Rep. Andy Harris Defends Debt ‘No’ Vote; Social Security to be Part of “Larger Discussion” on Budget
(Second of two articles)
GALENAâ The gray-haired man at the lunch counter in Twinnyâs restaurant in Galena wore a tee shirt, decorated with a flag and an eagle, that declared, âProud to be an American.â Shaking hands with Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) last week, this constituent was pleased with the job his congressman is doing in Washington but he had concerns about the fairness of the tax code.
Harris reassured the man that heâd be willing to âclose corporate tax loopholesâ and âsimplifyâ the tax system. Harris added that he has supported proposals for a âflat taxââin which most taxpayers would pay the same flat income tax rate regardless of income level but most tax deductions would be endedâor a âfair taxâ that would end income taxes but impose a 23 percent national sales tax.
The latter proposal drew fire in last yearâs general election from Harrisâ Democratic opponent, incumbent Rep. Frank Kratovil, who ran campaign ads saying, âWe canât afford Andy Harrisâ idea.â Both proposals have been suggested by various groups and candidates for decades but have had no traction in Congress.
Harris handily defeated Kratovil last November and since taking his seat in the House this year, he has carved out his fiscal niche as an anti-tax, spending-cutting conservative. He resisted legislation put forward by his own party leadership, in a compromise with the Democratic White House, earlier this month to raise the national debt ceiling because it was not firmly linked to adoption of a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
In the strange bedfellows of that vote, Harris ended up on the same ânoâ side as three liberal Democrats in the Maryland delegation– Rep. John Sarbanes, of Baltimore County, Elijah Cummings, of Baltimore city, and Donna Edwards, of Prince Georgeâs Countyâa feat not likely to be seen again on any other issue.
The Democrats felt the White House and gone too far to accommodate Republicans by not including revenue increases and worried that potential automatic spending cuts to be devised by a âsupercommitteeâ set up by the compromise plan could harm Maryland.
Nevertheless, the eventual compromise was passed on a bipartisan vote but not before financial markets, senior citizens and members of the military were treated to months of worry over the economic and personal fallout from a potential default of the US government on its bonds and financial obligations. It was to some extent a grand game of chicken, with each side going to the brink before an inevitable compromise was reached.
âPeople are rightfully angry at the way this was handled in Washington this year,â Harris told Cecil Times in an exclusive interview.
Harris said the White House âplayed upâ the prospect of default for political and bargaining gain but in fact, âwe knew it would never occur.â
The âvast majorityâ of members of Congress, regardless of political party, would not have allowed a default, he said. âI would have voted for a short-term extensionâ of the debt limit to avert default while negotiations continued on a broader budget deal, Harris said, âand Iâm a pretty fiscally conservative guy.â President Obama resisted a short term extension in order to force a resolution amid increasing uneasiness in the financial markets.
âI knew default was not going to occur and the Social Security checks were going to be paid,â Harris said. But he acknowledged hearing from many constituents who were afraid, especially seniors concerned about their Social Security and Medicare coverage. âBut that fear was used to section off entire parts of the budget from the conversation,â he said.
In the past, serious discussions of reforms of Social Security and Medicare were done in a less volatile environment, without the hot button linkage to the deficit, such as Social Security reforms enacted in the 1980s under the leadership of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and bipartisan panels focused on saving the fiscal solvency of the program.
Harris agreed that it would be preferable to take that approach but he said the fiscal realities had changed and âof necessity, now it [Social Security] has to be part of that larger discussion.â
Harris has been traveling throughout the Eastern Shore during the current congressional recess, meeting with local citizens, business owners and watermen to hear their concerns. âThe biggest issue in the district is fiscal uncertainty,â Harris said, and senior citizens in particular are worried. The Shore has a rising proportion of older residents, according to the most recent census, including both long-time residents and people retiring to the Shore.
During telechats with constituents shortly before the debt limit crisis was averted, there was a palpable fear in the voices of some callers to Harris, especially from older people. [See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/06/debt-ceiling-fight-worries-rep-andy-harris-constituents/ ]
âI understand their fears,â Harris said. But Congress needs to take longer-term steps to get federal spending under control to avert further economic crises.
Harris said it is critical to âboost local economiesâ in Shore towns and counties to provide greater fiscal stability and services to seniors, such as locally-provided transportation and community centers.
During his visit to Cecil County last week, one senior citizen, who identified herself as a member of the Cecil County Patriotsâthe local âtea partyâ organizationâshowed up at the Hackâs Point marina in Earleville to have a private conversation with the congressman about fiscal issues.
But the same day, things were a bit noisier in Salisbury, where a group of protestersâincluding the Democratic mayor of Salisburyâstaged a protest at the congressmanâs office against his fiscal policies. A handful of protesters, and an organizer from the national Democratic group moveon.org, held handmade signs, such as âjobs, not balanced budget amendment.â [See: http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20110811/NEWS01/108110376
A few days earlier, a handful of local Democrats waved signs outside Harrisâ Kent Island office, including the message âstop default insanity.â
Harris is continuing his whirlwind tour of the First District, with busy daily schedules of events and meetings with constituents this month. He is already well-positioned for his re-election campaign, with over $414,640 cash on hand in his campaign finance account, according to Federal Election Commission records.