Thursday, September 13, 2012

Boehner, Hero? If He Deals on the Sequester and the Fiscal Cliff

By Robert Weiner and Sadiq Ahmed

With the Conventions over, we now prepare for the real rumble to follow. The United States economy is floundering, but Democrats and Republicans in Congress have dug in. We could see our national credit rating drop again as it did during the debt ceiling crisis a year ago. This time, the country could actually fall off the so-called fiscal cliff.  If the debt ceiling increase is unapproved and the tax cuts expire, watch the distance down in our collective jump. It’s even a current Senate Democratic strategy to allow falling off the fiscal cliff briefly when the tax cuts expire at year’s end, so that Republicans can vote for tax breaks for 98% of Americans – the rationale is that it’s not a tax hike once the cuts expire and the old Clinton rates for the wealthiest kick back in.

The country has reached this critical stage due to the deal with Speaker of the House John Boehner on the Budget Control Act of 2011. The law callsfor sequestration (automatic cuts) of social and military spending—but because revenue remains too low, the debt ceiling goes up, up, up regardless. With no additional taxes or program cuts, the sequester shreds 10% of programs for the military, as well as education, housing, health, and food support for the poor, and scientific research. 

John Boehner can now become a hero in American history, a winner of the Kennedy Profiles in Courage—and a hero to Republicans at the same time who see real danger to their control of the House  if there is no deal to run the nation.  Here’s how: 

In his heart of hearts, even John Boehner knows money does not grow on the trees of tax cuts.


If he can round up some support - it does not have to be a majority of Republicans - for a tax reform-program cuts combination to avoid the Sequester and the fiscal cliff, at a time of bipartisan vituperation and obstruction, John Boehner will be considered a Statesman for the Ages. Democrats could fill in the large part of the majority needed.  Bill Clinton passed NAFTA in November of 1993 with a majority of the 234 yes votes coming from Republicans (132), and he got enough Democrats (102) to seal the deal. Likewise, Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a higher percent of House Republicans than Democrats voting for it: Democrats: 152–96 (61–39%); Republicans 138–34 (80–20%). These numbers are an uncomfortable fact for Democrats today.

In April, 2011 Boehner admitted to ABC’s World News, "The federal government's short on revenues. We need to control spending but we need to have revenues to keep the government moving." In his heart of hearts, even John Boehner knows money does not grow on the trees of tax cuts.  He knows former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), Co-Chair of the Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission, made sense saying, “If you want to be a purist go somewhere on a mountaintop and praise the East or something. But if you want to be in politics, you learn to compromise.”

Republicans appear to be concerned only with the $50 billion in sequestration cuts that will come from the Defense Department. They are pushing to rewrite that part of the law. Democrats have staunchly resisted any significant changes to the defense sequester requirements if the only current alternative is more cuts to anti-poverty programs.

On November 3, 2011 Boehner said, “I think there's room for revenues…”  His support of “tax reform” became the latest best hope. However, he was turned around by his 66 member House Tea Party Caucus contingent of his party, and he succumbed days later saying, “I can tell you it’s not in the best interest of our country to raise taxes during this difficult economy…..”

The House debt ceiling / sequester vote qualifies as one of the most eclectic grouping of ayes and nays the country has ever witnessed.   Mortal enemies Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Alan West both voted for it, while Ron Paul and Barney Frank voted against it. Ultra-liberal Sheila Jackson Lee and Veep nominee Paul Ryan were ayes, while Libertarian Ted Poe and Progressive Maxine Waters were nays. These diverse voting positions indicate that compromise on the issue is achievable.

"Tip" O'Neill (D-MA), Speaker from 1977 to 1987, often said he built majorities with like-minded lawmakers from both parties. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Speaker from 1995 to 1998, made sure that GOP moderates were consulted. Should Boehner muster the courage to use the bully gavel to save the nation’s economy, his legislative legerdemain would become studied in the history books.  

Robert Weiner was a senior spokesman in the Clinton White House, the beginning of the Bush Administration, and for Congressmen John Conyers, Charles Rangel, Claude Pepper, and Ed Koch. Sadiq Ahmed is senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.

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