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On Heels Of Sequestration, The Business Of Spending Cuts
Originally published on Thu February 28, 2013 4:56 pm
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The metaphors become unbearably trite: the debt ceiling; the fiscal cliff and now the meat cleaver of the sequestration. Details are important, we'll get to those in a moment, but underlying the repeated rounds of budgetary crisis, lies a deeper political paralysis.
There's a fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the size, character and proper purpose of government, and each side awaits the other's surrender. In the meantime, the American economy seems poised for meaningful growth that could start to restore the millions of job (technical difficulties) Great Recession, except that government dysfunction seems to be getting in the way.
So tell us, as sequestration looms less than 24 hours away now, what changes for you? Is your job effected? After you changing travel plans, putting off buying a house or a car? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, NPR's Kelly McEvers on Syria's rebels, who may be about to claim control of an entire province. But first, sequestration eve. We begin here in Studio 3A with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, and Ron, nice to have you back as always.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Happy sequestration eve to you, Neal.
CONAN: OK. Before we move on to the gloom of the sequester, we should note Democrats and Republicans in the House today voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, so maybe not - all is not lost.
ELVING: That was a rather remarkable vote, particularly when you note that the majority of House Republicans did not favor the legislation. So we have talked for some while now about the majority of the majority rule, and is it possible to bring a bill to the floor if it is not supported by a majority of the majority party, the House Republicans.
Clearly Speaker Boehner was willing to bring this bill to the floor. He gave his caucus the alternative of another version of the bill that was written by some of the House Republicans, and that did not have some of the features that some of the Republicans found objectionable, having to do with Indian reservations, treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender couples and so on.
And as a result, they had something they could vote for, although it did not even get half of the House Republicans' votes. They had that vote first, and having satisfied that, they then put the bill from the Senate, which was of course the Democratic-dominated Senate bill, and that came then to the House, and they had a vote. And only 138 votes out of 435 were cast against it, all by Republicans.
But they had their moment. They had had their chance with their optional bill - their alternative bill. And so Speaker Boehner in essence satisfied both sides. Now whether people are really happy is another question.
CONAN: And the precedent, it's now three times with the fiscal cliff legislation, with the Sandy relief money and now the Violence Against Women Act, the - that old law that it has to have the support of the majority of the majority, that's gone by the boards now.
ELVING: Well, it's been honored in the breach, let's put it that way. But we can't assume that that means that going forward a piece of legislation that's favored by all the Democrats and enough Republicans, as in this case, would be allowed to come to the floor, say if it's on the subject of gun violence or if it's on the subject of immigration law. Because those subjects might not be as clear-cut, in terms of their political impact as Hurricane Sandy relief or, for that matter, domestic violence.
CONAN: Well, let's get on now to the gloom, and that's the sequestration. There are a couple of, I guess, pro forma votes in the Senate on alternate bills widely expected to fail.
ELVING: They're pro forma, because as we have come to grudgingly accept, nothing can pass in the Senate without 60 votes to break a filibuster, which is almost automatic. Anything that comes forward has to have the support of three-fifths of the House in order to really be considered and taken to a vote. So by previous agreement, the two leaders will bring the Republicans' solution to this sequester eve problem, and they will also bring the Democrats' solution, and neither will have 60 votes.
The Republican solution will not even have 50 votes, of course. And as a result, neither one will pass, and the Senate will go home for the weekend, and tomorrow the sequestration order will be issued by the White House, accordingly.
CONAN: And so this is, as we understand it, orders will go out to Department of Defense civilian employees. Starting in, what, about four to six weeks, you're going to have to start taking a day off every week and not get paid for it.
ELVING: On the average, it would require for defense civilian employees about one day off a week between now and the end of the fiscal year, which is September 30th. Now those won't all be taken exactly in that fashion, one day each week. But that's the average. That means about 20 percent of your pay is gone. You're not going to make 20 percent of the money you thought you were going to make this year, and that's - or during that period.
And that's obviously going to be a big hit for an awful lot of folks.
