commission.
Q Is a $1.5 trillion really the kind of money you need, though, to get this under control?
MR. LEW: I think that if you combine the impact of the Affordable Care Act and the impact of the proposals that the President laid out yesterday, it is very dramatic savings in Medicare and Medicaid. If we’re successful, as I believe we will be with the implementation of these programs to reduce the overall health care growth, we will be well on our way towards dealing with the challenge of keeping those programs solvent.
Q What is the number -- if it’s not $1.5 trillion, if you’re adding in the effects of the Accordable Care Act, what is the number?
MR. LEW: I’d have to get back to you with -- I’ve been focusing on budget numbers, not trust fund solvency numbers. So I don’t want to off the cuff make up a trust fund solvency number.
Q Just following up -- so you said when Jake was asking about Medicaid and if they give it to states and the states are going to -- and they’re limited funds -- states are going to make these tough decisions and it’s going to hurt older folks and young disabled kids, et cetera. But you guys envision cutting Medicaid, right? So, I mean, aren’t they -- aren’t there going to be cuts that affect them? Couldn’t the same assumption be made about your own plan?
MR. LEW: No, I think everything is a matter of degree. And you look at the magnitude of savings in the Republican budget that are concentrated in Medicaid and, frankly, more broadly in programs that serve poor people, it would very much change the social fabric of this country.
I think that in Medicaid, flexibility to the states is something the President has said he wants to work on. Dealing with the problem of the so-called dual eligibles -- people who are in Medicare and Medicaid -- is something he wants to work with the states on; and correcting the way we reimburse under these programs to make sure that we’re only paying once and we’re paying the right amount; making sure that programs don’t become ways of over-billing the federal government, whether it’s from a provider or the way states bill the federal government for their share of reimbursement -- those are the kinds of things that we’re looking at in our savings.
And I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It is tough, the stuff in our budget. Our budget has the deepest Medicare and Medicaid savings that I’ve ever been part of putting together. It’s going to have an impact. It’s going to put pressure on the system, but it won’t do it in a way that pushes the risk to the beneficiary. And that’s a difference; it makes a difference.
MR. CARNEY: Mike.
Q The President laid out his plan. Ryan has laid out his plan. Gang of Six is working on their plan. And the deficit commission folks, when they left, seemed to be saying that maybe the Gang of Six was the great hope. Is that where the common ground comes in? I mean, is that -- are you guys really hopeful that they’ll be a key to making this all come together?
MR. LEW: When the President met with the cochairmen of the deficit commission, he was very much appreciative of the work that they had done, very complimentary of the work they had done, and very grateful that they said they wanted to stay involved. The so-called Gang of Six is doing important work. It’s having a bipartisan conversation on tough stuff where there are members who are doing things that take them away from the kind of mainstream of each of their caucuses. It’s important that they continue their work and that that kind of a bipartisan conversation grows.
I think what the President laid out yesterday in terms of his meeting with the leaders was a very practical process for how do you get from here to where we need to go. And I think that you’ll see that when Congress comes back, beginning of May, from the recess, the Vice President will meet with the leaders and lay out the issues that they need to work through -- with a pretty tight deadline. I mean, the goal of having progress by Memorial Day and something that we can vote on by the end of June is a -- it’s a significant challenge.
The more support there is for ideas in the broad center, the better off we'll be. But it’s the work of the leaders and the President, the Vice President, those of us on the economic team, to really drive the process forward. And we very much hope to have the support of the groups that are working to find a sensible middle.
Q Considering the tone in this town, though, following the speech yesterday, is it realistic to get something done that quickly?
MR. LEW: I think that if one asks what’s realistic going forward, the most popular thing in Washington is to say it’s impossible to get anything done. In early December everyone said it was impossible that there would be agreement on the tax bill. We certainly thought it was impossible that the START treaty would be ratified. Going back just a week ago, everyone thought it would be impossible that we could reach agreement between the White House and the Congress on historic reductions in spending. Congress is voting on those today.
I tend to be an optimist. I tend to also be a realist. I think that we're facing a very real sense of urgency because it’s not an acceptable thing to have the world asking questions, is the United States taking it’s fiscal future seriously. That's something we need to address because it is a real issue, and it’s not because of something being tied to something else. It’s because we have to, for our own creditworthiness, for our own financial stability, demonstrate that Washington can make decisions.
