By Senator Johnny Isakson
Now that the election has been decided, we face a critically important deadline in a matter of a few weeks.
If Congress and President Barack Obama fail to address the "fiscal cliff" by Dec. 31, tax rates will increase to 15 percent on the bottom end and 39.6 percent on the top end. The capital gains tax rate will rise from 15 percent to 20 percent; the estate tax will increase to 55 percent; the dividend tax rate will increase to the marginal rate of the taxpayer; and the child tax and earned income credits will expire.
Additionally, the Budget Control Act's sequester will go into effect and will trigger across-the-board cuts, including $55 billion to $65 billion in cuts to defense spending alone.
We are in a dangerous position if we don't act now. In September 2008, we faced another kind of fiscal cliff and Congress failed to act quickly. Five years later, we are still recovering from the drop in the markets because of our slow response back then. If we don't address the current fiscal cliff in this lame-duck session of Congress, we will put the nation in the same precarious position.
Sitting down at the table to find common ground is the first step. We all agree that we must address this by tackling three things: spending, revenue and so-called entitlements.
In terms of spending, we should cut discretionary spending, but that alone will not solve our debt and deficit problem. Congress should return to a responsible budget and appropriations process focused on savings and accountability. As for defense spending, the consensus is that arbitrary cuts would be devastating to our defense. Instead, we should cut spending through a responsible, strategic approach.
When it comes to Medicare and Social Security, I don't consider these programs to be "entitlements" because Americans have paid into them their entire working lives. That's why we must take steps to preserve these programs for those who have paid into the system and for future generations as well. I propose extending the age of eligibility for Social Security for our children and grandchildren, just as President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill did in 1983. Medicare is a tougher issue, but converting from a fee-for-service program to premium support and means-testing is a first step.
As for the tax code, it would not be difficult to come up with a plan that lowers rates and raises revenues. For example, a possible solution could be means-tested deductions.
Jumping off the fiscal cliff is not an option. I'm ready to sit down at the table with anyone who is willing to find solutions. Georgians sent me to Washington expecting no less. We need a game plan for the next decade to reduce our deficits and reduce our debt. When we do, we'll return to the greatness America has always known.
At a time when the world faces many competing crises, Sudan and South Sudan took a little noticed step last month, back from the brink of economic collapse and renewed conflict and toward security and prosperity. Both of these nations are fragile, and they will remain that way until they reach an understanding that allows them to live separately but work together. Last month's agreement in Addis Ababa offers a roadmap for a different future, but its outcome will depend on the willingness of both sides to transform a paper agreement into a lasting accord.
The stakes are enormous. If this agreement is implemented, it could re-start the flow of oil, stabilize volatile border regions, initiate transitional security and financial arrangements, and lead to a process to resolve boundary disputes. Sudan and South Sudan have an opportunity to make real progress on the path to peace. They must not go backwards now.
Ultimately, a stable, peaceful and economically viable Sudan is essential for a stable, peaceful and prosperous South Sudan -- and both are in America's interests. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki deserves credit for encouraging leaders on both sides to make the necessary compromises for peace. But we have work to do together and responsibilities to exercise to get there.
The announcement of this new agreement was greeted with skepticism in many quarters. Fair enough: the history of Sudan is littered with the paper of potential breakthroughs that were never fulfilled. We are not naïve: this agreement could meet the same fate. We will be the first to admit that it was not a perfect deal--no compromise ever is. But as we saw with last year's referendum and the South's peaceful separation, real progress is possible when both sides are committed to peace and necessary compromise.
The challenge now is for the two parties to translate this agreement into action and work constructively to resolve the outstanding issues. Forces from the demilitarized border zone must be withdrawn and monitors to the joint mission must be deployed promptly to patrol this area. Oil fields and pipelines need to be rehabilitated. Cross-border corridors should be opened. And communities on both sides need to realize the concrete economic benefits that come with greater security.
Just as important as implementing what's in the agreement is addressing what is not. The status of the territory of Abyei must be resolved. We hope that the African Union Peace and Security Council will act on the referendum approach that President Mbeki proposed in Addis. For years, Abyei has been synonymous with conflict and contestation, but it does not have to be.
Within Sudan, conflict continues in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Sudan's instability has significant implications for the entire region. Khartoum will never know peace until it comes to terms with the diversity of its so-called periphery. That includes Darfur, where fighting again rages. And while a political settlement and national dialogue are essential, the need for humanitarian access is even more urgent. People are starving in the Nuba Mountains. Hungry children cannot wait. South Sudan, too, faces its own challenges of governance and development.
The people of Sudan and South Sudan must own their future, but the United States can play a role in supporting them on the road to peace. Just as we helped navigate the complex currents that led to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and last year's historic referendum, we can nurture this process through diplomatic engagement and continued humanitarian assistance. The United States remains committed to the cause of peace between and within both Sudans, but make no mistake: the choices necessary to move forward lie with the leaders in Khartoum and Juba.
War has taken a heavy toll on this region. Sudan and South Sudan now have an opportunity to create a better, more peaceful and more prosperous future for their people. If this agreement is implemented, it will go down in history as a major milestone toward reconciliation and economic development. But if it is allowed to blow away in the winds of the coming dry season -- which is traditionally "fighting season" in Sudan -- then a real opportunity for regional stability will have been wasted.
The innocent people of this region have borne the horrific cost of war. Now it is time for them to experience the benefits of peace.