CONAN: And because the bill was drawn up, the sequestration bill was drawn up, to be painful, so painful that nobody would ever consider putting it into effect, there are things like requirements that these cuts be applied across the board, so for example the Department of Transportation, they've got to cut air traffic controllers.
ELVING: They have to cut more or less everything some. They can't just say well let's the things that people would notice the least and really zap those things. On the other hand, they're not supposed to be saying we'll only take the things people will notice the most and really zap those things. They're supposed to be spreading this out across all functions and all programs.
And that does mean that everything will feel some effect. When you consider the degree that a marginal change in funding can make a difference for a family, a difference for an individual. If you fall just a little short of having enough money to pay your rent, you are not in compliance, you are not fully renting your apartment or your home.
So, you know, a little bit falling short can be a great deal in an individual case or in a specific application. So we will see effects. Now I emphasis to people they're not going to see this all at midnight tonight or midnight the next night or over the weekend. A lot of this is going to be either cumulative, or it's going to be a little bit delayed, as you said, by notices going out, pink slips to people saying this is going to take effect.
Various work rules require a certain number of weeks of notice. So it's not all going to happen at once. And some of this may get averted later on by some further deal between the president and members of Congress. That's why the president is meeting with the leaders of Congress tomorrow, to start setting the groundwork for those talks.
CONAN: Email from Dave(ph) in DeKalb, Illinois: Regarding the sequester, I understand that if it happens, $85 billion will be cut from this year's federal spending. I also understand last year's federal spending was about $3.5 trillion. That means the immediate effect of the sequester is a reduction of about 2.4 percent. Why is a 2.4 percent reduction being reported as severe and deep?
ELVING: That's a good question, and there is a good answer to it. Most of the federal budget is off-limits to that $85 billion cut, by far the greater portion of the budget. We're only talking about about a trillion of that $3.5 trillion because we're setting aside very large areas, for example military pay. We're only talking about civilian employees of the military.
But most significantly, we have essentially held harmless, not 100 percent, but essentially held harmless Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. That's where the money is. So you're down to what's called discretionary spending, the things that the federal government really has control over - Congress has control over, I should say - on an annual basis. Those are the only things that are affected by this.
When you take that much smaller base, then we're approaching something like 10 percent.
CONAN: And that is a serious cut. Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax, and it's nice to have you back on the program, Marilyn, too.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi Neal.
CONAN: And let's start with this news today from the International Monetary Fund, currently projecting the U.S. economy to grow two percent this year, not great, but better than some years in the recent past. They warn they're going to have to shave that by a quarter if this budget cut is fully implemented, so down a full half of one percent.
GEEWAX: That's right, they've really just confirmed what other economists have been saying. Just this week the National Association for Business Economics, that's a group of top economists, they did a survey of their members. And they were in line, like 95 percent of economists, you know, economist tend to disagree with each other. In this survey, they were all on the same page, pretty much.
Everybody thinks that something like a half of a percentage point of growth is what we're going to lose, and that's what the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan group, evaluated this, and they came to the conclusion it would shave 0.6 percent off of growth this year.
So there are things - Neal, I guess I would call it like the knowns and the unknowns. In the known category, we know that this talk - that if sequestration goes forward as planned, many people will be out of work or will be furloughed. And economists can measure that. You know sort of what people get paid, how much they can spend, and so that's where that half of a percentage point comes from.
Those are the things that we basically know, that if you don't have money to go out to eat, then it's going to have some spin off effects and all of that. But there's another way of looking at this that's also a little more disturbing even than that, which is the idea of choke points.
In the economy there are places where things all come together, sort of like a big funnel, and then you get to this point where things can get really small but important. So let's take a look at just meat inspections. To put meat on the table for your family, it takes a lot of people. It's a lot of things. You have to grow corn to feed to the cattle, and the cattle have to grow, and all these things come together. But finally you're at a meat-packing plant.
And all of that labor, all of that effort, all of that capital, comes together, and there's a piece of meat moving by, and the inspector has to look at it and say yes this is good, or no it's not. And under law, things that are not inspected can't be sold to the public. So all that effort comes down to do we have enough meat inspectors.