The scope of what we can make decisions on, obviously there are limits to what you can do in 30 days or 60 days. I think that there is -- a lot of progress was made just yesterday. The first step of reaching a bipartisan consensus in my experience, it certainly was true in the 1980s and the 1990s, was to have an agreement on the shape of the problem. If we can agree that the shape of the problem is that we need to be looking at $4 trillion of deficit reduction over the next 10 to 12 years, we've made progress already.
Once responsible leaders define a problem, they then take on the burden of finding a solution. And I think that coming back from the recess we will sit down together -- and it will be a challenge. I'm not going to suggest that we're going to meet once and walk out of the room, and everyone will be kind of holding hands saying we’ve finished our work. But I think that by Memorial Day we could have significant progress, and we’re going to do our very best to have something to vote on at the end of June.
MR. CARNEY: I’m going to let Jack go. But one more for Jack.
Q Quick follow on Social Security. It sounds like you’re saying that the President, by being vague on specifics, would -- makes it more likely that something might actually happen. Is that an accurate read?
MR. LEW: Well, I would characterize it a little bit differently. I think by setting out principles as opposed to hard lines, and by saying that we need to sit down together and work quickly to deal with it, he’s outlined a frame for the way we have successfully dealt with Social Security in the past. And I think that’s an invitation that’s sincere. He’s repeated it on many occasions. I’ve certainly repeated it on many occasions. And I think that it should be parallel to these conversations, not part of them. But it’s something that we should waste no time in getting on to.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: So picking up from there -- yes, hi.
Q When the President says he wants a final agreement by the end of June, what are his parameters for the scope of the agreement? When he says final agreement, does he mean an agreement that has $4 trillion of savings over 10 or 12 years? Does he mean just whatever it takes to get this debt limit through Congress? And it can’t be because of the financial markets. The last time I checked 10-year bond yields were under 3.5 percent. So what is it that -- what is the scope that would be acceptable for that final agreement? And how hard and fast is that end of June deadline?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think there is a process that he laid out both yesterday in his speech, and in the room in more detail with the leadership, that requires a certain amount of focus and urgency to address these issues. As Jack just said, you can’t solve all of this -- you can’t do all of this in 30 or 60 days, obviously. But what you can agree on is a definition of the problem, a framework for how to approach addressing the problem, and some targets and goals about how you achieve some accomplishments towards a solution.
Now, and even that is as specific as I think we can be at this point, because they need to do their work and find what they can achieve that’s substantive and real within that timeframe that demonstrates the fact that these very difficult issues are being addressed in a bipartisan way by a very serious group of lawmakers so that we can keep moving forward and address the problem.
Q So it sounds like a framework would be enough.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, and I don’t need -- and how you define that, I think, and the details of that will be determined by those negotiators who are part of the process. And that could be -- there could be a lot of substantial detail attached to that. But what is important is that the progress is being made. What I want to emphasize is what Jack said, is that obviously these are large problems that to address all in a piece of legislation, in 30 to 60 days, obviously is a reach. But you can make significant progress in that timeframe, and that’s what the President is asking the members of this group of negotiators, bipartisan, bicameral, to do.
Q Jay, can you tell us what President Obama meant when he said in his speech he wants to make the tax code more simple and fair?
MR. CARNEY: I think he wants to make the tax code more simple and more fair.
Q In what way?
MR. CARNEY: It’s filled with a lot of complexities, a lot of loopholes, a lot of things that I think the average -- makes the average American tear his or her hair out when they’re trying to do their taxes. And so the goal of tax reform is to make the code more simple and more fair. And that’s a principle that he’s applied previously in his goal of corporate tax reform, and he applied the same principle when he discussed individual tax reform yesterday. And I think that that would be a process, an outcome that would be welcome by every American who pays taxes.
Q Is raising tax rates on some but not all, is that fair?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what is -- what the President made clear is that in order to address our significant deficit and long-term debt problem, that we have to have shared responsibility as well as shared opportunity and shared prosperity. And the fact is that in a time of constraints, in a time when we have to make tough choices about how we invest taxpayers’ money, we have to be extremely rigorous in deciding what’s vital, what’s a priority, and what can be cut. It’s important that the burden is shared and the burden is fair.
And what the President firmly believes is that we cannot extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans at the cost of $750 billion, I believe the figure is, over 10 years when we have this mountain of debt to deal with. And so it’s about balance and shared burden so that we can all share equally in the prosperity of this country.
Q Do you know if he has sent in his taxes yet?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have an answer to that question. I'll get back to you on it.*
Q Do you guys still disagree that that speech yesterday had sharp political overtones?
