In 2006, Democrats took the majority position in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But since then, the Democratic leadership has not had much success pushing their agenda through Congress.
U.S. Rep John Barrow (D-Savannah), who represents the 12th District, discussed the situation in a 2007 interview, just before the new year.
“Well, there’s a difference between custody and control. The leadership in both houses may have custody of the place, but they don’t have working control,” he said. “The rules in the two houses of Congress make that a very different challenge in each, particularly in the Senate where you have to have a 60-vote majority in order to bring anything up for a vote.”
He said many folks do not realize that while a 51-vote majority can organize the Senate and elect its leaders, a 60-vote majority is necessary in order to bring votes to the floor. This has caused a lot of the division in Congress.
“Not to mention the divisions between Congress and the White House,” Barrow said.
Though it seems as though no one in Congress is able to cross the aisle and work with the other side, Barrow disagrees. He cites passing the budget with a 17 percent increase for veteran’s care, putting more money into Pell grants, cutting the cost of student loans, and getting the recent Farm Bill passed as examples of bipartisan success.
“Something as big and complex as the farm bill with all the targets it’s got from folks who don’t understand agriculture policy — for it to have gotten out of the Senate is a major accomplishment,” Barrow said.
Barrow is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a formally organized group of 47 fiscally conservative Democrats, which also includes fellow Georgians Jim Marshall of Macon, and Sanford Bishop of Albany. Barrow said the group has kept the fringes from both parties in the House from exerting control.
“I’ll agree that the extremes on either side aren’t doing a very good job getting their agenda passed — maybe that’s a good thing,” Barrow said. “The Blue Dogs are trying to keep it in the middle. You should see the stuff that’s not passing in the House.”
Barrow explained how such a small group (47 out of 435) could exert such influence.
“There are 47 of us. If you do your arithmetic, you find that with a 232 majority, the Blue Dogs hold more than the balance of power on the floor,” he said. “We don’t hold the balance of power in the Caucus — we can’t elect whoever we want as speaker. But once you get to the floor and (a bill) needs a majority of the whole house (in order to pass), that’s where our influence is most keenly felt. Our leadership doesn’t agree with us on everything, but they have to respect us because they can’t pass anything without us.”
“In this Congress, being a minority in the majority is the most influential place to be.”
Another topic of discussion was the Alternative Minimum Tax, a tax slated to affect millions of filers in 2008.
Originally targeting less than 200 ultra-high income taxpayers who were paying no income tax when it was passed in the 1970s, the tax could apply to as many as 23 million people this year because Congress never indexed the tax for inflation.
Recently, one of Barrow’s opponents for his congressional seat, John Stone, circulated an email criticizing Barrow’s vote against the Senate’s version of the AMT patch, which would prevent many of those 23 million Americans from facing the AMT tax.
“The House has been pushing the Blue Dog program that we pay for the tax relief that we’re providing,” Barrow said. “In the past, Congress passed a patch but didn’t pay for it. Essentially, they gave tax relief to today’s taxpayers at the expense of tomorrow’s taxpayers. Basically they were borrowing money from Chinese and Japanese banks to balance that part of the budget that’s created by providing this tax relief. Nobody felt the pain because the tax never hit.”
“We’re paying long-term debt to provide temporary tax relief, and the worse of it is that our kids will pay not only the principal, but also the interest. A $50 billion one-year tax break, which is what we’re talking about here, can cost over $90 billion to pay off over the next 30 years. Now that’s a tax increase anyway you slice it.”
With a clarity not often seen in Washington, Barrow explained how taxes are levied as a result of government spending.
“Spending decides how much taxes you pay. Everything you spend is paid for with taxes, either today or tomorrow,” said Barrow. “The idea that you can spend without raising taxes is something that the last few Congresses discovered — much to their surprise — that they could get away with, because the people who will pay the bills will come along after them.”
“The Blue Dogs are leading the charge to change that. The PAYGO rules are one of our proudest accomplishments in this Congress.”
According to ombwatch.com, the purpose of a PAYGO rule is to ensure that neither mandatory spending nor tax legislation increases the deficit. While PAYGO does not prohibit mandatory spending or tax cuts, it does ensure that these costs are paid for.
While trying to apply these PAYGO rules, the House twice passed an AMT patch that was fully paid for. According to Barrow, the first time was with a proposal closing the loophole allowing hedge fund managers to make money in the U.S., but park the funds in Cayman Island corporations in order to lower their income for U.S. income tax purposes. The second time, the AMT patch was funded with a series of items that closed various loopholes and raised the penalty on people who were knowingly filing their taxes late. Neither measure passed the Senate.
“The White House and the President’s colleagues in the Senate refused to accept any AMT patch that was going to be paid for. They had their way on this because the House was not willing to hold 23 million families hostage,” Barrow said. “They weren’t willing to pay for their tax cuts while they were in power and they are not willing to pay for their tax cuts while they’re out of power. They have just enough power to block those of us that are trying to do the fiscally responsible thing.”
When discussing the Iraq War, Barrow agreed the war has been largely funded by borrowing and will ultimately be paid for by the country’s children and grandchildren. He said he’s not sure whether the results of the upcoming presidential election will make the situation better or worse.
“All I know is, we have an obligation in Congress to support the men in the field. We put them there, we’ve got to support them,” he said. “If we can’t do it with the money we have on hand, we’ve got to go out and borrow the money necessary to support them. My feeling is that we don’t have any choice in that matter once we’ve put our men and women in the field.
“This is not just a matter of making sure we’re getting a bang for our buck, but trying to make sure the men and women in the field are not suffering from profiteering, from people who are gouging the government or taking advantage of the open checkbook that this administration has chosen to resort to in order to pay for this war.
“We’re trying to make sure that the taxpayers are getting what they paid for and that the troops are getting what they need. Any waste in what the taxpayers are paying for is that much less the troops receive.”