“I have said all along that I am not supporting an increase in tax rates,” Chambliss said after addressing about 150 people at the Cobb Republican Party’s monthly breakfast Saturday.
But with protesters placing flyers on cars suggesting “Saxby’s Two-Faced Taxation” during the meeting, some were not convinced that the second-term Republican from Moultrie’s recent remarks on the anti-tax pledge he signed for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform 20 years ago will keep him from increasing what they owe.
Chambliss insisted that his remarks to a Macon television station over Thanksgiving weekend were no departure from what he has said for 20 years. He said many other Republicans are now making similar comments.
“Last Friday was the slowest news day of the year,” he said. “I signed that pledge and I have never voted for a tax increase. I don’t intend to vote for a tax increase, but …”
The senator then asked attendees if they support ending $6 billion annual tax credits for ethanol, and nearly everyone in attendance raised his or her hand.
“Well guess what?” Chambliss said. “You just said you would violate the pledge that I signed, because, with the elimination of a tax credit, if you don’t take that money and reduce rates, that’s a violation of that pledge.”
Chambliss said that when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) proposed ending the ethanol credit last year, Norquist compared him to Alger Hiss, the 1940s state department and United Nations official who was accused of being a Soviet spy.
“When I made the comment that I care about my country more than I care about a 20-year-old pledge, that’s what I’m talking about,” Chambliss said. “Things have changed in 20 years; we didn’t owe $17 trillion 20 years ago. We’ve got a different world today, and we’re in a world that we’ve got to manage our finances better than we’ve ever done.”
Chambliss said that eliminations of tax loopholes might violate Norquist’s pledge, but it would balance the budget in 10 years.
“I don’t want to be dictated to by anybody in Washington as to how I’m going to vote on anything,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out the right way to do this, and I don’t want to be committed to doing anything, other than to vote the way that you want me to vote.”
Chambliss also acknowledged that the Norquist pledge could hold back some members of the House of Representatives from making a deal.
“It’s playing a big role, there’s no question about it,” he said in response to a question from an audience member. “Because that has to be initiated on the House side. When you call for a change in the tax code, a lot of those guys are just firm in that and are being somewhat inflexible.”
Chambliss referred to a “total financial disaster” that will come at the start of 2013 if no deal is reached, pointing to sequestration cuts along with the fiscal cliff that involves the expiration of the 2001 Bush tax cuts and other tax increases. He said that, with 50 percent of discretionary spending going to defense, Lockheed Martin’s Marietta plant would be victim of an “across the board” spending cut, which could lead to job losses.
“If you do it across the board, that means every, single program in the federal government is going to get hit,” he said. “There are some programs that need to stay in place, but others that we need to eliminate. What we need to do is give the Department of Defense the flexibility of figuring out where they need to make cuts and they need to make additional cuts. We’re spending too much money at the Pentagon like everywhere else.”
If the United States doesn’t get its debt, expected to soon hit $17 trillion in order, it risks losing its place as being viewed as the world’s most respected country from a financial standpoint, Chambliss said. That means leaders need to put a package in place with debt reductions greater than $4 trillion over 10 years.
“That’s a lot of money obviously, but $4 trillion doesn’t even dent $15 trillion,” he said, referring to a slightly-outdated national debt figure. “And you would think the members of Congress that you sent to Washington could figure out some way, with a budget of $2 ½ trillion a year, to come up with a savings of $400 million a year over 10 years.”
While Chambliss said that reducing spending will be crucial, other reforms will be needed. Chambliss said he supports implementing the recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles commission on reform of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, citing the rising costs of health care. While he said Social Security isn’t a major deficit contributor, it needs to be reformed at the same time.
“We know now that if we do nothing, in 2032, checks are going to be reduced by about 20 percent,” he said.
The part of the Simpson-Bowles plan that had some in the audience concerned involved the call for increased revenues. Chambliss said federal revenue can be increased without raising tax rates, as President Barack Obama has said must be done for families making more than $250,000 a year.
“What Simpson-Bowles said was, rather than raising taxes, if you simply take this complex tax code that we have got in place and you do a major reform of that tax code, not unlike what we did in 1986 with (President Ronald) Reagan and (House Speaker Tip) O’Neill, then we can generate additional revenues, instead of raising taxes, you can actually lower taxes.”
The way to do that involves following recommendations to eliminate all tax credits and deductions, Chambliss said.
“When you do that, you will generate about $1.1-$1.2 trillion a year in additional revenue,” he said.
Chambliss said it will be important to use 15 percent of that revenue to pay down the debt, while using the rest for tax rate reductions, which he said would get corporations to invest money in the United States and create jobs. He also liked Simpson-Bowles recommendations to reduce the number of tax brackets from six to three, though he split with the panel on a recommendation to tax capital gains, currently capped at 15 percent, as ordinary income.
Chambliss said that when former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles presented President Barack Obama with a plan, the president “stuck it on a shelf where it’s been gathering dust ever since.” Chambliss doesn’t see Obama’s ideas getting any better with the fiscal cliff negotiations.
“The President, in his typical fashion, has been AWOL on this issue,” Chambliss said. “He has provided absolutely no leadership on this issue. The one thing that he has led on is adding to that debt.”
Chambliss agreed with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that Obama’s deficit proposal this week was “laughable.”
“Here’s what really concerns me about it, all of us have been involved in negotiations at one time or another,” he said. “What we know is, if you’ve got a very complex issue, and you got to conclude your negotiations in a short period of time, you don’t make outrageous proposals. You get in the room with somebody and you say, ‘OK guys, what can we agree on and what do we disagree on?’ ”
Chambliss said the negotiations must be concluded within the next two weeks in order to make sure it is to Obama’s desk to be signed by Dec. 31.
