Blog: Honoring Our Obligations

After a tumultuous debate, the Congress recently passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, ending a standoff that almost resulted in the United States defaulting on its debt obligation for the first time in history.

Like so many West Virginians who contacted me during the weeks preceding passage of the Act, I was frustrated and angered by those shamefully bent on using the debt ceiling increase for political purposes. These individuals were dangling a calamitous fiscal default over the heads of all Americans. Their actions threatened the delivery of Social Security checks and other essential government services for seniors and veterans and millions of other Americans.

Most Members knew that, at the end of the day, there was no realistic and responsible alternative other than to increase the debt limit. We knew that we must honor our debt obligations. Yet, the agreement the majority of Members sought was entangled in the ideology of a few and the image of all Members of Congress was tarnished by the reckless tactics of the few. Sadly, the debt debate has tarnished the image of our entire political system.

The reality of the deficit problem is that it does not have to be resolved in one fell swoop, and likely it cannot be resolved so swiftly. It will take a dedicated effort over a period of time. It will take the patience of the American people and a commitment to keep moving forward. We cannot risk taking a wrong step due some manufactured political pressure to strike quickly. Such a mindless approach could cause the economy to tumble into another financial crisis.

Therefore, recognizing that painful cuts are necessary to help put our Nation on the path toward balancing the budget, I supported, along with the rest of the West Virginia Congressional Delegation, the Budget Control Act. The measure is projected to eliminate nearly $1 trillion in spending from the federal budget, while putting into place a legislative mechanism intended to achieve an additional $1.5 trillion in savings.

Though I thought the measure was flawed in many respects, I knew that it was also necessary in order to avoid a catastrophic default. It may well not have been a very popular thing to do, but leaders cannot necessarily pick and choose the popular things always. Sometimes, leaders must defer doing the popular thing and take a stand.

The Budget Control Act would create a two-step process for raising the statutory debt ceiling: allowing a $900 billion increase in the statutory debt ceiling by cutting roughly $900 billion from discretionary programs. It would then allow a second debt increase to occur after a proposed Joint Congressional Committee recommends, and the Congress adopts, at least $1.2 trillion in additional savings before the end of the year.

There is no getting around the fact that these spending cuts will be painful. They will likely force damaging reductions in transportation and infrastructure improvements, research and development, education, and workforce training programs that are vital to long-term economic growth. In West Virginia, we know very well how important safer roads and modern water systems are to attracting and growing businesses. Cuts in road and highway construction and in water and sewer infrastructure are cuts in jobs. Such cuts in government spending also mean cuts in contracts for private-sector businesses, and job layoffs

But the budget cannot be balanced by relying solely on spending cuts. The numbers simply do not add up. We must ensure that everybody, including the wealthiest of Americans, pay their fair share in taxes. We must close the tax loopholes for the wealthy multinational conglomerates and corporate America.

Social Security and Medicare also have their long-term fiscal challenges that must be addressed. It is grossly unfair, however, to ask seniors on fixed incomes to endure benefit cuts in order to preserve tax breaks for millionaires and multinational corporations. Given that Social Security, which has been producing surpluses since the 1980s, is not contributing to the budget shortfall in the near-term, I have consistently and successfully argued for keeping it off the bargaining table.

From this point forward, we must recognize that a real solution to our budgetary challenges will take long-term dedication, cool heads, and a thoughtful, respectful, well-reasoned, and, above all, balanced approach. Otherwise, we risk more of what we have just witnessed -- brinksmanship on the edge of fiscal crisis.