WASHINGTON — If you’re weary of the debate over how the federal government should slash spending and long-term debt, you may want to tune out the next 12 months or so.

With a congressional super committee’s inability to agree on $1.2 trillion in cuts over a 10-year period, the question of how to manage federal spending is poised to be a major campaign issue leading up to the 2012 elections.

Hawaii’s congresswomen have some ideas how they think the issue should be handled in the coming months. They tell Civil Beat they’re largely in line with the Democratic party leadership when it comes to finding a budget solution. The critical aspect of their party’s strategy is also the main sticking point with Republicans: Democrats like Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Mazie Hirono want to reduce long-term debt through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes.

There is just over one year until automatic cuts triggered by the super committee’s failure take effect. The process known as sequestration would make $500 billion in cuts to defense spending and about $500 billion in cuts to across-the-board discretionary funding — things like education, social services and transportation.

While defense leaders say the automatic cuts would be catastrophic, many in Washington are operating under the assumption that Congress has enough time to develop a plan to prevent them. Still, the White House says there is “no wiggle room” on President Barack Obama’s promise to veto any attempts to undo the automatic cuts without a plan to reduce federal spending.

“We can still act,” Hanabusa said. “But in light of President Obama’s statement that he will veto any measure that weakens or bypasses the automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending, all of the parties will have to get together to craft a solution that is satisfactory to both Congress and the White House.”

While none of Hawaii’s congressional delegates served on the super committee, they have given its failed goal some thought. Hanabusa, a Democrat, said that while she’s “hopeful” that Congress will find a solution, she blames Republicans for the stalemate over the debt that has persisted for months.

“Let’s not lose sight of how we got to this point in the first place,” Hanabusa said. “Congressional Republicans decided that they were going to make President Obama the first president in history to be denied a straight up vote on raising the debt ceiling. They tied the Budget Control Act to the supercommittee. In retrospect, President Obama’s proposed cuts at that time would have brought us much closer to where we need to be today,”

Consistent with the message of her party, Hanabusa insists that a “balanced approach” — a spending reduction strategy that relies on a combination of cuts and tax increases — is essential.

“I don’t think much is going to get done until everyone involved in the negotiations admits that we need to take a balanced approach,” Hanabusa said. “One dollar of revenue increases for every four dollars of cuts is not balanced.”

Hirono also supports a balanced approach, and said that her guiding principles in deficit reduction rely on ending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, protecting entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and preserving benefits for veterans.

“Cutting and taxing to get our deficit under control is only going to do so much,” Hirono said. “We also need to grow our way out of this. That’s why investments that create jobs, like fixing our roads and bridges, are so important.”

Hirono said she would first look to make cuts that would eliminate “fraud and waste,” and outlined the first five steps she would take to get federal spending under control. Here’s what the congresswoman came up with:

Hirono’s Proposed Action 10-Year Savings Source
Ending wars in Middle East $1.4 trillion Congressional Budget Office
Ending Bush-era tax cuts1 $830 billion2 Center for American Progress
Cut Medicare Waste $600 billion USA Today
Ending oil company tax breaks $41 billion The Obama administration
Improve oil/gas management $1.75 billion Government Accountability Office

“This mix of cuts and revenue increases would yield approximately $2.87 trillion over 10 years,” Hirono said. “And growing our economy would add to that number as well.”

Hirono said that all sides have to “be willing to work together” and understand that any compromise will entail elements that both sides dislike. Come January 2013, if no agreement is made, automatic cuts will kick in.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that automatic cuts would end up totaling less than the $1.2 trillion goal, partly because of limits on cuts to programs like Medicare. At this point, the CBO said there is still a “considerable degree of uncertainty” in making predictions about automatic cuts.

Hanabusa said she wants to avoid them, not only because of the cuts themselves but also because sequestration effectively removes Congress from the process.

“We need to keep in mind that the cuts that are now called for will be made by the Office of Management and Budget, and not by Congress or the affected departments,” Hanabusa said. “That does not bode well for anyone involved.”

About the Author