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March 5, 2013

American Politics: Caught In A Sinkhole?

Steve Gottlieb

With the recent tragedy in Florida, sinkholes are once again in the news. In hearing about this phenomenon that seems to open up the earth and swallow what’s in the immediate vicinity, is it possible to apply this same scenario to politics in the United States?


If we set about exploring this hypothesis, it quickly becomes evident there is little area of agreement between the main political parties at both the national and state (Maryland) levels of government. Main issues today are focused on sequestration, the debt ceiling, unemployment, medical care, and individual constitutional rights under the first and second amendment. That is quite a laundry list of issues, and those are the ones making headlines. There are plenty of other issues, but for the sake of this column we will use sequestration as the example.


So, let’s dive in and start this discussion with a couple of ideas that we agree to accept as a universal given. First, the role of government is to legally – within constitutional confines – conduct business for the betterment of the population under its jurisdiction. Government is there to serve the people, and the people want government officials to work together to find solutions that are realistic, attainable and fair. The people do not expect their government officials to be so entrapped by their political party apparatus that it becomes impossible to work together and find common ground.


Sequestration is the latest buzzword and was the predominant headline grabber in the news for the past week or more. The atmospherics put simply are Republicans want to cut spending with no tax increases; Democrats claim to want to cut spending and implement tax increases on the very wealthy.


Both sides of the issue point their fingers at each other and say neither is bargaining in good faith. So, to force the issue everyone agreed to the idea of across-the-board cuts that would have a huge impact on defense thinking it would force everyone to come to an agreement to avoid draconian measures. As we now know, that idea didn’t work and sequestration kicked in.


What really happened? Truthfully it is not really a simple answer. After the last debt ceiling debacle, Democrats actually did get a tax increase which affects most taxpaying Americans. These are more centered on payroll taxes and not necessarily on income taxes.


Based on those increases, Republicans said until there are cuts in spending, which in their opinion there haven’t been any, further tax increases are off the table. This is not what the president and Democrat leaders wanted to hear as to play to their base; they needed to increase income taxes on the wealthy. In thinking Republicans would cave in (they have before), Democrats never negotiated solutions in good faith. No one blinked and, in spite of the president’s scare tactics, no agreement was reached and sequestration kicked in.


The past few months, as we moved closer to sequestration, we heard a lot of doomsday tactics as to what this would mean for the country. Yet neither party was willing to budge from their philosophic foundation to find a solution to the problem.


To put this problem into some type of perspective, it is imperative to understand that the $85 billion in cuts arbitrarily imposed on the government amounts to about two cents on the dollar when compared with the entire budget. That really is not a lot of money and cutting two cents on the dollar should not be that difficult for a competent administration. Ordinary Americans make these choices in their personal finances every day.


However, the American people are told that federal workers are going to have their payrolls cut by upwards of 20%, and teachers, firefighters and police officers will be furloughed. These numbers do not add up. A competent administration would prioritize where cuts can be made. In fact Senate Republicans were willing to offer a bill giving the president complete discretion as to where cuts can be made. Senate Democrats turned that down as they appear to be genetically unable to make spending cuts, or just don’t want to accept responsibility for actually governing.


Partisan political commentary aside, the interesting – if not disturbing – part of this whole equation was that while both parties had their feet firmly cemented in their philosophical base they were unable to take their political blinders off and look for other solutions to this impasse.


To be fair, both parties are equally to blame as our country appears to be more polarized now than ever before in our recent history. Were there other options to sequestration? Were there other options to only spending cuts? Were there other options to only tax increases? We won’t know in the near future as neither side is willing to entertain any other possibilities.


If one is willing to open their eyes and really study the financial situation in America, there is no denying our country has a spending problem. Increasing revenue on only a small percentage of very successful people, while excusing others from paying any income tax, will not make up for the spending orgy upon which we are embarked.


There is, however, an “outside the box thinking” solution to this problem. It is called the Fair Tax, but neither party is willing to discuss or entertain its implementation. This is but one example of getting away from each party’s philosophical base and looking at other options to our budget problem.


The purpose here is not to offer a concrete solution to our budget problem in 1000 words or less. It is to ask you to consider whether or not the inability of our current political parties to collegially conduct business for the betterment of our country puts us in the middle of a political sinkhole. If it does, will it be fatal like the one in Florida, or can we rescue ourselves?


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