U. S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Thursday that he believes the president and congressional leadership can come to an agreement to avoid falling off the “fiscal cliff, ” and that he hopes it can be done in a manner to avoid having to deal with it again in future sessions.
“I don’t want to spend the next year talking about deficit and debt, ” Tester said during a telephonic press conference from Washington.
“This is kind of a dance, to be honest, with you, ” Tester said. “I think they will come to an agreement, and it will be before Christmas. ”
He said he wants Congress to focus on other issues in 2013 — things like making sure Customs and Border Protection is “lean and mean” and is adequately securing the nation’s borders, making sure the fighter jets remain at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, bringing U. S. troops home from Afghanistan, taking another look at banking and financial reform, working on the health care reform, reforming the tax code and finding ways to reduce spending.
Tester said that, as individuals, the members of Congress are getting along well — but, overall, partisanship still is evident when they talk about avoiding the fiscal cliff — the combination of the expiration of tax breaks put in under President George W. Bush and extended under President Barack Obama, and the impact of sequestration, across-the-board spending cuts required when the Supercommittee could not in 2011 agree on ways to reduce the deficit.
Economists have said that the combination of cuts and tax increases would, likely, send the U. S. economy back into recession.
But, Tester said, a lot is happening in discussions on that issue. He said he is ready to listen to virtually any idea on how to increase revenue and decrease spending.
“I think that all options need to be on the table, ” he said.
Tester said the discussions, however, need to deal with strengthening the country.
“We really need to focus on what has made this country great, ” he said, “and that’s a vibrant middle class. ”
He said some things he will oppose cutting. Tester referred to a comment a county commissioner once made to him, that society must protect its young and its elderly, and the middle class will take care of itself. While programs like Medicare and Social Security need work and waste can be eliminated, cutting benefits to reduce spending is something he will oppose.
He said he doubts that fiscal cliff negotiations will include revising the tax code, but that is something Congress needs to take up in the next session. That should include a close look at every credit and deduction, Tester added — many “carve outs” have been on the books for decades, and no one ever goes back to see whether they still benefit the economy.
He added that the country gives out more in credits and deductions on income tax than it takes in.
Removing tax breaks and credits that no longer are needed could broaden the tax base, bringing in more money.
“Then you can lower those rates across the board, which could help a vast majority of businesses and working families in this country, ” Tester said. “That’s what I would look at. I would look at getting rid of some of the carve outs in the tax code that make the tax code so complicated and end up allowing the government to reduce the rates for everyone. ”
He said some things also would be off the table for that — the tax deduction on buying a first home, which he said is part of the American dream and a successful economic driver, should stay, for example. The credit on buying a second home is another story.
“I would be open to hear the arguments on that, so that would be on the table, but I think the first one would not, ” he said. “There probably is some other stuff (that should not be cut), too, but (the first mortgage deduction) comes to mind. ”
He said the same is true on expenditures — for example, the Cold War has been over since the mid-1980s, but the United States still pays a considerable amount of money maintaining Cold War-era bases. The government should take a close look at every one of those bases — and all expenditures, he said.
“We should go back and take a look and see if it’s necessary, and that’s where the opportunity is in getting this debt under control, ” Tester said.
When asked about potential cuts to the National Park Service, Tester said, again, the impacts of spending and cutting that spending need to be closely examined.
The nation built infrastructure, including the national parks, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and that infrastructure became a major part of the nation’s economy, he said.
“If we don’t invest in our infrastructure, we will lose that infrastructure, ” Tester said. “The parks are an incredible economic driver for the state of Montana. … I can tell you what they told me: Going to the Sun Highway (in Glacier National Park), every day it was shut down was a million bucks. That’s a pretty good economic driver. We ought to make the investment. ”
Tester said what led him to thinking about infrastructure was a call he made Wednesday to wish a Missoula veteran of World War II a happy 90th birthday. The veteran told Tester about the work he had done on infrastructure in Montana, building the Eisenhower interstate system, building roads and bridges, working on the Hungry Horse Dam, and told the senator the lawmakers in Washington “need to fix the problems back there. ”
Tester said he began to wonder, “Are we capable in the United States Congress to think big enough to put forth an action like the interstate system, or would it get wound up in partisan politics?
“It probably would get wound up in partisan politics right now, ” he added “but I think it’s going to change, and it will change with time. ”