Congressmen target fiscal problems, other priorities
The pressures to cut federal spending and resolve lingering issues from the last Congress overshadowed the priorities of northeast Pennsylvania delegates in their first few days in office.
Whether and how soon they can accomplish anything will depend a lot, as always, on timing, political circumstances, their own persistence, seniority and relationships in Congress and a variety of other factors still unknown.
Undoubtedly, anything they accomplish will hinge partly on what the newly sworn-in 113th Congress does to reign in federal deficits.
Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, vow to use a late February deadline to increase the nation's debt limit to produce spending cuts large enough to eventually balance the budget.
It has been Toomey's top priority since he took office in January 2011.
He wrote his own budget and served on a supercommittee of congressmen whose mission was to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by the end of 2011. They failed, and Congress negotiated a deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" that would have resulted this year if all Bush-era tax cuts were
allowed to expire and automatic spending cuts kicked in Jan. 1.
For now, income tax rates on all but the wealthiest Americans remain the same with spending cuts to be negotiated. The Social Security payroll tax went up two percentage points. But the government's 2012 fiscal year ended Sept. 30 with a $1.1 trillion deficit, the fourth year in a row of trillion-dollar-plus deficits.
"You know, we've got the most certain fiscal disaster in history looming," Toomey said. "It's not a question of whether that's going to happen, it's a question of when. No country has ever been able to rack up the kind of debt we're racking up and not have it end very, very badly."
Toomey made national news last week when he openly said Republicans should be willing to shut down the government.
"If we have to go through a disruptive, temporary, partial government shutdown, I hope we can avoid that, but I think the more important thing is to get on the right fiscal path," Toomey said in an interview Friday.
In his second term, Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, will join the Homeland Security Committee and target illegal immigration, expected to be a hot topic.
Barletta has long opposed finding a pathway to citizenship for more than 10 million illegal immigrants, a goal of many Democrats and interest groups. He hasn't changed his mind, but said he would be willing to examine that once the nation's borders are secure. One major issue to tackle is finding a way to track people who failed to leave when temporary visas expired.
"A third to a half who are in the country illegally didn't cross a border. Their visa expired and we just can't track them," Barletta said. "First things first. If you have a hole in the roof, you don't replace the carpet. You fix the hole in the roof."
Barletta, a transportation committee member, was unhappy Congress passed only an 18-month highway and transportation funding bill so he also plans to focus on developing a multi-year deal.
Barletta said transportation funding will have to shift away from gasoline taxes because conservation measures are reducing revenues. He favors considering tolling and taxes based on a driver's average annual mileage traveled. He also plans to work on tax reform and to reintroduce his bill to reduce the interest on federal loans for businesses struck by natural disasters.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-10, Lycoming Township, said tax reform and cutting federal spending are his top priorities in his second term. He has already spoken with Toomey about lowering overall rates while eliminating loopholes and deductions that cost the treasury money. He plans to introduce a flat-tax bill, though he hasn't settled on its nature, but favors keeping deductions for home mortgage interest, children and tuition.
"You've heard me say a million times, we don't have a taxing problem, we have a spending problem," he said.
Marino also said he will fight again for his bill to limit bills to one subject rather than continuing the practice of lumping unrelated measures together.
Other congressmen think he's crazy, he said.
"There may be 20 things in that package and I may agree with 10, not agree with 10 and then I have to weigh, which is going to be more beneficial to my district," he said.
He also plans to introduce legislation limiting members of the House and Senate to 12 years in office and to require floor votes on bills approved by a House committee.
Two years in office taught him that a major problem with Congress is entrenched congressmen who wield inordinate power to thwart floor votes on good bills, he said.
"I think we have to fix the inside here in Washington before we can fix the other problems," he said. "It's not rocket science, it's common sense."
Marino also said he will reintroduce his legislation to regulate animal fighting and allow independent pharmacies to band together to buy drugs to cut prices for consumers.
Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, said job growth will remain a top priority, including the reauthorization of funding to train workers for new jobs. So will coming up with a replacement for the No Child Left Behind school-reform law. That should include proper funding for early childhood education, a major component in economic growth, he said.
"This idea that you can create jobs because you have a good economic policy doesn't work too well over the long term. You've got to put in place strategies right now that will lead to job growth down the road," he said.
He also plans to help tackle deficits, but hopes members on both sides of the aisle avoid "line-in-the-sand kinds of statements" that automatically reject one solution or another.
He seemed to question Toomey's push for using the upcoming debt-ceiling debate to force spending cuts.
"I think it's a great opportunity to talk about how to reduce spending, how to make sure we're putting ourselves on a sustainable fiscal path," Casey said. "But I think it's the wrong approach to start conditioning what's going to happen. We've got to make sure that people are working together. The last thing we need is a partisan fight."
As a new member of the Senate Finance Committee, Toomey said he will also focus on reforming Social Security and Medicare, closing tax loopholes and reducing deductions to offset cuts in federal tax rates.
Toomey said he's flexible about the deductions and loopholes, though a cap on deductions seems like a good idea.
"I think the principle is what's important - broadening the base of the sources of income and the nature of income that gets taxed and using that broader base to lower marginal rates," he said.