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Rep. Andy Harris Defends Debt ‘No’ Vote; Social Security to be Part of “Larger Discussion” on Budget

August 15, 2011
By Nancy Schwerzler

(Second of two articles)
GALENA— The gray-haired man at the lunch counter in Twinny’s restaurant in Galena wore a tee shirt, decorated with a flag and an eagle, that declared, “Proud to be an American.” 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 he’d be willing to “close corporate tax loopholes” and “simplify” the tax system. Harris added that he has supported proposals for a “flat tax”—in which most taxpayers would pay the same flat income tax rate regardless of income level but most tax deductions would be ended—or a “fair tax” that would end income taxes but impose a 23 percent national sales tax.

The latter proposal drew fire in last year’s general election from Harris’ Democratic opponent, incumbent Rep. Frank Kratovil, who ran campaign ads saying, “We can’t afford Andy Harris’ idea.” 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 “no” 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 George’s County—a 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 “supercommittee” 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.

“People are rightfully angry at the way this was handled in Washington this year,” Harris told Cecil Times in an exclusive interview.

Harris said the White House “played up” the prospect of default for political and bargaining gain but in fact, “we knew it would never occur.”

The “vast majority” of members of Congress, regardless of political party, would not have allowed a default, he said. “I would have voted for a short-term extension” of the debt limit to avert default while negotiations continued on a broader budget deal, Harris said, “and I’m a pretty fiscally conservative guy.” President Obama resisted a short term extension in order to force a resolution amid increasing uneasiness in the financial markets.

“I knew default was not going to occur and the Social Security checks were going to be paid,” Harris said. But he acknowledged hearing from many constituents who were afraid, especially seniors concerned about their Social Security and Medicare coverage. “But that fear was used to section off entire parts of the budget from the conversation,” 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 “of necessity, now it [Social Security] has to be part of that larger discussion.”

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. “The biggest issue in the district is fiscal uncertainty,” 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/ ]

“I understand their fears,” 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 “boost local economies” 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 Patriots—the local ‘tea party’ organization—showed up at the Hack’s 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 protesters—including the Democratic mayor of Salisbury—staged a protest at the congressman’s office against his fiscal policies. A handful of protesters, and an organizer from the national Democratic group moveon.org, held handmade signs, such as “jobs, not balanced budget amendment.” [See: http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20110811/NEWS01/108110376

A few days earlier, a handful of local Democrats waved signs outside Harris’ Kent Island office, including the message “stop default insanity.”

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.

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One Response to Rep. Andy Harris Defends Debt ‘No’ Vote; Social Security to be Part of “Larger Discussion” on Budget

  1. Michael Porter on August 27, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Why not consider defense spending, corporate taxes, and income taxes on high income earners? Why not consider the wage limit for SS contributions? No, instead Andy wants to hit the elderly and pretty much anyone who can be conned into believing his little fantasy world of how the economy works. Sigh. Flat income tax? Flat sales tax of 25%? Andy, why not get rid of your taxpayer paid for health care? If I recall, you were the first to whine when it didn’t kick in soon enough.

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