Democrats across the U.S. are under fire for enabling out-of-control deficits and for being Washington insiders. The poster child for both attacks may be Representative John Spratt of South Carolina.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Spratt, 67, is the lawmaker in charge of saying no to colleagues’ demands to spend more and tax less. He says his top priority if re-elected is fixing the “wretched condition” of U.S. fiscal affairs by reducing a deficit projected at $1.34 trillion this year.
He may not get the chance. Even though few legislators command as much respect or have tried harder to balance the needs of holding down the deficit and expanding the economy, Spratt’s bid for a 15th term is rated a tossup by the Washington-based nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Take a yard sign; take a bumper sticker,” Spratt told a group of voters gathered on an August evening at a community center in rural Cheraw, population 5,500. He said he needs their help “this year more than ever before.”
Spratt isn’t the only senior Democrat considered vulnerable. Others threatened by a Republican resurgence in the November congressional elections include Missouri’s Ike Skelton, elected in 1976 and head of the Armed Services Committee; Earl Pomeroy from North Dakota, who is seeking his 10th term, and Chet Edwards of Texas, a 10-term lawmaker who is chairman of an appropriations subcommittee.
As Americans overwhelmingly call the deficit one of their top concerns in polls, Spratt’s Republican challenger, state Senator Mick Mulvaney, 43, is looking to tap that sentiment.
“People here don’t understand why the government isn’t going through the same thing they are going through,” Mulvaney, a former lawyer now in the restaurant business, told supporters at a $25-per-person August fundraiser in Rock Hill, a suburb of North Carolina’s border city of Charlotte.
Spratt, a Yale Law School graduate who studied economics at Oxford University, hasn’t faced a race this competitive since he survived the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. This year, he is being buffeted by budget woes, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
“Republicans don’t have to connect very many dots to link Spratt to the things voters are upset about,” Gonzales said.
Spratt won another term by 25 percentage points in 2008, in a district President Barack Obama lost by 7 points, and is one of the few southern Democrats who don’t distance themselves from the party. He backed Obama’s $940 billion health-care plan and the $814 billion economic stimulus.
Republicans have seized on those measures as examples of government initiatives that bloat the federal deficit.
Being portrayed as a big-spending lawmaker is an unfamiliar position for Spratt, who fought rising deficits under Republican President George W. Bush and cites his work on the 1997 balanced budget agreement as one of his top achievements.
The deal led to a budget surplus of $127 billion at the end of Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidency in 2001. In 2009, when Bush left office, the deficit was $1.4 trillion.
“There’s a difference between trying to stimulate the economy with short-term policies and longer-term policies that put the budget back on track,” Spratt said in an interview.
Spratt serves on a bipartisan panel that in December will propose ways to cut the deficit. He says everything should be on the table, including the big-ticket items of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and tax increases and cuts.
He favors a continuation of pay-as-you-go rules that require tax cuts or new spending to be paid for with tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere. Spratt also backs legislation that would allow the president to amend spending bills passed by Congress that he deems wasteful.
Mulvaney wants to roll back all discretionary spending, excluding defense and homeland security, to 2008 levels and cap future increases at the inflation rate. House Republican leader John Boehner’s office has estimated that would save about $100 billion in the first year. The rollbacks would affect federal agencies including education and housing.
Mulvaney proposes rescinding all unspent money from last year’s $814 billion economic stimulus plan, which his campaign says would save at least $230 billion.
The White House called the idea of unspent stimulus funds a “myth” in an Aug. 11 website article by Chief Economic Adviser Jared Bernstein. He said 94 percent of the money is obligated through payments already made, promised tax cuts, or projects under contract. The remaining 6 percent has been awarded or soon will be, he wrote.
Send ‘People Packing’
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview last week that canceling stimulus funds would “send a lot of people packing from their jobs.”
Mulvaney supports paying non-military government workers the going private-sector rate, which he said would save about $40 billion a year, and freezing federal hiring and pay raises for the next year to save another $30 billion.
Congress must “shape a leaner, more efficient federal government that places more focus on its primary functions,” he said.
On Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which make up 40 percent of the federal budget, Mulvaney avoided offering specific proposals. He said Social Security may need to be changed for future generations without affecting benefits for those near retirement. He doesn’t favor letting people invest their Social Security taxes in private accounts.
Bush Tax Cuts
Mulvaney supports permanently extending the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration in 2001 and 2003. Extending all of the tax cuts would cost $3.3 trillion over the next decade, including $1.1 trillion to keep the cuts for the wealthiest Americans, according to an analysis by the Pew Economic Group.
Spratt’s congressional district is in the north-central part of South Carolina. Textile mill closings have helped push its unemployment rate to about 14 percent, above the 9.6 percent national rate.
John Russell, 67, spent 40 years working in textiles before losing his job six years ago. He has backed Spratt and is undecided this time, saying he blames both parties for the deficit.
“If I’m in trouble and go out and borrow all this money, am I better off? I don’t think so,” he said.
Spratt’s first television ad stresses his efforts to help district residents and businesses. And his standing in Washington works in his favor with some voters. Republican Gary Williams, 60, credits him with saving as many as 100 jobs at his Rock Hill company, Williams & Fudge Inc., which collects delinquent student loans.
Spratt removed a loan program that provides about 40 percent of the company’s revenue from legislation that shifted student loans from private lenders to the U.S. government.
“It takes a while to get seniority in Washington,” said Williams, who worked to defeat Spratt in the 1990s and now has contributed the maximum $4,800 allowed to his campaign.