After 10 months in Congress here’s what I’ve learned: we don’t just have revenue, deficit and spending issues to tackle — we also have a political problem to solve. Too often decisions are made based on how a vote will look in the next election or how it will show up in the scorecard of an interest group.
We must start fresh, post-election, and put our differences aside. Like it or not, taxes will be going up — at least for some. But the way Congress spends taxpayer dollars will also change, and the way we fund and administer Social Security and Medicare will require adjustment.
What will happen with taxes? Some have proposed a combination of raising marginal tax rates and limiting deductions for the top two percent of income earners, raising taxes on dividends, and raising capital gains rates. These are legitimate starting points for discussion, but by no means should they be lines in the sand. There is recognition on both sides of the aisle that some revenue increases will be part of the deal, so let’s get some numbers down on paper and figure out where we reach agreement. Most members of Congress acknowledge that we should keep rates low for 98 percent of Americans, so I call on the leadership to bring a bill to the floor immediately to extend tax rates for these lower- and middle-income earners. And let’s all work on communicating to the public that under almost every proposal, all taxpayers will continue get the current rates on at least the first $250,000 of income and maybe more.
And shouldn’t we find ways to make cuts and reduce spending? Yes, but cautiously. Economic experts tell us that across-the-board cuts will hurt middle class families and those who are struggling, weaken our national defense, and hamper economic growth. We need to use caution to when we reduce government revenues to make sure that we don’t hamper growth and thereby fuel the very problem we’re trying to solve. Accordingly, we should make cuts only where and when we can be sure that economic side effects will be negligible, and we should redirect spending toward investments that contribute to a stronger economic recovery. Both sides agree that economic growth is an essential component to reducing our deficit, and many of the proposed cuts are antithetical to that end.
What about earned benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security? It’s become convenient to call for reform without presenting details, and that makes many of us exceedingly skeptical. Senior citizens and those soon to retire recognize that proposals to cut these benefits could indeed result in devastating cuts to those programs they have paid into all their lives and rely on to preserve the quality of life they deserve. A constructive dialogue about how we can maintain these earned benefits is needed. In Oregon, for example, we are driving down health care costs by establishing Coordinated Care Organizations, which in turn will reduce Medicare costs. That conversation won’t be meaningful, however, unless we all come to the table with open minds and consider alternatives.
In the end we have to remember that this is a complicated negotiation that has the potential to determine our course as a nation for years to come. Unfortunately our timetable for discussion is limited because last year’s Budget Control included the threat of sequestration. Even so, it is good that for once compromise will be our only option.
Regardless of where we stand, we all must recognize that now isn’t the time for party politics — it is time to be a party to the discussion that will determine our way forward. That is why we were elected. That is how our democracy is supposed to function, and that is what I intend to do.
Bonamici is a member of the House Budget Committee.