Op-Ed: Avoiding the Fiscal Cliff: Nothing is Sacrosanct

Tulsa World | November 8, 2012

For almost a decade and a half, I was honored to serve the great people of northeastern Oklahoma in Congress. Today, a centrist Democrat in Congress may be about as rare as a polar bear in northeastern Oklahoma, but through my experience as a fiscally-conservative Democrat on the Ways and Means and Budget Committees, I was able to see how much agreement there was between the two parties, and how deals can be struck when there's a common interest. Even in today's climate of hyper-polarization, this remains true, and even for this era's most important issue: the national debt.

Having hit $16 trillion with no signs of slowing, the national debt promises to eat away at your favorite government policy, regardless of your party or politics.

Whether you prefer to maintain spending levels on, say, transportation programs or scientific research, or you're more interested in keeping taxes low, your preferred policy is about to be swallowed up by what we need to pay to service our debt. Unless we act now.

And now really is the time to act. With the "fiscal cliff" - the club-footed combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, $500 billion in 2013 alone - looming come Jan. 1, our political leaders have been given a firm deadline to get something done.

Already, mere fear of careening over the cliff has had real-world implications. Worry over paralysis in Washington has caused businesses to put off hiring and investments. And if we do tumble over the edge, our economy will contract by an annualized 3.9 percent in the first quarter of next year.

Clearly, we cannot let that happen. But in addressing the short-term problems with which our out-of-control debt has confronted us, we must also think long-term. We are perilously close to trillion-dollar yearly interest payments, 7 percent yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds, 10 percent home mortgage rates and 13 percent rates on car loans. For the good of the country, the parties must come together and not let this happen.

Clearly then, we need a debt deal that will steer us away from the precipice of the fiscal cliff while addressing our mounting debt over the long-term.

Any deal worth the paper it's printed on must make sure to treat nothing as sacrosanct. Any promise made to keep a constituency's favored spending program or tax break is short-term thinking; unless we put everything on the table, we will never come close to plugging the hole we're in.

For the last several years, the conversation about deficit reduction has begun and ended with "domestic discretionary spending" or "waste, fraud and abuse." Simply put, there's just not enough of either to make much of a dent in our ever-increasing debt. Instead, we need to look at what each party has previously thought of as its "sacred cow" - spending programs, especially entitlements, for the left and favored tax levels and breaks for the right.

Instead, we need pro-growth solutions - a slowing of the growth in entitlement spending and a simpler tax code that removes many of its economy-distorting deductions, breaks and exemptions. It's this kind of plan I'm hoping to hear from the president, and it's this kind of plan that I know members of Congress from both parties can and will be able to agree to.

I've seen much agreement across party lines when it comes to fiscal issues. And I am optimistic that, even in this age of political polarization, that we'll be able to do so again.

But we'll need your help. Think about adding your name to the 280,000-plus who have already signed the petition at FixTheDebt.org, demanding our political leaders deal with the long-term problems our mounting debt promises to bring us. Our challenges are great, but so too is our ability to come together and confront them head-on.