By Roy Fuchs
Democratic Congressman Jim Himes (D-4) used his talk to Westport Sunrise Rotary club on Friday morning to make the moderate case, perhaps seeking to reach centrist persuadables.
Himes began, "we are in the throes of polarized politics. I am sorry to say before the election we won't come together. But after it, for the first time, there will be a deal" because everyone wants to avoid the fiscal cliff.
"We know what a deal looks like. It will be shaped around Simpson-Bowles ... a good start on a fair deal to stabilize the economy." He added that Simpson-Bowles offers equity because it doesn't ask the poorest to bear the costs, but distributes the pain.
It was the only proposal to garner bipartisan support -- from conservative senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to liberal Dick Durbin (D-IL). It was also the only one receiving any Republican votes -- 16 of its supporters in a 382-38 defeat, and nine of those 16 voted against their party's own budget proposal. Unfortunately, the President walked away from it.
Following the Simpson-Bowles defeat a Super Committee, made up of members of both parties in both houses, agreed to slash $510 billion from defense over the next 10 years and an equal amount from non-defense domestic spending. Himes called this sequestration "stupid," and a "hammer over the Super Committee that did not look at its impact," nor that it thought would ever be implemented. It is this that now leaves us heading toward the fiscal cliff.
Himes moved to the "did you build it" comment Republicans have made a talking point, saying that throughout our history "government (investment) has set the stage." He highlighted one of the House of Representatives' first acts, building the Erie Canal, a decision seen as "deeply unconstitutional" and financed with $7 million the government did not have.
When the eight-year project was completed in 1825 it opened the west to settlement, substantially reduced transportation costs and made New York the major U.S. port.
Himes then cited the iPhone as a contemporary analogy. Though, to his dismay, it is made in China, the iPhone has made many Americans wealthy.
While Apple designs and sells the iPhone, its use depends on significant government funded infrastructure and technology. One component is the Internet, whose precursor, ARPANET, was created by what is today the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A second is the transistor, invented by Bell Labs scientists with government funding.
Himes said we need to "get onto things in the spirit of the iPhone," combining public funding and private innovation to move our nation forward.
He cited two immediate opportunities: energy self-sufficiency, where, for the first time, we are at risk of not leading a major technology change; and education, where, as ExxonMobil commercials remind us, the U.S. is 17th in science and 25th in math.
Following his prepared remarks, Himes responded to questions. One member followed up about the fiscal cliff. Himes said that behind closed doors Democrats realize that Medicare will have to be reformed and Republicans that we need increased revenues. But, again, any action will have to wait until after the election.
To one about the tax code, he said we will have to get rid of some of its "gunk" to make it simpler and more equitable. He pointed out that for all the conversation about eliminating deductions allowed oil companies and private plane owners, they are mere "rounding errors."
Himes said domestic and military spending must reduced. Lowering domestic spending will have visible impacts, as post offices and Social Security offices, among others, will be down sized or eliminated.
Likewise, the military "has to be a part of the budget solution ... our warriors are as good as they can be." But we spend more on our military that the rest of the world combined, largely because the Pentagon bureaucracy is "wasteful," and overly focused on Russia rather than on today's asymmetric threats.
To a question about Grover Norquist's pledge that keeps most Republicans from voting to raise any tax under any circumstance, Himes said "pledges are a bad idea" as they lock in positions and make it "harder to be a moderate." He cited the primary election defeats of Republicans Bob Bennett and Dick Lugar by Tea Party candidates.
To the contrary, "I am prepared to compromise... to govern is to compromise."
He closed by responding to a question about Medicare. Changes would affect those under 55, he said. We need to "suck inefficiency out." Our costs are two and one-half times those in other industrialized nations and our results are often worse -- "the definition of inefficiency."
Himes' Republican challenger, Steve Obsitnik, will speak to the club later this month.