MR. CARNEY: What the speech did, Savannah, was explain the problem to the American people -- because this is complicated stuff. Americans know very well that we have a deficit problem and a debt problem --
Q I'm talking about --
MR. CARNEY: I'll get to that -- and to explain the problem and how we got there, which is important to know so that -- because it helps explain the best way to get out of there, to get out of the problem, out of the hole that we've dug for ourselves in this country; then to look at and explain, describe one vision for how we should get there, which is the House Republican proposal.
The President believes that Chairman Ryan is very sincere and that the proposal reflects his beliefs, and that's important. And the fact that he shares the goal that the President shares, and the House Republicans share the goal and I think leaders of both parties share the goal that we need to seriously address our deficit and debt problem, and share the goal roughly of the same target in terms of deficit reduction over 10 or 12 years -- $4 trillion. That's important.
How we get there is also very important. And what the President did was describe one vision and then describe his own. And the fact that there are stark disagreements about how you get there and what those visions are is a reality that we shouldn’t hide from. But what he did was describe it and then describe his own vision. And he believes that -- it’s not yesterday that there were serious disagreements on major issues in this country or this city. And yet we have been able to meet the challenge of reaching a bipartisan consensus to deal with these really thorny questions in the past. And he believes that we can do that.
Q So you're saying the speech was devoid of politics or political motivations?
MR. CARNEY: You have to define what you mean by politics and political motivations. He was laying out his vision on a very substantive issue -- wonky issue, if you will -- deficits, debts, spending, entitlements, interest payments, Pentagon spending. This is not a campaign speech. This is a policy speech. The fact that there are competing visions between one political party and the other is a reality that we need to be aware of as we go forward. And explaining the difference is an important process as we negotiate through, because the American people need to hear what the differing ideas are as they make assessments about what the right answers are and they watch the process -- this bipartisan process, as it begins after the recess, and assess the progress it’s making.
Q Why mention at 2012 presidential candidates?
MR. CARNEY: I think that he was, again, making the point that there are some firmly held convictions -- earnestly, firmly, sincerely held convictions -- on both sides. And I think that's legitimate. That's why we have the system we have. And in an era of divided government, the way to get things done when the issues are tough is through a compromise and bipartisan negotiation. And that is what he set up in that speech and in his meeting yesterday with the leaders.
Q Would you agree that there’s some distance between the Republican candidates he referred to in that speech and the Ryan budget proposal? The speech made it sound like all the candidates on the Republican side embrace --
MR. CARNEY: I don't think he said that and I honestly haven't analyzed where potential candidates from the other party are on many things or on this budget. I think you're mischaracterizing what he said. I think the point is that the budget proposal, which has been widely analyzed and in many ways applauded by elements of the Republican Party -- which is fine because it represents a clear view of things -- pointing that out is pointing out a simple fact. And describing it in a way he described it was I think a fair thing to do as he laid out his own vision for what we should do to address these difficult problems.
Q Do you guys have any comment on the Congressional Budget Office report that indicated that instead of $38.5 billion in savings from the budget deal -- or $78.5 billion from the budget deal -- is actually $352 million?
MR. CARNEY: I don't. I wish you had asked Jack that question. I don’t have a comment on that. Maybe you can get back to us.
Q All right. Can I ask another one? For the sake of this question, if we could posit that this is -- just to remove this talking point from the equation, that this is the most transparent administration in history -- that said -- (laughter) -- do you have any comments on the Center for Public Integrity study indicating that there a lot of holes in the visitors logs, that a lot of people come and don’t sign the visitors logs and there seem to be some problems with it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I would say, in addition to pointing out -- (laughter) -- while I think it’s possible that all the television stations and networks in the country and the world who are watching this might play your sound bite about the fact that this is the most transparent administration in history, I think it’s --
Q I didn’t say that. I said just for the sake of argument --
MR. CARNEY: But I’m glad you acknowledged it. (Laughter.)
Q Let the laughter reflect that that’s not sincere, okay. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Fair point, fair point. But the -- but it is -- we have made extraordinary efforts, this President has made extraordinary efforts to demonstrate the transparency that he thinks is vitally important.
What I would note about the fact that we released records that have never been released before is that the system of -- the WAVES system from which these releases are drawn is not designed for -- there’s not visitor logs. They’re not designed for public release. They’re designed for security reasons.
So the fact that it’s incomplete is not a reflection of any effort to withhold information. We release the information that we have in ways that have never been done before by any administration of any party. And we continue to work on ways to enhance the transparency that we’ve achieved already.
I don’t have a comment on the report except to say that it’s -- the system is not designed for this use that we’ve put it to, which is to release the information. It’s a security system designed to protect the First Family, the Second Family, the people who work here.
