In business I found that a challenging environment often produced our best opportunities. Perhaps that’s why I see the so-called “fiscal cliff” of year-end spending cuts and tax increases not as an impassable precipice but as our best opportunity to finally enact meaningful fiscal reform.
I hear Washington watchers and people in the hallways of Congress saying there is not enough time to get this done this year. I disagree. The hard part has already been done. Over the past two years, the options for reaching a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal have been drafted, charted, graphed, circulated, evaluated, dissected, leaked, reported, debated and then put on the shelf for another day.
That day has come.
The fiscal cliff is a deadline of the 112th Congress’s making. We have had two dry runs over the past two years. No Congress is better suited to address these issues than this one. It is our responsibility to solve these problems now.
Kicking the can down the road - setting up a process for token deficit reduction today with the promise of more reforms later - is misguided and irresponsible and shows a total lack of courage.
At best, a “small” deal will leave us facing another cliff, selecting down the line from the same menu of policy options before us today. The only difference will be that the hole we’re digging out from will be even deeper. Instead of debating a process to employ during future negotiations, let’s choose from the options before us, which are more plentiful and less draconian than they will be down the road.
I have shared with House and Senate leaders as well as the White House a 242-page bill that, along with other agreed-upon cuts that are to be enacted, would produce $4.5 trillion in fiscal reforms and replace sequestration. While I know this bill can be improved, it shows clearly that we can do what is necessary, today, with relatively simple legislation. The proposal includes pro-growth federal tax reform, which generates more static revenue - mostly from very high-income Americans - by capping federal deductions at $50,000 without raising tax rates. It mandates common-sense reforms to the federal workforce, which will help bring its compensation in line with private-sector benefits, and implements a chained consumer price index across the government, a more accurate indicator of inflation. It also includes comprehensive Medicare reform that keeps in place fee-for-service Medicare without capping growth, competing side by side with private options that seniors can choose instead if they wish. Coupled with gradual age increases within Medicare and Social Security; the introduction of means testing; increasing premiums ever so slightly for those making more than $50,000 a year in retirement; and ending a massive “bed tax” gimmick the states use in Medicaid to bilk the federal government of billions, this reform would put our country on firmer financial footing and begin to vanquish our long-term deficit.
I am encouraged that leaders of both parties have shown openness toward a long-term solution. House Speaker John Boehner has pledged to put raising revenue on the table as long as it is accompanied with fundamental reforms to entitlements, especially Medicare. And President Obama has indicated a willingness to tackle entitlement reforms if accompanied by revenue.
The challenge we face isn’t one of intellect, aptitude or time; it’s a test of political courage.
The 112th Congress can be remembered as responsible elected leaders who put America on a path to fiscal solvency, unleashing a period of economic growth, job creation and innovation - a tremendous legacy. Or we can be known as a feckless Congress and a feckless president who abdicated this responsibility and continued to saddle the country with debt, uncertainty and a void of leadership. If we choose to rise to the occasion and place this fiscal issue firmly in the rear-view mirror, we can begin next year focusing on those things that ensure America’s greatest days still lie ahead.
The writer, a Republican senator from Tennessee, is a member of the Senate Banking Committee.