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A road not yet taken

Fri, Jan 11th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

Children, when trying to get their way, have been known to declare, “I’m going to hold my breath until...” Members of Congress seem to be making similar childish declarations. This is no way to run a government. Washington is failing to govern. Following the recent half -baked, last minute solution to the fiscal cliff, politicians seem to continue to make declarations demanding it has to be their way, as they make public statements concerning the next fiscal deadlines. What they are really doing is holding the collective breath of our country. They continue to shirk their responsibility to make the hard decisions. Their party loyalties and oversized egos get in the way of reasonable decision making. How did we get where we are? Both parties have backed various decisions including spending and tax cuts over many years that have landed us in this financial bind. The point is the deadlines are coming and now the growing deficit and debt must be dealt with.

The system of government we have is only effective with considered compromise, which comes from a moderate center. We have been hoodwinked by the political parties through the contorted districts created by both parties into electing increasingly partisan flakes. These highly ideological and partisan people are devoid of the ability to analyze the situation and collectively take action that is in the best interest of the present day and the future of the country. Congress has become polarized to the point of dysfunction. Those that have been in the sensible center have been forced out.

In the House, this lack of center is largely due to districts being drawn to favor one party or the other. Unfortunately, it will be until after the 2020 census before districts can be redrawn. There needs to be a system instituted to draw districts that does not produce the large number of so-called safe districts. Drawing districts needs to be completely taken out of partisan hands, in favor of a non-partisan committee or even a computer program of some sort that does not take party population distinctions into account while drawing districts. Some states do have districts drawn by a non-partisan committee. Non-partisan districts would not be shaped like a twisting, narrow pretzel, which is what we have in some cases due to gerrymandering.

The serious inability of the House of Representatives to do their job is hampered directly by the small number of districts where an incumbent feels the need to represent the whole of a district. Nate Silver, New York Times, has estimated that the number of swing districts has diminished dramatically in the last twenty years. He estimates that there were 103 competitive districts in 1992 and are now only 35 in 2012. That is just a mere eight percent of the House that would tend to lean toward the center. Representatives from safe districts are not concerned about losing the seat in an upcoming election to the other party, but only whether they will have a challenge from the more extreme wing of their own party; thus, their inability to find middle ground. Most lawmakers are representing their party fringes. The House would more represent the people if the number of swing or competitive districts was at least 200 to 300.

Recent polls demonstrate the lack of confidence the people have in the Congress. People are frustrated and many no longer trust in their government, and unfortunately, the world is losing confidence also. Congress needs to act responsibly.

A few states hold non-partisan (blanket) primaries or have a top two primary system where there is one primary election for all candidates. The two candidates that get the most votes in the primary run in the general election. Those candidates may be of the same party, but not likely both on the fringes. This may allow for the more centrist candidate to win in the general election or at least the candidate preferred by the majority of the district. Often voters have to choose between two major candidates, neither which may be even close to their first choice, but they are the two which made it out of each party’s primary. Some form of non-partisan primaries could allow for more reasoned, pragmatic politicians to succeed and be elected to Congress.

Budget Battle

The budget fight has a few more rounds before there is a resolution, if there really is one. There will be arguments for more revenue mostly from Democrats which could come from changes in the tax code, capping of deductions, and reductions or elimination of subsidies, especially some corporate subsidies. However, it must be recognized that according to the Tax Policy Center, current tax deductions and exclusions total over $1 trillion per year. Most of these are enjoyed by individuals with only about ten percent going to corporations. To gain the kind of revenue needed many of us would have to accept more limits to these deductions. There will be arguments for cutting spending especially from Republicans which could include tweaking Medicare through means testing, cost sharing, reducing quantity and increasing quality of care thereby improving the efficiency of care, tort reform, and so on. Structural changes are needed both in raising revenue and in spending.

This is a math problem, but there is disagreement on the numbers that will make up the equation. The pain whether from reduction of services or paying more taxes will need to be widespread. The growth of the cost of health care is recognized by all. People are living longer, larger numbers of aging baby boomers are retiring or soon to retire which will generate a ballooning increase in health care costs. Entitlement spending has to be stabilized, including entitlements that have been extended to businesses. The growth of entitlement spending is more than the growth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). It is a fallacy to think we can continue to maintain programs as they are while the number of people using those programs increases dramatically. People want the security of entitlement programs, but do not seem willing to pay for them.

Increased taxes on the very wealthy alone won’t sustain the programs. All of us would need to pay more to sustain these programs as they are and we would still fall short. Interest on the debt already runs about $300 billion and climbing. Each side is in favor of at least part of the solution, as more revenue is still needed and spending has to at least level off and/or be reduced. Social Security is less of an issue than health care entitlement programs, but it too needs to be addressed to make it sustainable. Above all, the rate of growth of health care must be slowed.

Politicians should not hold the necessity of raising the debt ceiling as a club to get what they want. The debt ceiling is a cap on what the government can borrow and has been raised eleven times in the last decade. Congress (both parties) has already approved tax cuts and spending which are adding to the government’s obligations and deficit each day. There is the interest on the bonds, Social Security payments, Medicare payments, contracts, and so on. Any threat of default by the United States government will damage our economy and the world economy. This kind of approach is dangerous and unnecessary. The federal government hit the current debt ceiling which is over $16 trillion on December 31, 2012. The ceiling now has to be raised to allow the government to borrow for those obligations already approved by Congress. The sequester or automatic spending cuts that have been delayed two months and the budget negotiation will provide an opportunity for rival forces to come kicking and screaming to a resolution.

This impasse has been ongoing for years. A reasonable starting point was in the report offered by the Simpson-Bowles Commission which was released over two years ago. More delay literally compounds the problem. A couple of small deals along the way just picks at the bandage. It is time to finally rip it off and start the healing. People and businesses will then have a clear path to their future. This will likely help get the economy humming and have an additional positive effect on stabilizing the country’s debt. Over this long impasse, Washington politicians have managed to inflict a significant drag on our economy. They have become an impediment to growth.

The inability of Congress to deal with this issue will suck up any good will that is left in Washington and delay addressing other important issues, pushing some of these issues out of the picture entirely. Politicians need to lock those oversized egos and party loyalties in a box, work together, and get this problem resolved. Let us hope the 113th Congress can be productive. However, I am not holding my breath.

We, the public, need to give our elected officials permission to make the hard decisions and recognize that we can not have it all. We have come to a fork in the road and we must take the road that so far has not been taken. The road to a long term plan to stabilize the debt has been very long and rough ride, so many may be asking repeatedly, Are We There Yet?

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