Fleischmann: Tax and spend; still the choice

Fleischmann: Tax and spend; still the choice

October 26th, 2013 By Chuck Fleischmann in Opinion Columns

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

It is time for Congress and the White House to find a better way to do business. For too long, we have pushed up against deadlines and waited to see who will blink first before sending our country off on the wrong path.

The uncertainty that occurs affects our economy and creates doubt that Washington is focused on the right objectives. The issues that separate us are not that much different from the issues in the 1980s that split Republicans and Democrats -- whether you raise taxes or reduce spending.

A tax-and-spend philosophy is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. Government has a large appetite to spend more, and that means higher taxes. The discipline that is needed now as in the past is to go on a diet, reduce the appetite to spend, tighten the belt and avoid the urge to tax more.

Over the last three years we've been successful at reducing discretionary spending, and it's at its lowest level since 2007. This is a success, and we have been remiss in pointing out this significant shift. But we've failed to make an impact on mandatory spending. The 2011 debt ceiling agreement cut spending by $2.1 trillion over 10 years but failed to address mandatory spending.

Over the past 50 years, mandatory spending has grown from a small line item on our budget to over two thirds of the budget. And in the next 10 years, mandatory spending will nearly double in cost and consume most of our budget. This will squeeze funding for discretionary but important government functions like defense, highways, veterans and critical infrastructure like the Chickamauga Dam lock.

Congress has to decide to spend this discretionary money each year, and detailed budgets are hammered out. To make a real dent in our runaway spending, there have to be meaningful discussions on Medicare, Medicaid and other social welfare programs. For those in the Third District that need a helping hand, we have to be willing to provide assistance. However, what has happened over the years is that these mandatory spending programs have spiraled out of control, subject to waste, fraud and abuse. Mandatory spending is on autopilot, not subject to budgetary restrictions and challenging to control. Real reform means taking a hard look at these programs, tightening up the requirements and making sure that the dollars flow to those really in need.

If we want to stop these constant fiscal crises, we must be willing to put all issues on the table, including mandatory, automatic spending.

Tax increases merely disguise the real issue. In January 2013, taxes increased enough to cover about 6 percent of our 2012 deficit, proof that even a massive tax increase only makes a small dent. I was opposed to that short-sighted solution.

There is bipartisan agreement on the need for reform. President Obama proposed a chained CPI reform to Social Security, which would increase the solvency of the program for future generations. Congress should work with the president to make this a reality. Additionally, we can learn from bipartisan actions in 1996 to reform food stamps and Medicaid. My hope is that Congress will once more consider block grants to states, allowing more local flexibility, and making costs more predictable for the federal government.

Medicaid is a perfect example of a mandatory program with massive costs and poor results. The program cost $432 billion in 2012; and, due to high costs, states often reduce reimbursement rates, which limits care. Block granting Medicaid funds to states and providing flexibility means lower costs for the program and improved recipient outcomes.

Medicare is a critical program for our nation's seniors; however, it faces potential bankruptcy within the next decade. We have to reform Medicare to ensure no changes for seniors and to preserve the program for future generations. I'm proud to have supported a budget which ensures Medicare solvency by giving recipients insurance options similar to the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

Addressing spending instead of raising taxes is important if we are to ensure that programs Americans depend on will meet the needs of future generations. Solving these spending issues won't be easy, but few choices are. I am committed to putting politics aside and working to find bipartisan solutions to keep our nation on the right track.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is a Republican and Tennessee's 3rd District congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives.