THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
2:21 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: All right, I want to start by calling attention to one important announcement that was made over at the Department of Health and Human Services today. This administration, as many of you know, has put a real priority on child support enforcement and collection of money owed by deadbeat parents who otherwise would try to escape their financial obligations to support children.
Overall, child support collections have increased during the Clinton administration from roughly $7 billion, which was the 1991 level, to almost $11 billion today. But today at HHS, it was reported that a very significant part of the increase is the increase in our ability to intercept income tax refunds that deadbeat parents are otherwise getting.
The IRS, working with state governments, can identify those who should be making child support payments. When they don't make those payments, they can then intercept an income tax refund that the person would otherwise be due. And that is the resulted in a record collection of $828 million for the 1994 tax year. That's up 18 percent from 1993.
Q Does the IRS have to have a judicial determination that the money is owing before it's going to intercept a -- what does it need?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, child support enforcement payments are the result usually of local domestic law judicial proceedings. Those are then enforced by states and the IRS works with state governments to identify those who need to be paid.
Q What does it require, though? Does a judge have to have set it or a court have to have decreed that this money is owing before the IRS grabs it?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not -- Brit, I don't know the answer to that. But they have put out a statement over at HHS on that today.
Q As you know, our IRS gets right grabby.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they get grabby, but they also, in this case, are doing something that prevents those who would otherwise walk away from needy children from relinquishing their responsibilities. And this is a prudent and warranted use of the IRS.
Q Speaking of HHS, can you tell us when the administration knew that there was going to be a shortfall in the Medicare Trust Fund?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we don't know that even now. What we have got is the statement that's just been released by Richard Foster, the chief actuary of the Health Care Financing Administration, indicates that there are some preliminary data that goes into the annual report that the trustees must submit to Congress related to the solvency of the Trust Fund.
Remember, every year in April the Medicare trustees report to Congress on the status of these funds, and they assemble and look at data all the time on what type of status the funds will be in. It's way too early at this point to draw any type of firm conclusion about what the solvency of the funds are.
Remember that the 1995 report, which is last year's report, said that there would be a depletion of the fund somewhere between the year 2001 and 2006, picking the year 2002 as the intermediate or best guess estimate on when the funds might be depleted. Some of the data coming in now says that that might have to be adjusted by a period of several months. Certainly the situation did improve. It's not going to extend them any longer. There might be a shortfall somewhat sooner, but they've got to analyze that data as they prepare a final report for Congress due in April.
The important point is that the President's budget released today has got Medicare savings in it that extends the solvency of that fund, just as the President did when he made the tough choices related to Medicare in 1993. And we are satisfied that this -- the proposed savings that are in this budget proposed today would take it well into the next century, probably to the year 2010, 2011, in that rough period. Now, that's a time frame, as the Treasury Secretary indicated earlier, that allows us to address the long-term health of those trust funds because what we're worried about, obviously, is the baby boom retiring. They begin to retire around the year 2010, 2011, and that's where the draw on the funds will be much worse than it is today.
But, again, there's nothing about the proposed savings in Medicare coming from the President, nor the proposed savings coming from Republicans in Congress that extend the solvency of that rust fund any longer than that.
Q Mike, but are you saying that even despite the fact that HHS is looking at these numbers all the time, they did not anticipate this shortfall in the Medicare trust fund --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they've been looking at the actuarial data as it comes through and examining what changes have occurred in health care financing broadly that affects the status of the funds. They do that all the time, that's what they're paid to do at HCFA. So they will keep analyzing that data as they prepare information for the trustees so they can make a final judgment on what the status of the solvency of the funds is prior to their report to Congress in April.
Q Isn't anybody over there paid to keep the Secretary of the Treasury abreast of such matters?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, look, first of all, it's the Department of Health and Human Services that most closely looks at the actuarial data and that, then, is shared within the government. But these preliminary estimates are not the same thing as giving information to policymakers, that then they make policy judgments on.
