The Democratic Congressional Agenda
Seven-term Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the central battleground for the fight over the $792 billion Republican tax plan. Despite President Clinton's threats to veto the bill, both sides will likely go back to the negotiation table after the August recess to work out the details of how to spend the budget surplus.
Cardin, whose district encompasses most of Baltimore, answered questions about the tax plan and the Democratic congressional agenda on Aug. 23. The transcript follows:
washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Rep. Cardin, and welcome. Can you tell us a little bit about what congressional Democrats will be looking to focus on when the August recess is over? Do you think there will be much talk about anything but the budget and the GOP-sponsored tax plan?
Rep. Ben Cardin: The key will be the economic program. We don't have a budget yet. The budget that the Republicans are operating under will be vetoed by the president. First and foremost we need to get an agreement between the White House and Congress on how to spend the surplus how much for tax cuts, how much for Social Security, how much for Medicare and how much for government spending.
And until we get that doe, we're really wasting a lot of time. We're very close to the Oct. 1 beginning of the fiscal year, and we always run the risk of getting things done on a very short deadline.
Warrenton, Va.: I agree that paying down the debt will help ensure/stabilize Social Security and Medicare. But frankly I don't trust Democrats when it comes to taxes or the budget. My fear is you will simply spend it on bigger government. What say you?
Rep. Ben Cardin: I think we're very clear that our top priority is paying down the debt. I say this because it gives us the best chance of meeting our commitments for Social Security and Medicare. We are not talking about expanding programs; we are talking about meeting our obligations in the future by paying down our debt today.
I think we're bolstered in this by the fact that Alan Greenspan, who is not known to be a liberal Democrat, believes that our program gives us the best chance to pay down the debt and preserve economic growth.
West McLean, Va.: What is the current national debt? Several years ago, I believe it was near $5 trillion.
Rep. Ben Cardin: The current debt is close to $6 trillion between $5 and $6 trillion. It will continue to grow. But the amount held by the public will start to decline. The reason why the publicly held debt declines but the overall debt increases is that we borrow money from the Social Security trust fund.
Washington, D.C.: What's been happening in your district with drought relief?
Rep. Ben Cardin: The drought is very serious, and it has not only affected farmers and crops, but also businesses because of the mandatory restrictions. A lot of jobs have been affected by it. It could create some health problems because of the impact it's having on our environment.
Our first effort has been conservation. And it seems to have worked. Not that we've solved the problem, but the efforts on conservation seem to have dramatically reduced the amounts of water shortage.
Martinsville, Ind.: I am retired from the federal government. I just wonder why there is never hardly anything mentioned in the federal budget about retirees. It doesn't state what kind of raises have been proposed if any and why are the raises always a lot less than federal workers.
Thank u very much
Rep. Ben Cardin: We do try to maintain equity between all retirees, including federal retirees and Social Security recipients. There have been times when that has not been true, but this year we're really trying to maintain parity. And this year's budget hopefully will do that.
Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Cardin: What percentage of the total projected budget surplus would you like to devote to paying off the national debt?
Rep. Ben Cardin: That's a very good question. What I would like to see us do is to take 100 percent of the Social Security-generated surplus and use it for Social Security that's about $2 trillion over the next 10 years. We want 100 percent of that to go to Social Security.
With the on-budget surplus, which is generated outside of Social Security, we project about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. I would like to see half of that about $500 billion, used for deficit reduction. I would like to see 25 percent of it used for tax relief. And I would like to see the other 25 percent used for Medicare and other priorities.
McLean, Va.: What is the status of this year's appropriation bills? Will there be a government shutdown? Didn't Denny Hastert promise to have all appropriation bills ready on time this year?
Rep. Ben Cardin: I think we may have passed through the House and Senate one or two appropriations bills of the total of 13 that we need to take up, and there are there are a couple we have yet to take up at all.
It's for certain that we won't pass the appropriations bills on time. It's likely that some of the appropriations bills will be handled through continuing resolution, which isn't right; they should be handled through normal business. The major reason is because we have not reached an agreement on how much we can spend. Republicans are moving one way, and they know there is no possible way that we can live within the caps they say we can. So they use gimmicks to get around it, such as calling regular spending emergency spending, and not having to pay for it under the caps. And that just complicates getting our work done on time.
It's very unlikely that there will be a government shutdown.