“So I think that, with the proposal the president made this week, that they would just as soon go off the cliff,” Chambliss said. “I think there’s general agreement in Washington that that’s the case. I truly hope that’s not the case, because it will be a financial disaster.”
During the 25-minute question and answer portion of the meeting, one questioner asked Chambliss why all the talk seems to be about tax increases rather than spending cuts.
“The president comes out there and says, ‘I ran twice on raising taxes on wealthy people, and y’all are going to agree to tax increases,’ ” Chambliss responded. “I just don’t agree on that. Spending does need to go down and we’ve got to have more than just assurances.
Another questioner suggested that the Republicans don’t have a plan to reduce the deficit.
“And we don’t,” Chambliss agreed. “On the flip side of that, the Democrats only have one plan, and that’s don’t touch Social Security and Medicare and raise taxes.”
Though most of the questioners were polite, some continued to ask questions as Chambliss tried to wrap up his remarks. Drew Holley of Kennesaw questioned why Republicans supported programs like approving the Transportation Security Administration, doubling the size of the Department of Education and creating the Medicare Part D prescription drug program during former President George W. Bush’s time in office.
“I would take that $400 billion deficit that Bush had in his last year, which was his largest deficit, and we could cut that tomorrow,” Chambliss said. “Trying to cut the $1.6 trillion deficit that this administration ran is a real problem, particularly when we aren’t in control. But I’ve never shied away from the fact that we share some of the guilt for the spending that’s taken place, but there’s never been spending in the history of our country like this.”
After the meeting, Holley said he was pleased that Chambliss admitted that he has been part of then problem, but said the party still needs new leadership. He said he would consider voting for state Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), who was at the meeting, if he mounted a primary challenge against Chambliss.
When asked what he thought of Chambliss’s handling of the debt situation, as well as whether there’s a chance he will challenge the senator, Setzler said “no comment” after the meeting.
But Michael Opitz of Marietta, chairman of the tea-party Madison Forum group, said he is “strongly considering” running against Chambliss. He did not agree that taking away an ethanol subsidy is considered a tax increase.
“I didn’t hear anything here today that would dissuade me (from running),” said Opitz, who unsuccessfully ran a primary challenge against U.S Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta) this year. “It’s, ‘I don’t take any responsibility for the problem.’ ”
While other names like U.S. Reps. Tom Price of Roswell and Paul Broun of Athens, as well as former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel are being thrown out as possible challengers to Chambliss in the 2014 Republican Primary, the Senator said he is not yet concerned.
“Every campaign every politician’s ever run has people talking about running against ‘em,” he said. “Its two years away and we’ll deal with whoever.”
Still, Chambliss appeared to be inching into campaign mode, arriving at Cobb Republican Headquarters a half hour before the program began, working the room, and giving a “Go Dawgs” to some of those in attendance wearing University of Georgia red and black.
In his introduction of Chambliss, Cobb Republican Chairman Joe Dendy issued a warning about giving in to Democrats.
“Because of our loss last month, we’re looking even harder to our senators and representatives to stand firm for the principles of conservatism,” Dendy said. “We don’t want our children to read a Zell Miller-type book in the future about us not leaving the party, but the Republican Party leaving us. And we don’t want them reading this book about the ‘C word’ — compromise — leading to the demise of our party.”
Attorney General Sam Olens said he won’t endorse Chambliss because he doesn’t endorse candidates who are on the ballot at the same time he is, as the senator will be in 2014. But he thinks Chambliss is a good leader for Georgia in Washington, particularly on debt issues.
“He’s one of the few that’s had the (deficit) discussion,” Olens said. “Candidly, you can’t count past 10 in the U.S. Senate the folks that are willing to have the discussion?”
Jim Jess of Marietta, a Georgia Tea Party board member, found the senator’s comments about Democrats being willing to go off the fiscal cliff telling.
“The point is, spending needs to come down, we all know that, Saxby agrees,” Jess said. “Most Republicans agree on that, certainly Georgia Tea Party agrees on that. Tax simplification, we support that as well, but we don’t believe you help the spending situation by sending more money to the federal government. But what the final package looks like, that’s really what’s important to me and other folks that watch this stuff.”
Phil Smith, national political director with Arlington, Va.-based deficit watchdog the Concord Coalition, said coming to talk to voters in a potentially hostile room shows bravery rarely seen in modern politicians.
“I’ve been working with federal budget issues for 17 years and I’ve never seen two people like (Virginia Democratic Sen.) Mark Warner and Saxby Chambliss do more substantive work on this issue,” said Smith, whose group id chaired by former Sen. Sam Nunn, whose seat Chambliss now holds. “It’s easy to talk bumper sticker talk on these issues, it’s a lot harder to drill down and become a wonk on these issues and really try to turn back around and talk to and engage your constituents…I kind of felt like I was in a scene from the movie ‘Lincoln’ today, because Saxby’s not inside the bubble, they actually get out and engage their constituents.”
Others in attendance included state GOP Chair Sue Everhart, Georgia Tea Party Chair J.D. Van Brink, state Rep. John Carson (R-northeast Cobb), Cobb School Board member Tim Stultz, District Attorney-elect Vic Reynolds, Solicitor General Barry Morgan, probate court Judge Kelli Wolk and Kennesaw City Councilman Bruce Jenkins