Rep. Lloyd Doggett on the deficit debate

Posted on in In the News

By Kate Alexander

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

It is crunch time in Washington for the bipartisan “supercommittee” tasked with crafting a compromise to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion or more .

Created during the debt ceiling negotiations this summer, the 12-member group of senators and House members has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan that could include spending cuts, new revenue and changes to Social Security and Medicare.

If a plan does not get enacted, federal spending will be reduced by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, with half of the cuts coming from defense and other security programs.

Two weeks ago, the American-Statesman published an interview with U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul , R-Austin, on the deficit reduction talks (http://bit.ly/osvgTj ). To get a different perspective, we sat down with U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett , D-Austin.

You voted for the debt ceiling agreement, correct?

Very reluctantly. This entire matter should have been resolved last December when (President Barack Obama), over my strong objection, agreed to extend the tax breaks for billionaires. He got very little in return for accepting a major Republican agenda item. I spoke in favor of shared sacrifice to address our debt challenges. We did not get that in this measure.

But ultimately it became a question of whether to put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk. I thought this was not the time to play games with that.

What would you like to see come out of the deficit reduction supercommittee?

I think it’s improbable that they will be able to reach an agreement and the more likely outcome is across-the-board cuts. But what I would like to see is some shared sacrifice. We have increasingly concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. The tax system should produce more revenue from those folks. You cannot resolve our long-term debt issues without more revenue at the same time as you address the spending issues.

What do you say to people who argue that this is the wrong time to be raising taxes on anyone, given the economic malaise?

Our large multinational corporations don’t have a shortage of cash. Many of them have more cash than they know what to do with, and they’re still laying off employees.  I don’t believe that it discourages economic recovery for General Electric to have to pay the same proportion of its revenue in taxes as the people that clean its offices.

You maintain that a widening wealth gap contributes to today’s economic woes. Will you elaborate on that contention?

The big problem that I think we have in getting jobs today is not that large corporations lack access to capital. They’re not creating jobs because of lack of demand. If you want to encourage economic recovery, you have to focus on the demand side of the equation so that there are more people that can afford to buy products that they have to sell.

There is a tension between our desire to control our long-term debt and our desire to spur short-term economic growth. I think there are a number of things we can do to spur demand and spur short-term economic growth. Getting our economy to grow better is one way to get our long-term problems resolved.

One of those long-term problems is Social Security. What changes should be considered to bolster Social Security?

Social Security is a social insurance system. It’s not a Ponzi scheme. It’s not a monumental failure of the New Deal, as Rick Perry tells it. It is one of the best programs that has ever been enacted by our government to provide a basic safety net and a minimal level of retirement security.

Much of the effort to propagandize that Social Security won’t be there and justify privatization is fostered by those who don’t believe in social insurance and those who think that there is much money to be made by having the retirement savings that go into Social Security go into private retirement systems.

We need to look at why, unlike Medicare, Social Security taxes don’t apply to all levels of income, why they stop at a little over $100,000. We have changed the retirement age so that it will now no longer be 65; it is 67 for those born after 1959.

What do you think of some of the Medicare changes proposed by Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Budget Committee?

His plan is a serious mistake. We have a problem of rapidly escalating health care costs in this country. We don’t have a separate Medicare or veterans health problem. They are part of the overall challenge of how we contain overall health care costs.

The Ryan plan essentially says to a senior that you no longer have Medicare, you have a certificate to get health insurance and that certificate will be worth less than the rising cost of health insurance every year. It simply shifts the risk to the senior from the taxpayer.

Can we as a country continue to afford these kinds of programs?

I think we can. We are a country that needs to contain its debt, but providing a minimal level of retirement security is essential to the success of this country. I think we are in this together. We should have incentives for individuals to add to their retirement, but there should always be a basic level of health and retirement security that is provided in a public way.

There is a fundamental disagreement here over the role of the individual and the role of the government or society as a whole.

There are a number of people that I serve with in Washington who believe that everyone is on their own. They are not out seeing people and the struggles they go through people who are struggling to find a job, who have a child with a disability and can’t get access to health care, who would like to have a child go to college but don’t know how they can pay for it. They never really interact with individuals who would like to share in the American dream but find barriers to doing so.

I don’t think we can say “you’re on your own” to everyone. We have a basic responsibility in our society to help ensure a minimum level of protection for our most vulnerable citizens. Prior to Medicare and Social Security, we had many more seniors who lived in incredible poverty and faced the last years of their lives destitute and with fear.

If the supercommittee doesn’t come up with a compromise, half of the cuts will be borne by security programs, including the Department of Defense. Does that concern you?

We want a military second to none. We also have a right to demand that the Pentagon be able to pass an audit, which it has been unable to do in many years. We need to assess very closely how much of a reduction in spending we can afford in defense along with everything else. But I’m not willing to exempt the Department of Defense from the same scrutiny that applies to other programs.

In my recent interview with McCaul, he said the 2012 election is going to be referendum on which one of these conflicting paths the country should take.

On that we agree. It is a question of what is the future of our country, what kind of future can we afford. Certainly, if we had a Rick Perry presidency and an all-Republican Congress, we would see a significant reduction in retirement and educational security, and we will see this gap between the very wealthy and the rest of the country widen even further.