Last fall, I had the opportunity to meet Rep. Jim Cooper (D, TN-5) at a small community gathering in East Nashville. The gathering was an outdoor get-together in a new commercial redevelopment of some old commercial property in Inglewood, a quaint residential community set on the Cumberland River.
Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat and a self-described "nerd" who is a recognized expert on healthcare economics, has warned about deficits and PAYGO and budget crises since time immemorial. He serves on the House Armed Services and Budget committees. So, with record deficits and Republicans pushing for tax and spending cuts, I asked a simple question:
Do you think we have a spending problem or a revenue problem?
Both. But until we show we can control spending, we can't be trusted on the revenue side.
Cooper's answer has been echoing around in my head ever since. Especially during recent talks about tax cuts for millionaires, I've been thinking, Why in the world would anyone support a proposal like this? I mean, unless you're afraid of wealthy interest groups trying to Swift Boat you into oblivion, it would seem that during a time of war the last thing to do would be to continue the failed Bush tax cuts. Nevertheless, Cooper seems poised to support an extension of all the Bush cuts and signed onto a letter in September where he opposed a House vote on the Obama-Pelosi tax cuts for income up to $250,000.
So, let's take Cooper at his word. Curbing spending needs to be our top priority, so we can rebuild trust (as Democrats in leadership) that we are the party of fiscal responsibility. If that's the case, then wouldn't it make sense to support Seneca Doane's proposal?
Pay for the war or end it.
Cooper himself was highly critical of President Bush and his handling of the budget:
Bush may be a strong leader in the war on terrorism, but on budget deficits he is missing-in-action.
He has criticized the windfall profits for Big Pharma in the Medicare Part D bill, which limits the ability of the government to negotiate prices for Medicare prescription drug benefits. Cooper has been critical not only of the Medicare Part D plan but also of the arm-twisting and extended House vote which led to its narrow passage in 2003.
So, while Cooper has rightly criticized the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans for their spendthrift ways, he has been muted in his criticism of tax cuts that don't stimulate the economy or create jobs. Perhaps Cooper shares the views of many fiscal hawks that by using a "starve the beast" strategy, the Federal Government will be forced to make difficult budget decisions and finally rein in the excesses and waste that have plagued Washington for 30 years. Perhaps Cooper feels pressure to appease angry constituents who believe that the higher tax rates paid by the wealthy lead the higher tax brackets to a sense of entitlement over how government spends the people's money.
Whatever the case, Cooper shares President Obama's commitment to simplify the tax code, eliminate loopholes, and rewrite tax law. Last month, he was quoted in a story by AP where he echoed the term "adult conversation" used by many on the right, and said, "It's 'put up or shut up' time."
President Obama has been clear about his plans to "call the Republicans' bluff" on taxes and spending, and it appears that the tax cut proposal is Obama's next gambit in a plan to stimulate the economy and force the GOP's hand on deficit control and spending cuts. Cooper was an early supporter of the President and has been a loyal Obama Democrat since 2008. As Republicans prepare to take over the House, Cooper's knowledge of the budget and his opposition to wasteful spending could make him an unlikely hero or a pariah within the House Democratic caucus.
Get your popcorn.