Q Just to -- the report seemed to suggest that there are people who, not for security reasons, not CIA officers off the fields of Afghanistan, but Stevie Wonder or celebrities, people who have come here who don’t show up in the visitors logs.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I think you could address that question to how they deal with it to the Secret Service. I would say that one point that they seemed to make a big deal about was that assistants often are the names attached to who’s visited, because assistants tend to clear people in. Often, if somebody is seeing Jack Lew over at OMB or me or whatever, that somebody in that office will be the name associated with clearing someone in. That’s how the system works so that if there’s a problem at the gate, they know who to call to clear something up, or to make sure that the person who’s visiting is the right person and why the information may not match.
So I think there’s -- the system is there for security reasons. The process is that -- the processes that are used by the Secret Service, I’d have to refer questions about that to them. But our effort at transparency is broad and sincere, and we continue to make efforts to be -- to earn our reputation as the most transparent administration in history every day.
Jim, and then I’m going to get to the back rows.
Q I just wanted to ask a Libya question, if I could. Does the President agree with David Cameron and President Sarkozy that there should be more intensified strikes by NATO in Libya, and is there any intent now for the President to join them in some kind of joint statement on Libya at this point?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the leaders of those countries are close -- those countries are close allies. We have very close relationships with Britain and France, and the President has an extremely good working relationship with the leaders of those countries. And we also have great confidence in NATO’s capacity to fulfill the mission of implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
I would note, actually, that it’s my understand that strikes -- the tempo of the campaign, questions about that should be asked at NATO or at the Defense Department -- but it is my understanding that that tempo has picked up. I mean, it depends on the operations that they’re undertaking.
So we remain confident that NATO is fully capable of executing the mission. And remember what the mission is: Clearly defined, enforce the no-fly zone, enforce the arms embargo, and protect civilians. It is not described at all, in any way, in that mission statement from the Security Council resolution, that regime change should be effected through military force; that the mission on paper is the mission that NATO is enforcing. And we are obviously a partner in that mission and a member of NATO, and part of the implementation of that mission in a support and assist role.
Q Will there be stepped up use of American equipment?
MR. CARNEY: No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that the tempo of -- I think these questions are best asked at the Defense Department or at NATO. But the tempo of operations depends on a lot of factors, and I think that that tempo rises and falls based on a lot of factors, and that there has been a rise recently and may fall again. But, again, it’s about fulfilling the mission that’s outlined in that resolution.
Q Jay, Libyan State Television had a video today of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi riding about town in Tripoli; his head was sticking up through the sunroof. He seemed to be in a very celebratory mood. He was greeted by throngs of people all about town. What’s the administration’s reaction to that? He seemed to be thumbing his nose, in a way --
MR. CARNEY: We have no reaction to that -- which I haven’t seen -- except to say that a repressive leader’s ability to create a little propaganda is not unprecedented; it happens all the time. I will tell you, simply, that what we and our international partners are doing every day is tightening the noose around Qaddafi through the sanctions that we’ve implemented and the other measures that we’ve taken. We have made it increasingly uncomfortable for those around him to continue to stay with him because of the sanctions.
As you know, some leaders of that regime have made the choice to depart from the Qaddafi regime, and we look forward to more of that happening.
Q I will tell you, it didn’t look like the noose was tightening around him today. And I realize, Jay, you didn’t see the video yet.
MR. CARNEY: Yes. Again, the noose -- if I would just make the clear point that it is not the military objective of the NATO mission authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 to effect regime change through military force. So the statement you just made is somewhat meaningless because the noose I’m referring to has to do with sanctions and other non-lethal measures taken by the United States unilaterally and with our partners.
Q I hope you can bear with me. I wanted to ask you the question that I was going to ask Jack and then the question I was going to ask you. The first is, I wanted to follow up on Jim’s tax expenditures question. Number one, is the President envisioning that capital gains be treated as ordinary income under this plan? And also, within the confines of the fact that this would only affect $250,000-and-over families, does the administration support getting rid of the mortgage interest deductions tax and Cadillac health care plans, further state and local property tax deductions, which are -- are those all on the table as far as you’re concerned?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I think we’ve said generally, not with regard to any specifics that you just mentioned, is that the President believes that one of the important principles in these kind of negotiations is that everything has to be on the table. And the President -- but the President has also made clear what his principles are and where he will not go.
Some of those specifics that are answerable I wish you would have asked Jack. I know you didn’t get a question, but I direct you to the Office of Management and Budget for some of that.