Well, if we don't, gosh, you know, what happens to meat prices, what happens to restaurants that have ordered meat? What happens to - you know, when I go to the grocery store, will I find the meat that I am looking for? So we have these little places where there's only a few workers involved, but the impact would be quite large. And those are the things that right now we don't know a lot about.
CONAN: And we should note of course Marilyn knows that cattle don't have to eat corn, they can eat grass, too, but anyway...
GEEWAX: Well, right, grass-fed beef...
CONAN: But they still need an inspector. But the other point is the economy. Look, big jump in housing. The stock market is at record levels, just about, today. It looks like things are beginning to improve, and this is a self-inflicted wound. Is that fair to describe it?
GEEWAX: There are all these little weights that are on the economy right now. There are things like - I mean for the people who are suffering with them it's not so little, but pay raises. We haven't had much in the way of raises. Gasoline prices have been quite high in recent weeks, have really shot up. And you have things like the payroll tax holiday expired on January 1.
So people, their take-home pay is smaller. So if you have less money in your wallet on Friday when you get paid, and then on Saturday morning you go to the gas station, and it costs you a lot more to fill up your tank, and, you know, now your next-door neighbor got laid off, so, you know, he's not going to be spending money at the store where you work, et cetera, all these things just keep weighing down the economy.
You can make a pretty good case for strong growth right now. We should be seeing a lot more growth, but for some reason we're being restrained.
CONAN: And part of that is what we call uncertainty because nobody's sure about what's going to happen here or at the end of the month, Ron Elving, when we have the continuing resolution crisis. There could be a government shutdown. And then there's another debt ceiling coming up. It goes round and round and round and round. How's it all affecting you? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Tuesday President Obama visited Newport News Shipbuilding to warn about the effects of the sequestration, but some Republicans maintain he's overstating the seriousness of his case, that he's crying wolf. Time will tell, but for now predictions are dire.
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: Put simply, the automatic budget reduction mandated by sequestration would be disruptive and destructive to our nation's security and economy.
SECRETARY RAY LAHOOD: DOT has 55,000 employees. The largest number of those employees are at the FAA, and the largest number of those employees are controllers, and they're all over the country.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This is something that is going to have an impact on the safety of this country. Anybody who says that that's not true is either lying or saying something that runs contrary to the facts.
CONAN: That is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood - they both spoke with the press - and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke with ABC News. So with sequestration on the horizon, call, tell us what changes for you, your job, your travel plans, big purchases, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR's Ron Elving and Marilyn Geewax are our guests, and let's start with Matthew(ph), Matthew on the line with us from Minneapolis.
MATTHEW: Hi. How's it going?
CONAN: Good. How's it going for you is more to the point.
MATTHEW: Well, you know, things have been picking up good for me. OK, so I'll just lay out what I do. I run a small business with my father. He started it back in like the mid-'70s, where he would convert - or we would make microfilm for, you know, municipalities, counties, cities and whatnot.
And now we're in the process of - what we do now is we convert documents for governments, municipalities, small companies and stuff to a digital image for the - for, you know, databases and...
CONAN: Searchable storage, that sort of thing.
MATTHEW: Yeah, exactly, enterprise content management is the key - is the industry term. And what we've been dealing with for the past couple years is a stagnant, you know, stagnation of the work that comes in from governments and municipalities. Basically it's because of the, you know, the recession and the budget cuts and all these things.
But what they don't realize is that what we do is we're making government more efficient. We're making it so that people can retrieve documents and do things faster, workflow is faster. And what I don't think that the people in Congress don't realize is that the way that - what we do is a vital process for, you know, all levels of government.
CONAN: And when you say it's slowed down, how much has it slowed down?
MATTHEW: Well, you know, before we - before the recession we had pretty consistent contracts. We'd have like maybe two or three big ones every year, you know, that gross a good amount. But now, you know, it's - the past couple years it was down to maybe one or two - one contract a year, maybe less. And now, you know, we've seen an uptick now, but now with this whole thing happening all over again, it's the small municipalities, they don't know.