Q Is that another way of saying thank God to the New York Times?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, look, the Times, I would suggest, has maybe overstated what is now at this point some preliminary data that is available to some of those at the Health Care Finance Administration looking at the question of solvency.
Q That's not what the guy at HCFA told them.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's pretty close to what he said.
Q Mike, but some Republicans up on the HIll are questioning whether this information was purposely suppressed during the delicate budget debates that were going on in December and January, claiming that it would allow some Democrats to demagogue the Medicare issue.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it would have been preferable for our point of view, since our Medicare savings, without requiring premium increases on Medicare beneficiaries, makes the same extension in solvency, the date of insolvency, or the expiration of solvency of the funds, as does the Republican budget. In any event, that would be a net argument in plus for the democratic side of the discussion. So obviously that wouldn't make much sense.
Q It would be more in plus for the Republican side of the argument, since they go further than the President in Medicare savings.
MR. MCCURRY: No, that's just not -- on the question of Medicare solvency they do almost exactly the same thing that we do. Their proposal, as scored by the CBO, takes the solvency of funds not much deeper into the next century than the President's own proposal. Why? Because the savings they generate doesn't go to protect Medicare, it goes to give a big tax cut to the wealthy.
Q If I understand it, Mike, that it had been expected that the fund was going to have a considerable -- considerably greater amount of money than the deficit that's there, why doesn't this throw a number of the administration's calculations and predictions into question.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, look, you're talking about a -- this is a fractional difference in the overall assets of the funds. What they're talking about are adjustments that are order of magnitude not too far off. And there are always fluctuations in the performance of the economy that affects numbers like this.
But, remember, the real issue that people are looking at are how long does the current trust fund -- what's the extension of the solvency that goes into the year -- we're talking about a problem that becomes acute most likely in the year 2010, 2011. And as everyone acknowledges, there have to be some serious questions about the underlying solvency issues and some decisions made prior to that time when you see the baby boom retire. And we're not talking about the, you know, the fund running out of money in a matter of months. That's not the issue here and I don't think we should lead any Americans to think that.
Q How seriously do we take the Chinese forthcoming maneuvers in the Taiwan Straits?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we monitor all the time activities in the Straits and information related to military training exercises that the People's Republic may or may not undertake. They have not announced any military exercises in the Straits. We will continue to monitor the situation because we are concerned about statements both out of Beijing and Taipei, and we will encourage governments in that region and parties in that region to do everything necessary to make sure tensions do not escalate.
Q What about this latest report that China is exporting nuclear technology-related equipment to Pakistan?
MR. MCCURRY: Again, that's, under our law, nonproliferation law, we have to monitor very carefully transfer of technologies related to either nuclear weapons programs, nuclear development or missile technology. We do so in the case of China. On at least one prior occasion we've been forced to impose sanctions, and we will act consistent with U.S. nonproliferation law.
I'll make it clear that we have not made a determination that China has violated any U.S. law. If we made such a determination under our law the imposition of sanctions is automatic.
Q What about Governor Thompson's statement this morning that the governors were now on the one yard line in terms of finding a compromise on Medicaid and welfare reform, and that the President has the opportunity to get them over the goal?
MR. MCCURRY: He's behind the times when it comes to the season. Actually, we are in the paint and it doesn't look like we're going to have to shoot from the three-point line if we want to score.
Q What does that mean?
MR. MCCURRY: As much as whatever Governor Thompson said. (Laughter.)
Q How about this --
MR. MCCURRY: It is utterly meaningless. I don't know what he meant. (Laughter.)
Q What do you think of -- the governors are suggesting that they've worked out an arrangement, bipartisan agreement amongst themselves on Medicaid and welfare reform.
MR. MCCURRY: He is optimistic. What they shared with the President this morning -- and they spent considerably less time on welfare reform than they did on Medicaid. On Medicaid they reviewed a presentation by Governor Roemer and Governor Leavitt, who have been working in a bipartisan way to see what we can do both to give states more flexibility, but also assure that they have the guarantee of federal funding necessary to take care of the disabled children, those in poverty, the elderly in nursing homes who need the assistance of Medicaid.
