Interview with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew

Interview with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew

By State of the Union - July 1, 2012

CROWLEY: Joining me now is White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Thank you for joining us this morning. Let's talk about health care a bit because I wanted to show you a opinion poll taken by USA Today/Gallup after the decision, and this is the opinion of the Supreme Court's ruling that the individual mandate, in fact, most of the entire law is constitutional, 46 percent of Americans agree with that and 46 percent of Americans disagree with that.

Why does health care law remain so divisive at this point?

LEW: Candy, I think that one of the great things about this country is we have a Supreme Court and when it rules, we have a final judgment. So there is not a question now as to whether or not the law is constitutional, it is a constitutional.

I think health care has been a divisive debate for many years. It's a very personal issue to people. They understand that health care is a big part of their lives. And frankly they hear a political debate that makes it more not less divisive. I think the challenge we have going forward now is to implement the law and to focus on the things that people are actually seeing day-to-day that make a difference.

If you have a student who graduates from college and they don't have a job, they are now able to stay on their family health plan. If you are on Medicare and you used to spend $600 in that doughnut hole on prescription drugs, you are now covered. If you had a child with a pre-existing condition, you are now guaranteed that you're going to be able to get covered.

CROWLEY: Those are the good parts and the president talks about those a lot. And those are wildly popular with most Americans. They think it's the -- what the Supreme Court has called the tax part and other things. And I wanted to ask you about the whole idea of these penalties, if you want to call them that, the Supreme Court calls them taxes, whatever.

If you do not have health insurance by 2014, the fine for not doing them, this goes through the IRS, is $285 or 1 percent of the income. 2015 it goes up to almost $1,000 or 2 percent of your income. And then 2016, it goes up as well.

If part of your health care law is that insurers cannot deny you insurance on the basis of pre-existing conditions, why would someone pay for health care insurance if when they get sick they can still go buy it? So why wouldn't they just pay these fines, which are pretty low, rather than pay health care which is like $7,000, $8,000 a year?

LEW: So, let's just be clear. Most Americans want health insurance. CROWLEY: Yes, I agree with you.

LEW: Most Americans have health insurance. Everyone who has health insurance, they're going to have their insurance. They get to keep it. And those who can't afford it will get tax subsidies and be able to get insurance they don't have.

CROWLEY: Can I just stop you? I'm sorry...

LEW: But let me just answer your question, Candy. The group of people you're talking about, we have some understanding of the size of that group. In Massachusetts where there was a plan like this, 1 percent of the population fell into that group. The Congressional Budget Office, when they looked at health care reform, estimated that it would be roughly 1 percent.

Now that 1 percent, let's just be clear, you know, who we're talking about. We're talking about people who can afford insurance and decide not to have it. And when they get sick and they go to the hospital and they go to the doctor, they're just sharing their costs with everyone else.

This penalty is a way of saying you have to pay your own way. You have to pay your fair share.

CROWLEY: Right. My point being, why wouldn't they just then continue to pay the penalty, since it's relatively cheap, this is not a huge penalty, and then when they get sick, just go get health insurance?

LEW: Well, you know, I think we have experience in Massachusetts that shows us that people want health insurance if they can afford it. The fact that 1 percent pay the penalty in Massachusetts tells you a great deal.

You know, this was a plan that Governor Romney supported. It's something that I would think he would have been proud of. It's a model that at the federal level and the Congressional Budget Office looked at it, said it would have the same kind of impact.

It's time now to get over the debate and to implement the law. What the American people don't want is they don't want to be taken back to the old divisive debate. They want to get on with it. And they want us to be focusing on economic growth and creating jobs.

That's what we want to do and that's what we think Congress ought to do.

CROWLEY: Except for that they still do kind of remain divided about this health care law and it has hit the campaign trail. I realize you all would -- don't want that discussion. But the Republicans are going to continue to kind of foment that.

And one of the ways they're going to do it is saying, listen, this is a tax hike, the Supreme Court has said so. Do you all embrace the word "tax" as the Supreme Court did to rule this constitutional? LEW: Well, first of all, the law is clear, it is called a penalty. Second of all, what the Supreme Court ruled was that this law was constitutional. It is time to move on to implement the law...

CROWLEY: Under the tax act.

LEW: Well, actually, they didn't call it a tax. They said it was using a power under the Constitution that permits it. It was not labeled. And this is a penalty. It's something that only 1 percent of the people who could afford insurance who choose not to get it will pay.

Everyone who has insurance, everyone who chooses to buy insurance, will not pay it. What they're going to get is security. They're going to get lower premiums and better health care. That is a good thing for the American people.

CROWLEY: Let me move you on to a different subject, and that is that immediately after the health care victory -- or within hours, the House voted to cite your attorney general, Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not turning over some of the documents, he has turned over a great many documents, but some of the documents that Congress was asking for in connection of Fast and Furious, a gun-running scheme that went awry.

