By Ken Borsuk
Four years after he defeated 21-year incumbent Christopher Shays, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th District) is seeking to continue establishing a blue foothold in what had typically been a Republican seat by getting elected to his third term.
But in a conversation with Hersam Acorn Newspapers, Mr. Himes, a Cos Cob resident and former chairman of Greenwich's Democratic Town Committee, said getting a safe seat is the last thing on his mind. He said he is focused on the looming expiration of the "Bush tax cuts" on Dec. 31, 2012, and the automatic cuts to defense and discretionary spending that are also set to go into effect. Because of that, win or lose, he said it will have to be a productive "lame duck Congress" after the Nov. 6 election with issues like the farm bill and the cyber-security bill needing to be dealt with "after being blocked by partisan Republicans in the House" and starting on the framework of a major budget deal.
In his four years in Congress, Mr. Himes has been a member of both the majority party and the minority party after the Republican wave of 2010. If elected, Mr. Himes could well find himself again in the minority party. But he said he will still be able to make a positive impact there by working across the aisle on an issue he considers of the utmost immediate importance -- a budget deal.
Mr. Himes has been a champion of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which was co-chaired by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Their report, which called for reductions in military spending, increased taxes, spending cuts, and entitlement program reforms, has not had any action taken on it, but Mr. Himes says something must be done.
"I've spent much of the last year fighting hard for the acknowledgment by the Congress that the Simpson-Bowles proposal, or something like it, will be the deal," Mr. Himes said. "This is not a terribly controversial thing to say outside of a heated political environment, but behind closed doors most members of Congress know that. ... I'm part of a group of Democrats and Republicans that feel we have to 'go big' and put everything on the table; that means Democrats need to allow Social Security and Medicare to be reformed and Republicans need to allow for greater revenues to come in."
To avoid "going off the fiscal cliff" by not having a budget deal in place, Mr. Himes said a "strong center" will be needed and that's what he has and will continue to provide in Congress, if re-elected. After the election, Mr. Himes said, there should be a process agreed on to move the automatic cuts into the new year when the new Congress is sworn in, allowing for a deal based on Simpson-Bowles to be developed and agreed on.
These efforts have won Mr. Himes some praise. In July he was awarded the 2012 Paul E. Tsongas Economic Patriot Award for his deficit reduction work, and USA Today called him one of the "brave 38" in Congress who supported a budget based on the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. However, it has also left him open to criticism, not from Republicans but from his fellow Democrats, who see Simpson-Bowles as too unfair a deal that puts far more of a burden on the poor because of cuts in spending and entitlements than it does on wealthier Americans.
In particular, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, has called it "a really bad plan" that takes too harsh an approach to issues that have been overstated. Mr. Himes said he understands those criticisms since there are things like Pell grants on the chopping block that he doesn't want to see cut, but he doesn't believe it will do damage to the social safety net.
"One of the underlying principles of Simpson-Bowles is that this plan would not ask the most vulnerable in our population to bear the costs of fiscal adjustment," Mr. Himes said. "If you look at the Simpson-Bowles proposal for Social Security, it actually puts more money in the hands of the bottom quartile of retired seniors. It gives less money to the top quartile. There are an awful lot of people in Fairfield County who are quite wealthy and come up to me and tell me that they don't need the $300 Social Security check."
He added, "Krugman's main critique of Simpson-Bowles is that it would start cutting too early and when it came out two years ago it said, 'Don't start these cuts too early. Wait 18-24 months.' It recognizes that if you do what Europe has done, which has plunged it back into recession, and cut too much too soon, it will be counterproductive. I'm very sensitive to this, too. ... We can't overdo austerity. I think Krugman is wrong that this plan is regressive, but I think he's right to raise the question about the risks of cutting too soon. And it's important to remember that when I say Simpson-Bowles, I don't say, 'This is the deal.' I say, 'This or something like it.'"
Mr. Himes said a real weakness of Simpson-Bowles is that it doesn't do enough to deal with Medicare. Mr. Himes said he does not support the "premium support" proposed by Republicans like vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, which has been called a "voucher program" because it does not provide enough to cover health care costs for seniors and shifts costs onto them. Instead, he said there needs to be a bigger look at the inefficiency in the health care system, which leads to the country spending two times per person on health care what countries like England and Germany spend, and with "far worse results."
"That's inefficiency because we have a model that pays providers by the work they do," Mr. Himes said. "It would be like paying journalists by the word. People are paid for not doing good work but doing lots of work, and consumers don't have the incentive to shop around."
Mr. Himes has said he supports extending all the Bush-era tax cuts, not just the ones on the middle class as other Democrats have, while reducing the corporate tax rate. But with the need for spending growing, this does leave a question about whether needed revenues will be available. In response to this, Mr. Himes said that "like it or hate it, health care reform is paid for" so that is not an extra cost government will have to shoulder through additional spending. In fact, he said, repeal of health care, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, would expand the deficit by $100 billion.
Because of that, he believes these tax cuts can go through to stimulate the economy by improving the business climate. He said ending loopholes and deductions can help keep rates low while also allowing for the deficit to be addressed. This includes tax breaks on things like private jets and for oil companies, but also, Mr. Himes said, in more difficult areas like mortgage interest tax deductions.
"We have to target who pays more carefully," Mr. Himes said.
Energy and immigration
If elected to a new term, Mr. Himes said, he wants to see action on energy policy as well as immigration reform. He said it would be "difficult" in the hyper-partisan environment of Washington, D.C., but work has to be done. Mr. Himes pointed to his vote in favor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act that he said had a "very gentle cap-and-trade mechanism" in it, only to see Republicans block it despite cap and trade originating in the Republican administration of President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Himes also called for continued investment in and research into alternative energy and criticized the "flat out lies" put forth by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that all government-assisted energy companies are in financial trouble.
"There have been failures like Solyndra, but when government acts like a venture capitalist, it will have results, at best, like a venture capitalist, which means some businesses will not succeed," Mr. Himes said, adding that passing something like the American Clean Energy and Security Act would allow government to stop acting like venture capitalists because the real venture capitalists could do it.
Mr. Himes said he also wants to continue taking a "pragmatic approach" on natural gas because of America's vast resources and because it's cleaner than burning coal or oil. Mr. Himes said he shares the concerns about fracking, the controversial process of getting natural gas from under the ground, but believes it can be done safely now and should be done.
"It's not a happy thing to say," Mr. Himes said. "I'd much rather say, 'Wow, look at this. Overnight we can switch to sustainable clean energy.' But we're not there yet."
In doing some political tea-leaf reading of his own, Mr. Himes said he can easily foresee a successful re-election for President Barack Obama with Republicans retaining control of the House of Representatives. He said that would end up creating a "muddle" but he is hopeful it can also lead to some real bipartisan cooperation.
"I believe that President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner are institutionalists and of a mind to actually get something done," Mr. Himes said. "Remember, a lot of the tone for this Congress was set four years ago when the president was first elected and (Republican Sen.) Mitch McConnell said the No. 1 objective was to deny him a second term. My hope is that will not happen again and there will be a different flavor."