Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Opinion

December 6, 2013

HAMILTON: Why can’t Congress aim higher on reforms?

The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is poisonous

Congressional budget negotiators are moving to meet a Dec. 13 deadline to produce, well, something. For weeks, we’ve been told to keep expectations low. There’ll be no “grand bargain,” negotiators say. Commentators believe that even the narrowest agreement will be a signal achievement. So here’s my question: Doesn’t that seem like an awfully low bar to you?

Yes, I know. The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is poisonous. The two parties — even the various factions within the parties — can barely stand to be in a room with each other. Expecting a sizable budget accomplishment from Congress right now is like expecting water from a rock. It would take a miracle.

Yet there are consequences to not producing an agreement capable of clarifying fiscal affairs. Right now, government agencies cannot plan ahead; they can’t consider long-term projects; they have trouble with staffing; they can’t set priorities; they’re forced to fund programs that have outlived their usefulness and cannot fund programs they know are necessary. And that’s just the federal bureaucracy. Contractors and people who depend on federal spending can’t plan, either. Our economy can’t achieve liftoff, and millions of ordinary Americans remain mired by its slow growth. Washington faces tough choices about spending, taxes, and entitlements, and Congress isn’t making them.

Things are not wholly bleak. Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the lead House negotiator, and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, who heads up the Senate team, have been working at least to address the sequester. As you’ll recall, this is the draconian set of across-the-board budget cuts put in place in 2011. At first, many agencies were able to defer maintenance, spend money they’d squirreled away, and cut staff by attrition. This next year will be much tougher: agencies are out of easy options, and defense spending faces an immense, $21 billion cut. That will be felt in every congressional district in the country, given how adept the Defense Department has been at spreading its largesse around. Not surprisingly, pressure is coming from both sides of the aisle to ease the impact.

The sequester is a cleaver, cutting good and bad government spending without rhyme or reason. If congressional negotiators can take a smarter approach, that’s all to the good.

But if they’re going to do that, shouldn’t they address the real problems? The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable. It needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.

These are daunting challenges, but Congress’s toolbox is hardly empty. It could limit itemized tax deductions, increase Medicare premiums for the well-to-do, place caps on spending, shave federal employee benefits to bring them in line with the private sector, increase government fees, sell public assets, put more of the wireless spectrum up for bid, increase the Social Security contributions of higher-income earners, change the consumer price index.... There are literally scores of possibilities, none of them easy, but all of them offering adroit negotiators the chance to craft a long-term solution to problems that have beset Capitol Hill for years and held economic growth far below its potential.

At some point, Congress will have to put the federal budget on “a sustainable path for the long term,” in the words of the CBO. So long as it does not, the economic consequences hurt everyone. Congressional leaders seem blissfully unconcerned about this and aim only for low-hanging fruit, but Americans know that Congress can and should do better, and are rightly tired of careening from crisis to crisis. As members of Congress continue to make politically attractive suggestions that don’t come close to achieving a lasting solution, let’s urge them to get real. It’s time for Congress to go big.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Opinion
  • OPN - KT082014 - king What Fergusonsays about us Aug. 9 is a day that Americans lost sight of themselves. It is the day Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager of Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. That evening, and for all but o

    August 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Letters to the editor Congrats on wind farm defeat Congratulations to the citizens of Kokomo and Howard County! Your officials have done you a great favor by stopping any further considerations for construction of industrial wind turbines in your area. Now, if the fede

    August 20, 2014

  • Cleaning up voter rolls Citizens should expect the voting process for electing government representatives at all levels to be efficient and of the highest integrity. Indiana's system in recent years has at times been manipulated for political purposes -- the voter ID system

    August 20, 2014

  • House of Burgess: First Amendment assault in Ferguson Of all the outrageous and disturbing story lines emanating from Ferguson, Missouri, since unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, the targeting of journalists during the ensuing pro

    August 20, 2014

  • Moped law long overdue We’ve all seen them on the streets, and their popularity is only growing. Mopeds have coasted in a legal grey area for years in Indiana. A lack of registration, testing and licensure allowed those without other means of transport to join other vehicl

    August 19, 2014

  • HAYDEN: Craft brewers and vintners returned sprits to Indiana State Fair Brad Hawkins felt right at home hawking his beer at the Indiana State Fairgrounds last week.When Hawkins opened his Salt Creek Brewery in a converted filling station in tiny Needmore three years ago, some tee-totaling neighbors protested he was putti

    August 19, 2014

  • LETTERS: Support Connie Brown; wind agreement termination Connie Brown for county clerkConnie Brown is an excellent person to serve as county clerk. She is kind, generous, and dedicated to what she does. Having served with her on the Stonybrook Board for six years, I have come to know her and respect her ta

    August 19, 2014

  • Indiana budget woes put new focus on 'reversions' When is a budget cut not a cut? In Indiana, it’s when it’s a reversion.Budget cuts, via reversions, were at the center of a pair of big decisions last week, putting the tactic used by both Democratic and Republican governors in the spotlight.State Bu

    August 19, 2014

  • How to care for our children and their children INDIANAPOLIS – Let’s ponder “our children” and “their children.”First, Gov. Mike Pence made a wise call this past week when he ordered the Department of Child Services to begin reimbursing families who had adopted special needs children.A class actio

    August 18, 2014

  • Aug. 18: Letters to the Editor Sick of allthe wind talkI am going to rant a bit. I am sick and tired of opening up the paper and there is another letter about windmills. We have so much going on in the world. We have children getting beheaded, presidents always on vacation, an eco

    August 18, 2014

Featured Ads
Only on our website
AP Video
Raw: IDF Footage Said to Show Airstrikes Police: Ferguson More Peaceful Raw: Aftermath of Airstrike in Gaza Raw: Thousands March on Pakistani Parliament Raw: World's Oldest Man Lives in Japan Fire Crews Tame Yosemite Fire Raw: Police Weapon Drawn Near Protesters, Media Raw: Deadly Landslides in Japan Raw: Explosions in Gaza As Airstrikes Resume Arrests Witnessed in Ferguson Charter Schools Alter Post-Katrina Landscape Texas Gov. Perry: Indictment 'a Political Act' US Officials: Video Shows American's Beheading Video Shows Ferguson Cop Months Before Shooting Heavy Rains Flood Arizona Roads US Trying to Verify Video of American's Killing FBI Director Addresses Ferguson Shooting in Utah Raw: Police at Scene of St. Louis Shooting Police: 2 Calif. Boys Planned School Shooting NOLA Police Chief Retires Amid Violent Crimes
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Obituaries
Poll