They just don't know if they're going to be able to keep their budgets in line, you know, if all of a sudden their federal money goes away. And they're left kind of like well, we need to do it, but well, we don't have the money because, you know, and then it just - it's been going like that for two or three years now, and it's just - it's not good. It's not good for our consistency of business, and it's not good for, you know, my employees and, you know, my family, and it's not good for the citizens also because they can't get the services they need.
CONAN: Well Matthew, we hope they work it out. Thank you very much for the call.
MATTHEW: Yeah, thanks a lot.
CONAN: Interesting business, but Marilyn Geewax, I thought the key words in there: They don't know.
GEEWAX: This is such a problem for all sorts of government contractors. If you're trying to build a road or fix an airport or whatever, these are long-term contracts. They play out over years and years. And, you know, if you don't have that funding certainty, where are we going with bridge repairs, what is happening with airports, those are - it makes it very difficult for local governments to make plans and, you know, for individual families, the workers to not know are they going to get laid off or not. And it's really problematic.
CONAN: Email question from Betsy(ph) in Eugene, Oregon: Does the sequestration apply to members Congress and their staff, i.e., do they need to cut their expenses 10 percent? And what about the White House staff? Ron Elving?
ELVING: Not really. This is something that may not be entirely clear exactly how it's going to affect people. We do have Congress passing legislation by which they could off their pay entirely under certain circumstances. And certainly if we get a full government shutdown on March 27, not necessarily predicting that will happen, but the continuing resolution that is the funding source for the entire federal government does run out there.
This is - this is one of the sorts of swords of Damocles that members of Congress have tried to put over their own head. You know, but it's also a bid for public approval in the midst of doing a lot of things that are obviously getting a lot of public disapproval. So we're always sort of trying to get, in some sense or another, a sense that these policymakers are going to be really affected by what they're putting on the rest of us.
But it isn't anywhere near the same because their jobs are not going to go away, whereas we're talking about literally furloughing these other people and putting a hurt on them, civilian workforce of the military and so forth.
CONAN: Might be pointed out Congress is very rarely in session five days a week anyway.
ELVING: That's right, so you could furlough them, and it probably - you know, I'm not saying that there aren't congressional staff members who live from paycheck to paycheck because obviously there are. Many of them don't make very much money. So it is not as though there were no effect. But those are not the actual policymakers, the actual members of Congress, the important people in the administration.
GEEWAX: Neal, I wanted to make one point, though, that this is an extremely large economy. We've been talking about a lot of negative things, and certainly it's just not a good idea to try to weigh down the economy with all sorts of uncertainties. But overall, it isn't necessarily a bad economy for this year because housing is starting to pick up, and we have seen some real strength out there in various sectors: energy, agriculture, housing.
Those things are perking up. So I just want to be fair to note that, you know, we've got a $16 trillion economy, we have 320 million people. These things may be - it might be argued that really this will be a relatively mild impact and that it'll just sort of get lost in the shuffle. The more important things would be interest rates, where gasoline prices are headed, whether the housing revival can continue.
So I think it's important to balance all of this negative conversation with the fact that the economy does have quite a few bright spots.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Steve(ph), Steve with us from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the home of the F-16.
STEVE: Hey, how are you doing today, Neal?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
STEVE: Listen, the one thing I've never - I haven't heard anybody speak about, well your panel has here a little bit, is how much it's going to affect the people. Here on Hill Air Force Base, we have 15,000 civilian employees. Now they're telling us that we're going to be taking every Friday off for the next four and a half months, about a 20 percent reduction in pay.
And I just heard one of your panelists, sorry I can't remember her name, but OK, 20 percent, it's roughly $800 a month, give or take a few dollars. Most of us live down here, you know, paycheck to paycheck, and I've watched people here in recent weeks waiting on this to happen. People are trying to sell their vehicles, their trucks, whatever they can to sell to diminish what they're having to pay out of pocket each month.
