September 5, 2011

Since I was named to the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “supercommittee”) charged with getting our nation’s financial house in order, the reactions I have received from South Carolinians and others have been encouraging and remarkably enthusiastic. So much so that I have, on occasion, found it necessary to reflect on having grown up in a parsonage as a minister’s son, and cautioned that my 11 colleagues and I are not the “chosen 12.”

I am entering the committee’s negotiations with a clear vision, an open mind and a willingness to find common ground. I have always said that if the distance between my opponents and me is five steps, I don’t mind taking three. Real deficit reduction, however, must have three components: jobs, cuts and revenue.

Jobs: During the August recess I held a town hall meeting on the campus of Voorhees College, in Bamberg County, S.C. Bamberg has an unemployment rate of 17.5 percent. The neighboring counties of Barnwell, Orangeburg and Allendale have, respectively, unemployment rates of 17 percent, 17.7 percent and 19.8 percent. People didn’t want to hear about cuts or revenue; they wanted to hear about jobs. We cannot get the economy back on track until we put people back to work. Job creation will generate tax revenue and reduce the need for government assistance.

Cuts: Targeting waste, fraud and abuse; eliminating unnecessary and duplicative spending; and ending military adventurism need not be accompanied by slashing essential services such as education and shredding our social safety nets — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Just last week, the Commis sion on Wartime Contracting identified at least $31 billion, and possibly $60 billion, in waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. This spring the Government Accountability Office identified 34 areas where federal agencies or offices offer overlapping and duplicative programs.Streamlining could save billions.

Revenue: While I think our current tax code is unfair and in need of massive overhaul, the supercommittee does not have the time or resources to sufficiently reform the tax code. But we do have time to reduce inequities, close loopholes, and eliminate outdated and unnecessary tax subsidies. The evidence is clear and convincing. There is a growing wealth gap in this country that is squeezing the middle class and pushing millions into poverty. We need to work together to address these urgent priorities.

This leads me back to my youthful days in the parsonage. I am the oldest of three boys. One day my brothers and I were having a disagreement that turned physical. Our minister father, who loved to teach through parables, called us over when he thought our altercation had gone on long enough. He gave a piece of cord string to my youngest brother, Charles, and asked him to break it. Charles couldn’t. He then gave it to my brother John and asked him to pop it. John couldn’t. Finally he gave it to me and told me to break the string. I couldn’t. Our father placed that piece of cord string between his palms and started rubbing his hands together. The more he rubbed, the more friction he created, and the cord string started to unravel — into three pieces. He gave one to each of us and told us to break them. This time when we tried, we succeeded. Then, dad gave us the lesson: “Don’t you let the little disagreements that crop up among you create so much friction that it separates you, because if you do, the world will pop you apart and you may never realize why.”

We, as a supercommittee, cannot let our differences cause too much disagreement. Debt and deficit reduction should be wrapped into a strong cord of job creation, budget cuts and revenue raisers. Pursuing them separately will weaken our efforts and could doom our mission.

The writer, a U.S. representative from South Carolina, is assistant Democratic leader in the House.