Democrats, go forward, but don't go overboard

January 10, 2007|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Columnist

Dear Speaker Pelosi:

You say the new Congress "will make our economy fairer" and find "a new direction for all Americans, not just the privileged few."

But please remember that the best chance for a fair economy is a growing economy. You and the other newly empowered Democrats are in a good position to threaten growth. Please don't.

If you hinder international trade, mishandle the budget deficit or deny U.S. corporations the flexibility needed to compete in a global economy, you endanger America's ability to afford what is best for the American people.

True, your "100-hours" agenda, for which the clock began ticking yesterday, has much to recommend it.

It's far past time for an increase in the minimum wage. Cutting interest rates on college loans is a great investment in the future economy. (Bias alert: I have a kid in college.) So is financing stem-cell research.

Reversing President Bush's tax cuts for people in high income brackets would be a step toward fiscal sanity. Ending huge tax breaks for oil companies does the same thing and also erases outrageous corporate welfare. If letting the government bargain with suppliers over Medicare drug costs makes you feel better, go for it.

So far so good.

But it's the 101st hour that I'm worried about.

Promises to the contrary, it is not clear that Democrats will "proceed in a fiscally sound way," "provide opportunity for our children" and "not heap mountains of debt on them," as you described it at the congressional open house last week. Even if the entire 100-hours menu is passed and signed by President Bush, it barely dents accrued Democratic campaign promises.

You kept talking about filling "the doughnut hole" coverage gap in Bush's irresponsible Medicare drug plan, but you have identified no way to pay for it. Getting discounts by negotiating with drug companies will get you only partway there.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that filling the doughnut hole would cost $427 billion over 10 years, and that's with a huge increase in co-payments that would be unpopular with voters. Fixing the coverage gap without boosting co-payments would be more expensive.

You want to reform the alternative minimum tax, which was introduced years ago to keep the very wealthy from paying little or nothing but which increasingly soaks families of relatively modest means. Republicans also favor this.

But freezing the AMT at current levels and indexing it for inflation would cost $500 billion in revenue over 10 years, CBO estimates. Repealing it, as some in Congress want to do, would cost much more.

Democrats also talk about expanded health care coverage, better pension protection, subsidizing alternative energy and compensating people whose jobs are wiped out by globalization. Those are all things worth considering. But you haven't even figured out how to pay for reductions in college-loan rates yet, let alone anything more ambitious.

If the country fails to get a long-term grip on the deficit, the value of the dollar will decline more, interest rates will shoot up, the economy will slow and so will tax collections. That'll make the deficit even worse.

Scary. But it's nothing next to the potential damage that could occur if Democrats start trying to pass import tariffs and other trade barriers in an attempt to protect U.S. jobs.

The only reason the dollar hasn't fallen further and rates risen higher is that the open U.S. economy is still one of the most attractive investment destinations in the world. If you begin increasing restrictions for what companies can import, you begin changing that equation, not to mention raising prices for consumers. Your hometown of Baltimore, with its international port, understands this.

If you persist in trying to block imports in the hope that U.S. jobs will spring up to offer replacements, you risk prompting a trade war and a global recession, which won't help anybody, U.S. workers included.

Yet James Webb, the new Democratic senator from Virginia, has blamed "the internationalization of the economy" for stagnant wages and inflation. Sherrod Brown, the new Democratic senator from Ohio, said on National Public Radio this week that "the overwhelming number of Democrats - Democratic voters, Democratic House members, now Democratic senators and the entire freshman class of Democratic senators - think our trade policy has gone in the wrong direction."

Heath Shuler, the former Washington Redskins quarterback and new Democratic congressman from North Carolina, blames Congress for failing to pass "fair trade laws that protect American jobs, American workers, and American families," according to his Web site.

Madame Speaker: The previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and his Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin, had it right. Control deficits and promote trade, and you'll get the robust growth that generates tax revenue for social programs that Democrats like.

Follow their example.

Oh, and while you're at it, fix Social Security.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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