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Politics & Policy

Charlie Rose Talks to Senator Tom Coburn


You’re opposed to some corporate tax deductions and would like to get rid of them to boost government revenue, correct?
Well, yes. But my motivation isn’t just revenue. With a more predictable tax system, you’ll also get bigger investments and greater growth. When we have 20 percent of the people in 2008 paying 84 percent of the taxes in this country, we have a problem with our tax code. And 49 percent of the households in this country pay no tax. So tax revenues that are enhanced through changing the tax code and flattening it and making it more fair are fine with me. I don’t have any problem with that. I think the exact opposite in terms of raising taxes. It’s what you don’t want to do in a very soft economy.
 
Grover Norquist and others have problems with some of that, don’t they?
I think some people do. I would tell you on tax credits specifically, first of all, our policies stink because they misdirect capital in this country, especially in terms of ethanol. No question, a fringe group out there believes that if you cut the subsidies for ethanol … that, somehow, is a tax increase.
 
You resigned from the bipartisan Gang of Six because of an impasse. What happened?
The whole purpose for bringing three on each side together was to actually come up with a plan that we could sell to an equal number of senators on each side. We could not get to a point at which we could actually fix the problem. Your [audience], because they’re fairly educated, will understand that what is in front of us is urgent, even perilous, and it’s necessary that we address it in a timely fashion. Otherwise we’re at a point of no return for our country in terms of financing our debt and growing our economy. If, in fact, the largest components of our problems are entitlements, and you won’t seriously address fixing those entitlements—not because you don’t agree that they need to be fixed but because of the political consequences—then I can’t put my name on a possible solution that isn’t a solution. It just got to a point when I said I’m going to take a sabbatical, but I didn’t actually resign. At some point in time, this team’s going to come back together and offer healthy solutions.
 
In the end, we’re talking about Medicare?
I’m talking about Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. A lot of people wanted to discount Social Security, but we’re going to have to borrow $2.6 trillion. That’s what we’ve stolen and spent. Even if you have all that money or have the capability of borrowing it—which I doubt seriously right now—you still have to reform it, because our life expectancy has gotten longer, so the number of people supporting each person on Social Security has gotten much smaller. The way to solve it is to fix it to where it becomes a means-tested program. Those that absolutely need it and actually need more than what we’re going to give them today, we’re going to bump that a little bit. And then measure that out to where the wealthiest get less.
 
You want to see the President commit to reducing Medicare spending by $600 billion, right?
Yes, and about $300 billion on Medicaid, and refine Social Security so it’s actually viable for the next 75 years. The Bill Clinton budget in 2001 was $1,850 billion. We’re at $3.7 trillion right now, double where we were 10 years ago. You can’t kick the can now without it bouncing right back and hitting you in the shin.
 
Why isn’t there more political courage to recognize that and deal with it?
I think we’re double-minded. We want two things. Power ends up corrupting and clouds judgment and creates arrogance, and people don’t think clearly … and it’s about them rather than the country. I’ve had those same failings in my life. Having been through two bouts of cancer, I tend to see things more clearly now. Right now, I don’t care what party does what. What I care about is whether or not we are going to stand up and solve these problems. There are a large number of senators who will quietly come to me and say, “Go back to the Gang of Six, bring this out, and we’ll be with you.” I want to say to them, why aren’t you standing up on the floor yelling about this? But they’re not because they don’t want to take the arrows.
 
Do you think the debt-ceiling issue will be solved before Aug. 2, that somehow at the last moment, on the brink of disaster, they’ll agree?
No, I do not.

Watch Charlie Rose on Bloomberg TV weeknights at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET.
Emmy Award-winning journalist Charlie Rose is the host of Charlie Rose, the nightly PBS program.

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