The News Journal
I know that some people describe what our country approached at the end of 2012 – basically a tax increase for most Americans and major spending cuts for domestic and defense programs – as the “fiscal cliff.” Others, seeking to diminish its impact, called it a curb or a slope. Whatever you chose to call it, the truth was that we should never have confronted it in the first place.
Congress and the President created it over a year ago to compel us to make difficult spending and revenue decisions to reduce our deficits and return our country to fiscal sanity. But we didn’t make those tough decisions with this deal. Instead, to paraphrase William Gale, an economist with the Brookings Institution, Congress and the President enacted legislation to kick a large can down a long road not very far.
That’s the main reason I voted against the deal. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we averted a tax hike for middle-class families – thanks in part to 11th hour heroics by Vice President Joe Biden – and I believe that spending cuts should be made wisely and with intent, not randomly and without regard for common sense. Across-the-board cuts without thought prevent us from making smart investments in things like research and development, infrastructure and education that ensure America’s long-term economic vitality. But I couldn’t in good conscience vote for a package that didn’t solve the problem and longer puts off another day of reckoning.
Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff to President Obama, is fond of saying, “Never waste a good crisis.” I’m afraid that, with the fiscal cliff deal, we wasted a doozy – choosing instead to create another “cliff” in a couple of months when we face yet another vote on spending cuts, raising the debt ceiling, and figuring out whether we can avoid the economic and political pitfalls of a government shutdown.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’ve known for a long time how to solve our fiscal problems and help turn a middling economic recovery into a robust one. Those of us in Washington need to demonstrate that we can govern, be fiscally responsible, and provide longer term predictability in our tax code. We need to restore confidence in our government that our leaders know what we’re doing and are committed to providing the certainty and predictability that most American businesses and families want and need.
To do that, I believe we have to do three things to get America back on the right fiscal track and stabilize our debt as a percentage of GDP. One, federal revenues must be raised to approach levels that prevailed during the second half of the Clinton administration, when we balanced four budgets in a row and our country enjoyed surpluses as far as the eye could see. During that period of historic economic growth federal revenues comprised 20 to 21 percent of GDP, rather than the 15 to 16 percent of GDP that revenues comprise today. We took a modest step in that direction two weeks ago, but more needs to be done to reform our tax code and bring in more revenue to reduce our deficits. Two, we need to reform and improve our entitlement programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, in a way that’s humane, saves money, and preserves them for future generations. Lastly, we must focus like a laser on all federal programs – from defense to transportation and agriculture – and ask how we get better results for less money in almost all of them.
The question isn’t one of solutions. We have those. Instead, it’s one of courage. For too long, we’ve chosen to do the easy thing, possibly the politically expedient thing, but unfortunately not the right thing. Americans are looking to us to summon the will to do the job we were sent to Washington to do.
A lot of people are saying that the era of so-called “grand bargains” is dead, that we missed our chance and politics will keep us from doing what’s right. Given the shenanigans of the past couple of weeks, I can understand the cynicism. But I won’t embrace it, and I refuse to believe that we can’t rise above partisan politics when so much is at stake.
We have an economic imperative to restore fiscal sanity to our federal budget so we don’t burden our children and grandchildren with our debt. But we also have a moral imperative to ensure that in pursuing the hard choices we must make to balance our budgets that we protect the least of these among us and follow the Golden Rule.
As we approach our next “cliff” in late February, I am hopeful that both parties will demonstrate to the world that we can still govern our country, control spending and strengthen solvency within our entitlement programs, and provide predictability regarding our tax code.
If we do that, we can avoid encountering more “cliffs” in the future and set our country – and our economy – on a path to sustainability and growth.
This op-ed ran in The News Journal (link).