I just don't believe Congress has taken the time to really look, you know, at us DOD employees and go, well, we're not a bunch of spoiled babies, we do make a decent living, but we're just like every other American. We live paycheck to paycheck, especially in this economy. And I don't think that they realize how much it's going to hurt our war fighter who's over there in Afghanistan right now, and, you know, depleting what we do here.
What we do here is mission essential to our war fighter. And it just seems like they don't care about our war fighters anymore. They're overseas. They don't have to worry about them. You know, they'll do without for now. And...
CONAN: Steve, I wanted to raise two points from your question, and one of them was to Ron Elving, and that was that the extent of defense cuts was put in there to be a poison pill for Republicans, yet we're seeing something of a shift in the Republican Party where the small-government Republicans seem to be more - louder, just not more louder, but louder than the strong-defense Republicans.
ELVING: That's right, and that is a tremendous shift. Now that's not necessarily the case in the Senate. It appears in the Senate, from the debate we've heard off and on during this week, that the Senate defense hawks are still stronger than the deficit hawks in the Senate. And of course the Democrats are still in control there, and most of them are against the sequester in any way.
But you do hear from the John McCains, the Jim Inhofes, the Lindsey Grahams and so on that we really can't have these cuts because they're falling on defense. Now what they would prefer to do and what their alternative that there's being a vote on this afternoon would do would be to minimize the cuts on defense while keeping the cuts on the nondefense discretionary accounts with all these other, you know, effects that we've been talking about.
CONAN: Which bites into the Democrats' (unintelligible)poison pill.
ELVING: And even more so because they still have to get to the same 85 billion to fulfill the requirements of the law. So that's what they would do because they're primarily defense hawks, but they're not going to prevail. And one of the reasons they're not going to prevail is because there is this disagreement among Republicans, as you say, and as you suggested, the deficit hawk portion of the Republican Party, if you will, the Tea Party - that's a very loose usage. It's not as though we have like card-carrying members of the Tea Party - but people who were elected in 2010, 2012 who are quite focused on the deficit, are willing in many cases to at least temporarily take these cuts in the military partly because they believe there will be so much of a public backlash against them.
And that people will care about the war fighters in Afghanistan and not want them to be in any way compromised that there will be a sudden upwelling of this feeling, and the president will have to relent and put more money back in for defense.
CONAN: And Marilyn Geewax.
GEEWAX: Neal, I just wanted to make one quick point on the defense workers. About 40 percent of them are veterans, so we're really talking about a program - a lot of these workers are people who are back from the war and they got jobs, and now, they're about to lose 20 percent of their pay. So even if I could make an argument that in a $16 trillion economy, this is a relatively small hit. It's not a small hit to those veterans, and it's very painful for them.
CONAN: And in certain communities, like the one around Hill Air Force Base...
CONAN: ...it's going to be pretty heftily felt.
GEEWAX: It's an uneven impact that we will feel from this.
CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.
STEVE: Thank you and you folks have a wonderful day.
CONAN: You too. This is an email we have from Rick(ph) in Tampa: I work with a large environmental and youth nonprofit that works closely with the national parks and national forests. With looming sequestration, our federal partners do not know what the budget will be. They're reluctant to do any sort of work with us. This puts our employees' jobs on the lines, more importantly puts opportunities for youth and young adults to get involve with our nation's natural resources on hold, maybe permanently.
And this from Mark(ph) in Birmingham: Who came up with the idea of sequester in the first place? I'd like to not vote for anybody who is so abysmal at worst-case scenario planning. Well, this has been the source of some back and forth between investigative journalist Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and the White House.
ELVING: Yes. But let's go back to where it came from. Really, it came from the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act, back when the entire federal debt was only about a trillion and a half, ha-ha, just a mere trillion and a half or going on towards two trillion. Now, of course, we're pushing up against 17 trillion. But back in the mid-1980s, these senators got together and said let's create something so ugly, so awful, so dumb that nobody would ever want to use it to reduce federal deficit spending and will make it mandatory if we don't find better other ways to distribute the pain and do deficit cutting.
CONAN: But unfortunately, he doesn't have an opportunity to vote against any of those people. They're all (unintelligible).