Q Okay, so I should follow up with him on that. And then my other question is I guess a little bit more of a political one. Is the White House working to try to facilitate deal-making between, let’s say, moderate Democrats and moderate or quasi-moderate Republicans? And do you think that ultimately the width of the coalition will determine how much you can get done out of your $4 trillion plan?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the reality is that there’s a vote threshold necessary for any action. In the Senate it’s 60; in the House it’s 218. Are we working with lawmakers? Absolutely. We’re working with -- and we will work with -- lawmakers going forward who are serious about addressing this problem.
And one of the things that -- one of the reasons why the President is optimistic that something can be done is that the environment has changed. I think Jack spoke about this when he was here, that there is a certain realization taking hold that we need to -- there is an urgency to addressing this problem and that it requires bipartisan action; and that it requires very tough choices; and it requires Republicans and Democrats to move outside their comfort zone, to accept the fact that some of the things that need to be done to achieve the $4 trillion deficit reduction that is the general goal of everyone, it seems, in this debate, that you have to do things that are politically uncomfortable. You have to accept cuts that are tough choices.
The President spoke about looking at tax expenditures and revenues that some Republicans have acknowledged need to be looked at. I mean, that’s how this process works. And so the answer is we will eagerly work with those members of Congress who demonstrate how serious they are about this issue.
Q Under the President’s plan, when does the U.S. have a balanced budget?
MR. CARNEY: You guys saw the paper. I don’t think I have an answer on that. I think the issue is what’s the size of the deficit as a ratio of the economy to GDP. I don’t know that we have a projection for a balanced budget within any particular timeframe. But it is --
Q -- national debt -- not just the deficit --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think we’ve put out a lot of paper on that. You should definitely reference the paper. I could go get it and look it up. But if not, why don’t you get back to us on that.
Q -- see what it does for the debt, not the deficit? What does it do for the national debt? What is an acceptable national debt?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll have to look it up. But --
Q -- based on employment, too.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t think we made projections on employment. Obviously strengthening our economy and strengthening our balance sheet we believe would -- while protecting the very investments that are essential to keeping the economy growing is -- have a very positive impact on our economy.
And one of the reasons why the President, during this recent budget debate, was so insistent on protecting some of these investments was because he is -- his starting position on those negotiations was we cannot do something in this process that will jeopardize the growth in the economy or the growth and the creation of jobs that we’ve seen so far.
So the whole point of this exercise in the end is about making our economy stronger, making our economy more fertile in terms of job creation, and that’s why he’s engaged in it so directly.
Q I have two questions. One is, the Speaker criticized the group that’s going to be led by the Vice President, and he’s asked you to take it off the table. I understand one thing he may be interested in is a smaller group. Is that something the President would -- is that a subject of negotiations right now with members of Congress, leaders? And then I just had a second one I could follow up after you answer.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t believe it’s a subject of negotiation. The President just laid out this plan, this proposal yesterday. He made clear why he believed it was the right structure for the negotiations. And obviously there are a number of significant players in both houses of Congress who are important because of their positions to this kind of negotiation. And I think that’s how we envisioned the process being put forward. And each leader will appoint the members that he or she wants to participate. So I think that gives every leader a great deal of flexibility in deciding who should participate.
Q And just to follow up, on Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, they released their plan in December. What took so long for the President to invite them to the White House to essentially endorse their plan?
MR. CARNEY: What took him so long -- well, first of all, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have been here on numerous occasions in the past. He announced his plan yesterday, and they came today. That’s pretty fast. I know in our -- in the way that the environment works these days that it wasn’t within the first hour, but he was -- they were here pretty darn quickly.
Q But the timeframe I’m talking about -- in December they released their plan and it seems like just today -- or yesterday was the President’s sort of full endorsement of what they had done. Why did it take so long between the two?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think what he did was say that there -- that the commission’s work served as a guidepost to the proposal that he put out yesterday. He didn’t -- he adopted some of their proposals in his 2012 budget and he adopted many more in the proposal he put forward yesterday, and continues to look to that document for ideas for going forward.
And you should -- it shouldn’t be lost on you that the Vice President’s chief of staff was the executive director of that commission and is obviously playing an important role going forward in all of this.
So the fact that the President was very appreciative of the work that they did, thought it was extremely important, was the case in December and has been the case every day since then, and will be the case going forward. One of the things that he was so appreciative about today in their meeting was that they have both committed to stay engaged in this process because they’re very important voices in this and they helped create a framework that has helped change the debate and change the tone here, and that’s vitally important.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Thanks very much.
2:42 P.M. EDT
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