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Rick Crawford’s playing chess with the budget

by John Brummett | March 21, 2012 at 6:00 a.m.

Rick Crawford last week became the first known Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 21st Century to acknowledge that budget deficits must be attacked both by decreasing outgo and increasing income.

The New York Times liked what he did, which just goes to show that the New York Times doesn’t know everything.

On Friday the world’s greatest newspaper published an editorial approving of Crawford’s vaunted . . . well, sadly, it was a stunt.

The paper thought it significant that Crawford, a first term freshman Republican from the 1st District of eastern and north-central Arkansas, had broken with all his Republican colleagues. He also had broken with the famous no-tax pledge forced on modern-day Republicans by the smugly destructive Grover Norquist.

Crawford had dared to call for a 5 percent income surtax on millionaires.

Back in Arkansas, by contrast, we have been altogether underwhelmed. The cynical political overtones are obvious.

Crawford is a weak and vulnerable congressman, having won last year only because of the Tea Party tide and because Democrats offered a less-than-stellar nominee.

Now he has no Republican primary opponent, but he does confront three Democrats angling to challenge him in the fall in a district that still conceivably has a significant Democratic base.

Crawford seeks to break through any lingering partisan disadvantage by appealing to the greater independence and outsiderism of his district. He can do that by arguing that he, unlike his Democratic foes, has actually proposed a compromising bipartisan solution to the deficit and debt crisis.

And by the way: There aren’t many millionaires in his district.

It’s not a bad chess move, actually.

What it lacks altogether is any integrity as a workable or logical policy proposal.

His scheme is to tie this 5 percent income tax surtax on millionaires to a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That is to say he would impose his surtax only if Congress voted to refer a balanced-budget amendment to the states.

Democrats will never go for a balanced-budget amendment, and shouldn’t.

It’s a cosmetic Republican trick. It refers an amendment to the lengthy process of ratification by the states while Congress gets to continue its self-serving negligence and irresponsibility as usual, evading the tough choices of actual and meaningful cuts.

Anyway, a balanced budget should be the goal, not the law. A little deficit is sometimes not a bad thing.

I do not know your household financial situation. But if you actually incurred expenditures last year exceeding your income—doing so by a judicious and manageable use of debt and time-pay or depletion of savings, maybe because a special unforeseen need arose—that does not make you a bad or irresponsible person. You are not a lawbreaker, nor should your government be if it did the same.

If you seriously intend to impose a balanced-budget amendment, then it is incumbent on you to provide practical exceptions. I asked Crawford’s office last week about that kind of detail. He didn’t have any. Just any old balanced-budget amendment would do.

If Crawford were serious, he would offer another deal, actually workable.

He could start out proposing to go along with the income-tax surtax if Democrats would go along with a voucher system for Medicare.

But that’s also untenable to Democrats, and should be. We can’t throw all the grandmas and great-grandmas out into the private insurance marketplace. We need to mend, not end, Medicare.

So Crawford could have a ready fallback position. He could offer the income surtax only in exchange for actual commensurate reductions in federal government spending. His income tax could expire in the event the cuts were not verifiably achieved in a specified period of time.

That would be real budgeting, real compromise, real substance, real logic and real bipartisanship. It also would be real money and real math.

Actually, it’s our only way out of this looming financial calamity. We desperately need a few statesmen in Washington to stand up and say so.

Rick Crawford did not offer himself as one last week. He was but a pawn with the audacity to serve his personal interest and move himself.

John Brummett is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com

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