The President was very encouraged by the discussion. The presentation that was made to him was not in sufficient detail for us to really render any type of judgment on whether it was the right idea or not. But the governors themselves are now going back to have a private session on this issue, and we will await word whether or not they have, in fact, been able to bring together both sides for a consensus proposal on Medicaid.
They did not present it in that fashion to the President. They said, here are some ideas we're working on. The President raised a number of questions about it. And they had a good general discussion of the issue and we'll see whether the governors, in fact, develop a Medicaid proposal.
Q If what emerges is an NGA-approved -- which would, by definition mean bipartisan -- plan on both welfare and Medicare, which are state administered, wouldn't that have a lot of political weight, almost by definition?
MR. MCCURRY: I think if there is a bipartisan consensus approach that attracts the support of the NGA resolution being adopted, it would have a significant impact on the budget deliberations. The governors had been asked by both the Republican congressional leadership and by the President to look at some of these issues carefully. They have been doing so. I'm not certain that on Medicaid they will find the type of consensus that allows them to say they have agreement. I think they clearly had some disagreements as to approach that they were -- that were reflected in the conversation with the President. So we really do need to see whether the governors come forward with such a proposal.
But if the did have a consensus approach that was consistent with the President's views and consistent with the direction the Republican majority wants to go, of course, it would have an influence.
Q -- federal guarantee would still be in the plan, right?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry?
Q There still would be a federal guarantee on any consensus proposal?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is encouraged that while seeking additional flexibility, the governors also understand the importance of the guarantee of federal health care availability for those who are poor, for disabled, for those in nursing homes and others.
Q But is he willing to -- I mean, they're talking about, I guess you could say shrinking the guarantee or at least targeting it to specific groups, not having it as broad as the guarantee is today. Is he willing to --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're talking about -- precisely about ways of giving state governments flexibility in administering the provision of assistance to indigent populations and those who are currently covered, recognizing that there needs to be some level of guarantee for health care availability, which is an important principle to the President. The President finds that encouraging, but will need to see further details on what type of proposal they have. The sketch that the President got from Governor Roemer was not sufficient for him to conclude that they have an idea that looks like a winner.
Q Does the President feel strongly about a legally enforceable guarantee that -- in other words, a kind of right that individuals could take to court --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they had -- he dealt with that issue when he was Governor of Arkansas himself. They had a lengthy discussion about federal versus state enforcement rights. And, again, that's an issue where there just has to be further discussion to see if there's any consensus.
Q What's his view, though?
Q On that question, Mike, under the sketch they presented, who would have the enforcement role -- the feds or the states?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it was -- what I heard, it was not entirely clear how it would break down. There was different -- different ways of approaching it and, in fact, different governors speaking different ways in which they administer it.
To answer Ann's question, the governor -- as governor, President Clinton had a largely favorable experience with both federal enforcement and also his ability as a governor to administer the program. But some states and some governors take a different view.
Q -- live with the state enforced?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to -- they don't have that issue, in particular, resolved in the form of a proposal. I think in a lot of these things we need to wait and see whether the governors, in fact, have got a proposal they want to put forward. It didn't appear that they had a concept and had a framework, but they didn't have a detailed proposal at this point.
Q Mike, on the child tax credit, is that still for kids 12 and under or 13 and under? Where exactly does the administration --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I didn't hear the previous briefers address that. I'm not sure what the structure of that is and the final detail of the budget submission that will go with this outline. I'll have to check that.
Q Mike, what's he going to say to the DGA tonight? Seven challenges and --
MR. MCCURRY: He'll talk a lot about the challenges that we face as we enter the new age of possibility, and he'll talk in particular about the importance of balancing the budget and doing those things that both preserve flexibility for states, but also preserve the commitments we've got to our elderly, to children, to those in poverty to make sure the government is there when the government is needed.
