ATLANTA—Something is noticeably absent from congressional candidates’ rampant finger-wagging over this month’s bipartisan deal to extend the nation’s borrowing limit and reopen government: concrete proposals to fundamentally alter the U.S. balance sheet.
Blame politics as the chief reason for the lack of solutions offered by 2014 incumbents and challengers.
Influential Democratic backers go to the mat to protect Social Security and Medicare. Republicans love defense spending, while key GOP groups boast absolute opposition to higher taxes.
Voters across the spectrum enjoy public benefits and historically low income tax rates, plus a web of credits, deductions and exemptions.
Those dynamics add up to long odds that Congress and President Barack Obama can fundamentally restructure the budget anytime soon, as both sides insist they want to do in the face of a nearly $17 trillion debt that exceeds the U.S. economy’s annual output.
Most candidates generally dispute the notion that they aren’t pitching ideas. Others acknowledge that details often are lacking, but they argue that campaigns aren’t the place to get into policy particulars that opponents can use as daggers.
Politicians “have been tickling their constituents for so long,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., that neither voters nor campaigns know another way, particularly after a decade marked by multiple tax cuts, two wars, a new Medicare drug program, a severe economic downturn and, predictably, soaring annual deficits.
Simpson co-chaired a bipartisan commission that in 2010 recommended spending overhauls and tax increases. Obama and congressional leaders praised their effort but ignored the plan.
The Oct. 16 shutdown deal funds government through Jan. 15. It raised the Treasury Department’s borrowing limit enough to last a several weeks beyond that. There were no changes to Obama’s health care law, as Republicans had demanded. House Republicans agreed to formal budget talks with Senate Democrats. All that means the fiscal debate will continue into early next year.
In Georgia this month, Democrat Michelle Nunn, a U.S. Senate hopeful, blasted the shutdown deal.
“Congress’ short-term deal sets up for yet another potential shutdown,” she wrote to supporters. In an op-ed, she said that “neither side has been serious about … making the hard choices necessary to reduce the national debt.”
Three of Nunn’s potential rivals — U.S. Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston — were among 144 House Republicans who voted against the deal.
Kingston wrote supporters that it “failed to address our long-term spending problem” and promised that he will “advance reforms that will free future generations” from public debt.
In the Northeast, Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick in the Philadelphia suburbs split from House conservatives. Explaining his vote to end the shutdown, Fitzpatrick said on social media that he hopes “the frustration and fatigue of managing by crisis will get officials to the table with sincere resolve.”
In Idaho, tea party favorite Bryan Smith used the deal to attack his 2014 opponent, U.S. Republican Rep. Mike Simpson. Smith called the incumbent a “liberal” and asserted that he “voted to kick the can down the road of instead of fighting for cuts in spending and making any major changes to ‘Obamacare.'”
In all cases, there was a lot of rhetoric — but few details.
Former Rep. Buddy Darden, an Atlanta lawyer who raises money for Democrats, said it’s “accepted principle” that any long-term solution requires more tax revenue and changes to big-ticket operations: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Pentagon.
Simpson put it bluntly: “It’s just math and honesty.”
But Darden defended the generic approach of a candidate like Nunn, who’s running as an outsider despite being the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. “It makes sense for Michelle to sort of sit back and just be the grown-up amid all the children,” Darden said, referring to Republicans.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Kingston highlighted measures he’s focused as a member of the House Budget Committee: trimming agriculture spending, tightening eligibility enforcement and auditing standards on school lunch programs, military procurement practices that can waste money.
“Sometimes it just takes momentum from those smaller things,” he said. “The bigger items will come.”
Yet within days of the shutdown’s end, as focus shifted to the prospect of serious budget talks, the AFL-CIO warned that labor forces will try to defeat any Democrat that cuts Social Security or Medicare. In the last budget blueprint he sent to Congress, Obama proposed modifying recalculating Social Security benefits so they would rise more slowly. Amid criticism from the left, the White House hasn’t aggressively advanced the idea.
Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, FreedomWorks and tea party organizations repeated their opposition to tax increases, as has U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“We’re not a think tank that makes proposals,” said Club for Growth’s Barney Keller. “We just look for candidates who promise to uphold pro-growth policies.”
It’s not as if all Republicans rush to gut popular programs while all Democrats flock to tax increases.
Republicans hammered Obama because his health care law rolls back subsidies for supplemental Medicare coverage. Obama promised as a candidate not to raise taxes on the middle class — referring mainly to income tax rates. Low capital gains rates, deductions for charitable giving and mortgage interest and many breaks for businesses remain broadly popular among the public and Congress.
Simpson said his commission sought a common-sense approach: admit that government operations cost money and sudden steep cuts can damage the economy, while recognizing that the recent trajectory, left unchecked, promises to scare investors who buy treasury debt, triggering rising interest rates that also would hamstring the economy.
Kingston acknowledged the puzzle.
Referring to Social Security, he told the AP, “At the starting point, everything should be on the table.” Yet when asked whether that included raising the cap on income subject to payroll tax, he added, “The problem is if I answer that question in a silo, I hear about it immediately.”