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February 12, 2013

My View: Partisanship not as important as leadership on budget issues

—  Free Press Editor Joe Spear's column in Sunday's Free Press quotes Rep. Tim Walz as saying, with respect to the U.S. House, "... There's more bipartisanship activity than I've seen in a long time." That is encouraging to many of us, and makes for a good political sound bite in the district. But it can be read two ways, depending on whose ox is being gored. For the time being I am more skeptical about increased bipartisan activity than is Walz, but I will follow the votes.   

The article cites as an example of increased House bipartisanship Walz's yes vote on last week's Republican bill demanding the president's budget specify when the federal budget will be balanced, and his plans for doing so. The bill passed 253-167. As the column further states, the U.S. Code already requires the president to release a budget by the first Monday in February, which causes me to wonder what the 167 that voted no on the bill were thinking.

Last year the Republican-controlled House passed a budget proposal to reduce federal spending from about 24 percent of the fiscal year 2012 gross domestic product, to close to the 40-year historical average of about 20 percent of GDP by 2015, while prioritizing national security, lowering tax rates for individuals, businesses and families, with programs designed to reform and save Medicare and Social Security, and more. The vote was 228-191, mostly along party lines. The Democrat-controlled Senate voted it down 57-40. The Senate has not proposed or passed a budget in about four years.     

Almost daily somewhere in the media one can find a report suggesting that if sequestration happens next month there will be "draconian/massive" spending cuts -- others have called them a pittance, relatively speaking. If I recall correctly the administration and Democrats proposed sequestration when a comprehensive agreement on tax increases and spending cuts could not be reached during last year's negotiations. The sequestration across the board discretionary spending cuts essentially involve the areas of defense, which Republicans oppose, and non-defense which Democrats oppose. Apparently it was designed that way to promote a responsible bipartisan agreement on what programs should be cut, and how much each should be cut.

Subsequently, in January 2013 Republicans agreed to raise income tax rates which, according to the CBO, will generate $620 billion in revenue while raising taxes $41 for every $1 cut from spending. Not what I consider balanced.

Yet last week Walz also voted yes for the Democrats' motion to replace sequestration, combining still more revenue increases with targeted reductions in discretionary spending. I think the primary reason for the motion was to raise taxes. The motion was not necessary to negotiate targeted reductions in discretionary spending; they could and still can be negotiated to avoid sequestration. The motion failed 194-229. All Republicans and one Democrat voted no.   

Even a weak economic recovery will generate revenue without additional tax increases. So the way I see it there is no good and valid reason to kick the spending cuts can down the road, so to speak, any longer while holding out for more tax increases. The answer lies in leadership, not partisanship.     

From a somewhat different approach, before the sequestration proposal I read studies by a respected economist -- 2010, 2011 and January 2012 -- all based on the most current CBO projections at the time, suggesting the budget could be balanced in 10 years if federal spending were simply limited to a 2 percent increase annually.  

Based on past and current positions of each side, including concessions already made, I am not optimistic about increased bipartisanship to avoid sequestration. Unfortunately it may take public opinion to force them to reach common ground after sequestration. The problem with that is, from my experience, public opinion does not always recognize the historical context of how we got where we are, and/or what is the right thing to do going forward.   

Bob Jentges is a former teacher, coach and insurance claims superintendent and is part a team of Free Press readers invited to comment more frequently on issues of the day. He considers himself a conservative.


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