Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Blue Dog Democrat: A Call for Fiscal Responsibility

The following article written by Congressman Harold Ford Jr. appeared in this month's Main Street Journal:

Only in Washington would someone try to pass a deficit reduction plan that actually increases the federal deficit. Yet that is exactly what is happening these days, with tax cuts to millionaires taking priority over fiscal discipline.

Each year, every Tennessee family and nearly every state government in the nation has to do something that the federal government does not: balance their budget. When money runs tight for families in Shelby, Fayette or Tipton County, they make the hard choices necessary to live within their means. But when money runs tight for the federal government, we just print more of it or borrow it from abroad.

It is no secret what we need to do to reduce our deficit and get our financial books back in order: cut spending, raise taxes or both. I am an advocate of keeping people’s taxes as low as possible so they can spend their money themselves, rather than having to watch the government spend it for them.

That is why I voted last month to cut the Alternative Minimum Tax for individual Tennesseans earning less than $100,000 and families earning less than $200,000. It is also why I voted for $7.1 billion in tax breaks to create Gulf Opportunity Zones to rebuild communities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and a $153 million measure so the brave men and women of our armed forces can continue to count their combat pay towards the earned income tax credit. Finally, it is why I voted to protect Tennesseans’ ability to deduct state and local sales taxes from their federal tax bills.

However, I did not vote for $56 billion in tax cuts for millionaires because these cuts completely overwhelm the $50 billion in spending reductions that Congress passed last month. In fact, when all of Congress’ recent tax cuts are taken together, we are adding a whopping $45 billion to the deficit in the next five years alone. Hardly the deficit reduction plan that has been advertised.

As a nation, we are already fighting two wars, running a record deficit and financing the rebuilding of the Katrina battered Gulf Coast. Passing another round of tax cuts for millionaires is one more example of how divorced Congress and national politics are from the day to day realities of Tennessee business owners, seniors, farmers, students and parents.

At a time in which middle class families in Tennessee – a state where almost 95 percent of households earn under $100,000 – are working to get ahead, now is not the time to run up more national debt. Furthermore, as a senior military officer shared with me, this is the first time the country has cut taxes, spent uncontrollably and fought and paid for two wars at the same time.

In the last five years, we have seen record surpluses turned into record deficits and the national debt soar above $8 trillion, or $27,000 for every man, woman and child in America. By borrowing $615,000 a minute to finance our debt – much of it from foreign countries who do not see the world as we do – we are literally mortgaging our children’s and our grandchildren’s future. This is morally wrong.

To make matters worse, the way in which some in Washington want to cut spending will leave Tennessee and the nation worse off in the long run. For example, the recent budget bill does the following:

  • Medicaid and TennCare – cuts Medicaid by $11.9 billion while decreasing benefits and making harder for seniors to access long-term care. This cut comes at a time when our governor is struggling to reform TennCare in the face of already reduced federal support.
  • Student Loans – cuts student loan funding by $14.3 billion by increasing interest rates and loan fees. These changes could cost the 128,410 student borrowers in Tennessee up to $5,800 each.
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) – funds LIHEAP at $3 billion less than I had advocated. This means almost 150,000 fewer Tennessee families will receive help with their MLG&W bills this winter, when energy prices are near all-time highs.
  • Child Support Enforcement – cuts $75 million from Tennessee programs that help enforce child support payments from dead-beat parents over the next five years. Over the next ten years, these programs will be cut $238 million.
  • Food Stamps – cuts $844 million in food stamp assistance over the next five years. These cuts hurt organizations like the Memphis Food Bank, which provides food to more than 20,000 – including 9,900 children – every week.

Rather than just paying lip service to fiscal responsibility or asking only one segment of the population to shoulder the load, we need to be serious about getting our financial books in order.

In my nine years in Congress, I have never voted for a budget that was unbalanced. Unfortunately, too many other elected officials in Washington are unwilling or unable to make the hard choices to do the same.

That is why I am sponsoring legislation to enact a Balanced Budget Amendment that will force Congress to make the right decisions and stop increasing the burden on future generations by adding to our debt. And in contrast to bills now making their way through Congress, we also need to put everything on the table so there is shared sacrifice in restoring fiscal responsibility, rather than tax cuts for those who need it least and increased burdens for those who can afford it least.

For example, this year millionaires will enjoy an average tax cut of $102,000, which is more than what 95 percent of Tennessee households earn in an entire year. If we reduce millionaires’ tax cut by $15,000 to $87,000, Congress could avoid raising student loan fees for Tennessee college kids, ensure that Tennesseans facing high home heating costs this winter receive some help paying the bills and prevent further cuts to TennCare, which Tennessee clearly cannot afford.

We should also implement caps to end run-away spending. Government expenditures have soared by more than 16 percent since 2001, while inflation over the same time period increased only 8.9 percent. It is time to reign in government spending.

Finally, Congress needs to do a better job of keeping tabs on government programs. Taxpayers are understandably tired of reading reports of waste, fraud and abuse in government programs. Those responsible must be held accountable so that Tennessee families are not left paying the bill.

It has been said that governing does not involve picking the good over the bad. Rather, it involves picking the good over the just as good. In short, it is about setting priorities. Right now, the federal government is making some bad choices. I want to be a part of making it right.

Read more about Congressman Ford's excellent record on fiscal responsibility here!