ELVING: That's true. So let's take it up into the future. At the point where we had the debt ceiling crisis of the summer of 2011 and, you know, there were all kinds of ideas about how to raise the debt ceiling temporarily and make certain cuts, the president, the White House suggested that something be put out there as an absolute enforcer of the necessity of a deficit reduction plan coming from this special group of, they called them the supercommittee committee. The supercommittee was composed of a leader of appointed senators and congressmen of both parties.
And that committee was supposed to come up with some kind of a deficit reduction plan, and if they didn't, we were going to this absolutely impossible, unthinkable sequester on the model of the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985. That idea came apparently from Jack Lew, the chief of staff at the White House, and it was put in to the negotiations. That's why the Republicans say it was the president's idea, but, of course, they all voted for it.
CONAN: They voted for it, yeah. So - and Jack Lew got promoted. He's now secretary of the treasury.
ELVING: And was just confirmed in that job as of last night.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we get another caller in. This is Amanda(ph). Amanda with us from Del Rio in Texas.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
AMANDA: Hi. Yes. My family will be severely affected by this. My husband is a border patrol agent and will be losing about 40 percent of his pay.
CONAN: About 40 percent of his pay?
AMANDA: Yes. Because they will lose all of their automatically - their overtime.
AMANDA: Which is automatically figured inbigger than to their pay every paycheck.
AMANDA: So they lose that on top of being furloughed.
CONAN: And on top of being furloughed so the - I guess by definition the number of border patrol agents goes down 20 percent.
GEEWAX: You know, I think this is another thing we need to think about is if we have less border patrol, will there be an increase in illegal activities across the border. That's something, of course, people in border states would be concerned about. But another thing is FBI agents and federal prosecutors are going to face furloughs and outright job losses in this process. So what happens to crime-fighting efforts all the way around? And if we see a surge in crime in cities, does that depress business activity? You know, these are sort of in my category of unknown unknowns, so it's hard to predict, is there going to be a surge in crime because of some of this?.
CONAN: Amanda, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
AMANDA: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Ron Elving, we've got to the next deadline, which approaches at the end of next month, and that is the - , well, get used to this phrase -, continuing resolution. And this is essentially another deadline that if there can't be an agreement here, the government will shut down. Republicans did not like it the last time that happened back in the Clinton administration and Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House. They went over the brink and took a political price for it. Nevertheless, can the sequester somehow be melded into the conversation of how to massage the budget resolution?
ELVING: To some degree that's already happening. The talks that will take place at the White House tomorrow will be aimed at some sort of a plan to avert the shutting down of the federal government entirely. I mean, I've compared this to a brownout and a blackout. If this sequester is a brownout and your lights are flickering and occasionally going out, the shut down of the government would be a blackout, and then we would have none of these services. It wouldn't be a question of taking a heathit. It would be a question of shutting it all down.
As you say, we saw some of these this in '95 and '96. Of course, the country was not at war at that time and a lot of other things that we now regard as essential, like the Transportation Security Administration and the Homeland Security Department, did not exist at that time. So there are many more sort of tense situations that would arise than we saw in '95 and '96. But the country didn't like it, as you said. There were some extreme deficit hoax hawks who, at that time, thought people will shrug this off. They'll say, we don't need the federal government.
CONAN: We don't need to visit the that national park.
ELVING: Well - and we don't, in fact, absolutely have to visit a national park, all of us at the same time. But we do need some of these other services. I think there would be a broad agreement that we do. And I think there would be a broad agreement that the '95, '96 shut downs did not help the Republican Party. They helped Bill Clinton get re-elected.
CONAN: All right. NPR senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, will be keeping us up to date on the negotiations Friday, an S plus one, I guess we, you can call it. And Marilyn Geewax will be watching the economic effects. But thank you both very much for being with us.
ELVING: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: NPR's Kelly McEvers is just back from a trip to northern Syria. We'll hear what she learned in that region and more about Secretary of State John Kerry's promise of $60 million in direct aid to the rebels after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.