This is what the president -- now you all claimed executive privilege for Eric Holder, and said these documents that he is not handing over are covered by executive privilege, meaning they don't have to hand them over to Congress.

And we went back and this was from an interview that President Obama did in 2007 with our Larry King. And he was talking about George Bush invoking executive privilege when it came to his one of his lawyers and another staff member in an investigation that Congress was doing.

And here is what the president, then a senator, had to say.


OBAMA: There has been a tendency on the part of this administration to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there is something little shaky that is taking place.


CROWLEY: So why did you all invoke executive privilege this time when there are some who feel there is something a little shaky taking place?

LEW: Candy, let's go back to the facts. The facts are that this was a bad plan, the Fast and Furious, it is something that started in the Bush administration. The attorney general did not know about it. It came out of the region. And when the attorney general learned about it, what he did was stop it. He said it was wrong and he said we are going to do it. There was a period of time when the attorney general did not know about it, because it was happening at a regional office, that a statement was made to Congress that had to be corrected. The attorney general corrected it. Every document related to the decisions up to that point has been shared.

This is not a question of finding facts, this is a question, Congress, at the beginning of this investigation, said they were going to use their investigatory powers in a political way. This is a political, not a substantive question.

CROWLEY: Is there something so important about these papers that you had to invoke executive privilege from a president that had previously said, what is the point here?

LEW: Candy, this administration has been the most transparent ever. Taxpayers can go online and find out more about the way their government works than ever before. Every president since George Washington has taken executive privilege seriously. Every Republican president has.

The opinions that are relied on and the decisions made go back to the...

CROWLEY: Why did you do it, though?

LEW: ... Reagan administration. Because this is not about the facts. The facts are out there. This is about a committee that is on a path towards turning a review of policy into a political witch hunt. That's not the kind -- they're looking for documents that have nothing to do with what they're asking questions about.

There has to be the ability for a president to get confidential advice. There has to be an ability for Congress to use its speech and debate clause.

LEW: There are constitutional issues that this Congress should pay some more attention to, because they are hurting the very institutions.

CROWLEY: Were there things in the documents that involved consultation with the president? Is that why you invoked executive privilege?

LEW: You know, Candy, I'm not going to speak to the specific documents. There was an unprecedented amount of cooperation and providing insight into all the decisions made up to the point of the correction that Congress was given about the policy itself and about the testimony. What they are looking for now are internal kinds of documents that they know are not appropriate.

CROWLEY: Let me turn you to the subject of the economy, where we think the election will turn one way or another. What do you expect at the White House, the unemployment rate will be in November at the time of the election?

LEW: Candy, I don't predict unemployment from month to month. What we know is that when we took office 31/2 years ago we were losing jobs at 700,000-800,000 a month. We're now gaining jobs. We have added millions and millions of jobs and the economy is moving in the right direction -- not fast enough.

We would be -- you know, we say every day the economy needs to gain strength and we need to create more jobs, but what we need to do is shift our attention from these kind of divisive political fights and do the things that we can do to create jobs.

The president has given Congress many ideas, ranging from putting policemen and firemen and teachers back to work to helping people who are underwater refinance their homes, to helping veterans get jobs. Congress should act on these things. We -- if Congress would pass the proposals the president submitted there would be a million more jobs today. That is what we ought to be doing.

CROWLEY: Well, if you can predict there would be a million more jobs if the president passed that, you still can't take a stab at what you think November might bring in terms of unemployment, above 8 percent, below 8 percent, 9 percent?

LEW: I have to tell you, Candy, you look at the arc. We've been moving in the right direction. Slowly we've been gaining jobs and unemployment has been going down. We took the right decisions 31/2 years ago and we have stayed on that path, doing the things we've had to do along the way.

There is more we could have done. And we told Congress the things that we needed to do. And we're going to keep working. The American people are working from now to November, we are going to be working from now until November, Congress needs to be working from now until November.

CROWLEY: A quick foreign policy question for you. There is a Pakistani doctor, whose name is Shakeel Afridi. He helped the CIA in locating Osama bin Laden. He has been found guilty of treason under a court in Pakistan and is now in jail serving 33 years.

Given his role in helping find Osama bin Laden, is the U.S. doing anything to try to help him, to get him out of jail?

LEW: Candy, I can't speak to the specific details. I can just say that this is a case where the rule of law should govern, and justice should be done for the individual. And I think I shouldn't say more than that, but -- CROWLEY: Does the U.S. think he should be freed?

LEW: Well, the charges that we have seen do not seem to have any merit.

CROWLEY: Thank you so much, Jack Lew, White House chief of staff. Appreciate your time this morning.

LEW: Good to be with you, Candy. 

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