A funny thing happened on the way to the first presidential debate. Mitt Romney lost his $5 trillion tax cut, Barack Obama lost his swagger, and the rest of us lost the chance to have a grownup debate about what to do with the nation’s budget deficit. One thing is apparent to everyone who can do math: Some form of tax increase is coming. The only questions left are who will pay it and whose name goes on it.
On debate night, Oct. 3, Romney spoke as if the tax cuts he previously called for would somehow be neutralized by unspecified changes in deductions and loopholes, a claim most independent analysts view with skepticism. Amid his stammering, President Obama managed to hold to a position that claimed he can trim the deficit through targeted reductions in spending and a tax rate increase on the well-to-do. (Curiously, one of the points both candidates agreed upon was that the tax rate on corporations should remain unchanged.)
Locally, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress both claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility, while pretty much holding to their party’s positions on spending and taxation. Dan Maffei insists that Medicare must be protected and important investments in infrastructure must continue while greater tax revenues are collected from anyone but the “middle class.” Ann Marie Buerkle proudly refers to her signature on the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which binds her to oppose any federal tax increases.
In the debate in Denver, both Romney and Obama genuflected at the altar of Simpson-Bowles, the panel commissioned in 2010 to find a bipartisan way out of the deficit bind. A few significant things to note about Simpson-Bowles: 1. The commission began and ended its work with the premise that both spending cuts and tax increases have to be part of the solution; 2. The commission could not even get its own members to agree on a final report that would be binding; 3. One of the holdouts preventing agreement was none other than GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Now here’s where it gets local. Only one piece of legislation in the past four years attempted to create a bipartisan budget modeled, even loosely, on Simpson-Bowles. In the hyphenated manner of all things bipartisan, it was dubbed Cooper-LaTourette, and it happened to be endorsed by none other than Ann Marie Buerkle. Earlier this year, with little public fanfare, Buerkle received an award from the Concord Coalition, along with the 37 other members of the House of Representatives, lauding them for their bipartisan dedication to fiscal responsibility. Among other things, Cooper-LaTourette called for nearly $1.3 trillion in tax increases through reforms to the tax code.
In giving the Paul Tsongas Award to Buerkle and colleagues, the Concord Coalition referred to Cooper-LaTourette as “responsible budgeting” by “House members who put national interest above partisanship.” Robert Bixby, who has worked with Concord since its founding in the early 1990s by former New Hampshire Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, and the late Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts, said of Buerkle and her colleagues, “This is what political leadership is all about. We salute the courage it took for these 38 members of Congress to vote for this plan in the face of strong opposition.”
For his part, Maffei says he wouldn’t have supported Cooper-LaTourette. “I would have voted against Cooper-LaTourette because it failed to address the deficit in a balanced fashion,” he says. “We need to balance the budget, but we need to do it the right way, not on the backs of our middle class and seniors. We should ask those people who make more than $1 million a year to return to their Clinton-era tax rates. We need to close tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas, and end tax breaks for big oil companies. We should stop nation building overseas and bring our troops home safely and securely. If we can make these common-sense adjustments, then we can pay down our debt, the right way.”
Buerkle did not return The New Times’ calls. Which leads us to wonder—why won’t she treat us like grownups and acknowledge that we have to pony up to pay for this deficit?
There is one candidate locally who isn’t buying the Simpson-Bowles framework as the starting point for budget discussions. Green Party candidate Ursula Rozum accuses her Republican and Democratic rivals of talking about “fabricated causes” of the budget deficit, and assigns blame for the red ink to the Bush tax cuts, the unfunded wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic slump beginning in 2008.
“How do we turn that around?” asks Rozum. “Graduated marginal tax rates, a public jobs program to put more people to work and a 50 percent cut to the military budget.” Rozum maintains that the height of fiscal irresponsibility is the recent practice of, in her words, “borrowing to pay for war instead of taxing people to pay for it.” With the wars winding down, she says, it’s time to cut military spending back to 2000 levels.
Her other answers to the deficit include making the tax rates more progressive, raising the tax cap that limits contributions to Social Security to the first $110,000 annually, and expanding Medicare to cover everyone, which she asserts will stabilize healthcare costs by cutting out the health insurance companies.
Now you didn’t hear that in Denver.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.