Democrats and Republicans have been exchanging volleys without much discernible progress in efforts to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” that looms at the end of the year.
But U.S. Rep. John Barrow, fresh off a convincing win to hold onto his seat despite the Republican-controlled Legislature’s redrawing of the 12th Congressional District earlier this year, is “cautiously optimistic” a deal will be forged sometime before the deadline.
If a deal isn’t struck in time, the Bush tax cuts will expire for everyone and deep, across-the-board spending cuts will take effect. The combined loss of income to taxpayers and loss of government contracts to private industry would likely plunge the fragile economic recovery back into a deep recession, many economists predict.
But Barrow, a Blue Dog Democrat with a reputation for crossing party lines on some votes, said the re-election of President Barack Obama eliminates a major obstacle to negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
The presidential campaign “made it impossible for folks in a divided government to cooperate because neither side wanted to give up an advantage going into the election, didn’t want the other side to look good,” Barrow said. “Now that that’s behind us, now that the voters have settled that issue at least, now we can focus on the other things that have been keeping us from getting together.”
Barrow predicted that whatever deal is struck to avoid the fiscal cliff will be a “down payment on a big deal that will take effect at the first of the year to postpone the effect of this” and that both sides would continue to come together in 2013 to forge a more comprehensive agreement.
Other big-ticket items Congress must deal with, he said, include reforming the federal tax code and reducing the national debt.
The tax code is experiencing “atherosclerosis,” Barrow said, because of a number of loopholes that have been added over the years. It needs to be cleaned up “not just to bring in the revenues that we need but provide the business community with the certainty that they need” for long-term planning.
“You don’t get any longer-term planning window to do right after you’ve overhauled the tax code because that’s when the process begins all over again,” he said. “You’ve unclogged all the arteries, turned the Roto Rooter on all the pipes and everything’s kind of flowing again.”
Barrow said truly comprehensive tax reform would lower the tax rates for everybody yet still bring needed revenues to allow the government to operate and reduce the debt because those loopholes would be closed – a page out of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission report released two years ago.
Reforming health care law
Barrow said Obama’s re-election also should settle the question of repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” because now it won’t be repealed. But Barrow, who voted against the president’s signature health-care law but also voted against its repeal, said he hopes that in the next congressional term, the law can be significantly changed.
Barrow objects to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, an unelected panel that determines what care will – and won’t – be reimbursed, as well as the employer mandate, which Barrow said will hurt small businesses that can’t afford to meet all the insurance requirements called for in the law.
He said there is broad bipartisan support to make the board truly advisory and not able to actually set policy.
“There are lots of things that need to be fixed about this thing,” Barrow said. “It really hadn’t been possible to do that while the two warring tribes were more focused on trying to oust the folks who had passed it.”
One part of the law that takes effect by 2014 is health insurance exchanges, which will allow individuals and small businesses to shop for health insurance. There will be a federal exchange, and states can set up their own. Gov. Nathan Deal recently announced that Georgia would not set up a state exchange, which he said would be “state-based in name only.”
Such an action, Barrow said, is a “missed opportunity on the part of the states, I think, to try to play a role in reforming the thing.”
The election that was
Barrow said his re-election last month gives him hope that a spirit of bipartisanship can prevail in Washington.
Even though Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in the 12th District as currently configured, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won this district decisively, Barrow defeated GOP challenger Lee Anderson by more than 19,000 votes.
Barrow said he was not surprised by that margin, despite many predictions that Republicans would finally wrest the seat away from him this year.
“Everywhere I went, I had people coming up to me telling me, ‘John, I haven’t voted for a Democrat in 20 years,’ or, ‘I haven’t voted for a Democrat since Zell Miller,’ or, ‘I usually vote Republican, but I’m voting for you because you listen to us and you’re doing what’s in our best interests,’” Barrow said. “You hear that everywhere you go, you’ve got to believe that something’s happening out there.
“And what I think it shows is that folks are genuinely interested in getting bipartisanship in Congress,” he continued. “They expect members to practice it. They see so few members of Congress who actually do practice it that when they’ve got one, they actually sit up and take notice.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.