Columbia, Md.: I have a question regarding the proposal to extend Medicare prescription drug coverage. I'm concerned that this proposal is being made in absence of any real attempt to reform the overall program. At some point demographic and medical cost trends are going to force as to limit that amount that can be spent on health care for the elderly. Does it make sense to expand benefits in isolation?
Rep. Ben Cardin: First of all, covering prescription drugs under Medicare is providing reimbursement for necessary health care costs under Medicare. Prescription drugs are preventive medicine in many cases, and save us money. So I don't look at including prescription drugs as expanding the program. What we're doing is modernizing it to deal with a legitimate health-care cost. It's just as legitimate as your doctor or hospital.
As far as reforming Medicare to save costs, that really cannot be done in a comprehensive way unless we're willing to reform our entire health care system. Medicare costs will rise at about the same rate as general health care costs. So we really need to be talking about all Americans and what to do about the cost of health care.
Clinton, Ill.: The $792 billion dollar tax cut package that was passed by the Republican-led Congress, is like refunding money that American taxpayers have been overpaid. What I would like to know is what is wrong with returning that $792 billion back to the American taxpayers? If the money is not returned back to the American taxpayers, are you then therefore saying that the people in Congress opposed to the $792 billion tax cut can do a better job of spending the money than the taxpayers?
Rep. Ben Cardin: We're not talking about spending it; what we're talking about is paying off our debt. It was our generation that accumulated the debt, and our generation should pay off the debt. I know that as far as personal finance goes, when I get a bonus or some unexpected money, the first thing I want to do is pay off some of my debt. And paying off debt is not new spending. We're not doing our children any favor by giving a large tax cut now, keeping large debt and finding it difficult to meet our obligations for Social Security and Medicare as the baby boomers reach retirement.
Arlington, Va.: I think you need to be careful about how you characterize Alan Greenspan's comments he very clearly said that spending the surplus is the worst option. Regarding spending, do you support giving all seniors a prescription drug benefit, or would you restrict it to only those seniors that cannot afford prescription drugs or do not have the drugs covered by private health insurance?
Rep. Ben Cardin: First, back to Alan Greenspan. He would consider a tax cut spending because the money is not going to be there. He says it would make a hot economy even hotter perhaps too hot. He worries about inflation and he wants to make sure we pay down the debt. So if you use that for a tax cut, both of those concerns become much more likely.
On prescription drugs under Medicare, I believe that all seniors should be entitled to the benefit. Medicare is not a welfare program, and we should not turn it into one. Older people have difficulty getting private insurance, and we need to provide all seniors with a strong Medicare program that includes reimbursement for all reasonable health care expenses. And that includes prescription drugs.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Hello Rep. Cardin. Does the fall Democratic congressional agenda call for any new legislation on lead paint poisoning liability? As the author of previous bills regulating old lead paint, will you be sponsoring additional legislation calling for market share liability?
Rep. Ben Cardin: I strongly support your question and where is is going. We should have a national policy on abating lead paint and lead poisoning. The proposal that I recommended is that there be a national trust fund established through assessing fees on lead and using that revenue to abate lead paint in older homes through local programs, not federal. With the Republicans in control, there is no possibility that this legislation can move forward. So I am hopeful that in the next Congress we can reintroduce it and move it forward.
One last point: Lead poisoning is one of the most devastating environmental diseases affecting our children, and it is totally preventable. We should do a better job as a nation to prevent lead poisoning. It's not just a problem of poor people; children of all economic backgrounds are being exposed to too much lead poisoning.
Washington, D.C.: President Clinton has said he's hoping for fruitful negotiations on the budget and the Republican tax plan. Do you think that's likely? Are there any parts of the Republican plan you agree with?
Rep. Ben Cardin: I certainly hope that reason will prevail and we can get a budget that allows us to pay down the debt, protect Medicare and Social Security, provide a targeted tax benefit and have real spending targets that we can meet without gimmicks. I'm convinced that the majority of the members of Congress want to do this. I have my misgivings as to whether the Republican leadership will allow this to occur.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us today, Rep. Cardin.
Rep. Ben Cardin: Thank you. This is a great format, allowing people such an easy way to communicate directly with a member of Congress.
washingtonpost.com: Join us on Wednesday, Aug. 25 at 1 p.m. to continue our ongoing discussion on the budget, tax cuts and the congressional agenda. Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) will be live online.
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