Path to fiscal sanity

It was 1995 when I first heard about the burning platform. 

House Republicans had gathered at Xerox Document University to discuss how they were going to balance the budget, pass tax cuts and reform entitlements. Newt Gingrich talked about the management need to create a burning platform in order to make dramatic change to the size and scope of government. 

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The “burning platform” refers to the story of the oil-rig worker who, when faced with the decision to either burn in an out-of-control fire or take his chances with a plunge into the icy waters a hundred feet below, jumps and ultimately survives. 

The Republicans have a ready-made burning platform coming up at the end of the year, and the more I think about it, the more I believe it might be their only opportunity to make a dramatic change in our spending trajectory. 

Taxes are going to increase on everybody at the end of the year. Those increases are going to hit people who live in blue states the hardest, and theoretically, most of those voters have voted pretty dependably for Democrats for the last 30 years. 

These voters have not faced a real tax increase since 1993, and in fact, have seen their taxes decline fairly dramatically by way of cuts signed into law by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. 

It is a matter of misplaced faith that these Democratic voters are comfortable with seeing their taxes go up dramatically. Democratic politicians have been pushing the class-warfare theme for the last 16 years, and the president in large part based his reelection on that policy promise. But because Republicans have been in charge of at least part of the government for most of that time, the Democrats have never had to put their rhetoric to the real test of policy. 

Republicans shouldn’t bail out these Democratic constituencies this time around, especially if the president refuses to do anything on entitlement reform. They should create a burning platform to compel the president to come around on fixing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. 

Everybody is focused on taxes, and tax reform is an important way to spur economic growth. But the biggest danger to our long-term economic health is mandatory spending, and it seems to me that the crisis created by the so-called “fiscal cliff” is a pretty good way to get some real movement from the Democrats on this issue. 

And the fact of the matter is that the Republicans have nothing to lose by sticking to their guns in these negotiations. The president is not going to relent on his demands for a higher tax rate on millionaires, and every poll taken since the days that Robin Hood prowled around Sherwood Forest shows that defending millionaires is unpopular for most voters. And as Bill Kristol pointed out, most of those millionaires vote for the Democrats anyway (or at least live and vote in blue states).

The platform starts to burn as the stock market starts to collapse when it becomes clear that a deal will not be reached. It becomes a real fire when it becomes clear that taxes are going to go up dramatically in the days following the NCAA football championship game. 

CEOs and economists have already offered dark warnings about what will happen if we go over the fiscal cliff. But they ignore what will happen to the long-term future of the country if we do nothing on entitlement spending. 

If the president and his team refuse to push for real reform of entitlement programs, Republicans should create a burning platform. It might be the only way we get back on the path of fiscal sanity.


Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.

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