Shuler presses for fiscal reform before Congress adjourns

By Vicki Hyatt | Nov 24, 2012
Photo by: Mountaineer file photo A LONGSTANDING ISSUE — This photo was taken when U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler first took office in 2007. The national debt is now  $16 trillion, more than $51,679 for every single man, woman, and child in the United States. Addressing debt problems has been a top priority for Shuler during his tenure.

As U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s time in Congress comes to an end, he’s as energized as he was upon first assuming the job in six years ago.

That’s because he senses Congress is on the cusp of achieving a plan that puts the nation on the path of financial stability, an issue he championed since he first decided to run for public office in 2006.

“I think a lot of progress has been made,” Shuler said of talks underway in Washington.

If a new plan is not crafted by the year’s end,  across-the-board automatic spending cuts will occur, and tax cuts enacted at the beginning of the decade will expire. The majority of the spending cuts will come from defense and Medicare, the later of which will put doctors and hospitals in a very difficult position, Shuler said.

This current course set by Congress, economists predict, will send the nation’s already weak economy into another recession. This is an action Shuler is pulling out all stops to avoid.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Shuler said of talks on how an end-of-the-year budget agreement will avoid a so-called fiscal cliff. “I think we’ll get something done.”

While many in Congress used the Thanksgiving break to enjoy family and the beginning of the holiday season, Shuler was working practically nonstop on the deficit reduction issue, meeting with or calling colleagues and trying to drum up support for a “go big” concept.

About  a year ago, Shuler, a Blue Dog Democrat, teamed up with Republican Congressman Mike Simpson from Idaho to get as many members of Congress as possible to agree with a $4 trillion deficit reduction package that would include new revenue, tax cuts and a plan to deal with the escalating cost of entitlement programs.  They called it a “think big” effort because it is far more inclusive than the $1.2 trillion budget-cut package set to kick in if no action is taken.

At the start of Thanksgiving week, Shuler and Simpson had collected 102 signatures for their $4 trillion package, one Shuler said has supporters from every caucus on Capitol Hill from both parties. Shuler anticipates that number will increase by up to 100 before any action is taken.

The looming day of reckoning about government spending has been deflected in the past by “kicking the can down the road,” Shuler said, but he optimistically believes this time it will be different.

“People are starting to see the real numbers and the impact our debt and deficit is having on families of our communities. I see a really bright light at the end of this tunnel. Most realize we have to get something done,” he said.

A budget reform package will include a little something for everyone to dislike, as there’s no magic bullet to make things easier, Shuler said, adding that practically speaking, the final solution will come down to two people — President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

“It’s no different than the Clinton and Reagan days where the house speaker was of a different party and they were able to compromise to get something together. The real focus will be in the house, and once you get agreement there, Senate will follow,” he predicted.

During talks a year ago, Obama and Boehner agreed to a package that closely followed the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction proposal and would result in $3 trillion in spending cuts along with $1 trillion in revenue increases over the next decade.

The agreement wasn’t passed because of Republican objections to the revenue components that were included.

Shuler was full of praise for Alan Simpson, a former Senator from Wyoming and North Carolina’s Erskine Bowles, who was one of President Bill Clinton’s top advisors.

“Those two gentlemen have done more for this country than people will ever realize,” Shuler said. “Talk about a plan that is a tough, but it is a plan that puts our fiscal house back in order.”

Time is running out for a deliberate solution. If the lame-duck Congress fails to act, the default course of action triggered by disagreements in Congress will kick in.

“I truly believe it will happen,” Shuler said of a fiscal reform package. “There still will be posturing, but end of day, everyone knows what the numbers are. We will be able to send a message to the world we are unified when it comes to fiscal reform in the U.S. At the end of the day, that will be a very incredible moment for this country and I think I will leave a mark from my days in Congress through this issue.”