Q Is he going to say something different tomorrow at the NGA, or is that going to be pretty much --
MR. MCCURRY: He will have a somewhat different address tomorrow. The speech tonight is to the Democratic governors and will address more of the issues that have been in play in some of the budget deliberations. Tomorrow he's got a more precise presentation on some of the ideas that grow out of the State of the Union.
Q Like which ones?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he's focusing mostly on education tomorrow and taking some of the things that he referenced in the State of the Union and building a larger argument out of them tomorrow.
Q Does the President have any intention of going to the funeral of the American soldier who was killed in Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: None that I'm aware of.
Q Have you done anything on the partial-birth abortions --
MR. MCCURRY: No action yet.
Q And what day is he signing Defense?
MR. MCCURRY: We have not announced that, but most of the planning is for late in the week.
Q Defense authorization?
MR. MCCURRY: That's what I just answered.
Q Has Dick Morris come bow-wowing out of the dog house yet?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't seen him around here. I think the leash is still on.
Q What about the muzzle?
MR. MCCURRY: Muzzle?
Q Has he been paper-trained yet -- (laughter) -- so to speak?
Q Have you heard from him at all?
MR. MCCURRY: Not in the last day or so. He's been in contact with others here at the White House.
Q I'm sorry, Mike. Did you say what the status of welfare reform with the governors is? Did nothing much happen there?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they -- on welfare there are significant differences between the governors themselves on the issue of Medicaid -- and the Republican and Democratic governors clearly have been working hard on that issue. On welfare reform they've had a lot more vibrancy in their discussions, and they seem to be taking a version of welfare reform as it came out of Congress, passed by the Senate, and building on some of the ideas there, recognizing the President's concerns on a range of issues.
One thing the President was encouraged by, a number of governors said, the conference report that you vetoed was basically an unworkable version of welfare reform. And on both sides of the aisle he got a certain amount of credit for having vetoed the conference report that came here from the Republican Congress. And the President was encouraged that that was recognized by the governors, and also encouraged that they seem to have strong interest in building on some of the ideas he's presented in the welfare reform debate in an effort to fashion a consensus approach to welfare reform that will get the job done.
Q You said it's a majority view among governors?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I can't say it's a majority view. I think there were individual members -- individual governors who spoke to that issue as they went around the table.
Q What was his role in there today? Was it simply -- was he a mediator, or was he there to nod yea or nay at certain suggestions?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he -- at some point he needed to mediate between governors who were in disagreement, including Republican governors who seemed to be at odds with themselves. At other points he was contributing his own ideas and reactions to ideas that they were presenting and other ideas they were -- you know, in talking as people who have a lot of experience with the functioning of state government, and how some of these income-assistance programs work, so there was a variety of roles.
Q Was a function of this meeting to determine what the President would or would not accept in terms of what the governors were producing?
MR. MCCURRY: The function of the meeting, in a broad sense, was for the governors, who had been tasked by the congressional leadership and by the President with examining some specific issues in the budget discussions -- the meeting was, in a sense, an opportunity for them to report on the deliberations that they've had to date, to talk about those areas in which they have some consensus among themselves, to talk about some of the areas where there are disagreements, specifically in Medicaid.
They also talked, by the way, about transportation issues. They talked some about employment training issues, and the ability of states to work to help those who are unemployed acquire new skills and education so they can re-enter the workforce.
So the bulk of the time, however, very clearly, was on Medicaid, because that's an area where there is a lot of disagreement between the governors.
Q But the President made it clear what he would, or would not, accept in terms of Medicaid.
MR. MCCURRY: He made it, at one point, bluntly clear.
Q How did he do that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you can talk to others and find out.
Q What did he make bluntly clear?
MR. MCCURRY: Something. No, he was asked -- look, he was asked how important is the -- to him -- the principle of the guaranty of federal assistance for health care by one governor, and he made it very clear that that for him was a principle that he would stand firm on.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you.
END 2:41 P.M. EST