IA-01: Braley reinventing himself as a deficit hawk

President Barack Obama presented his $3.73 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 yesterday. I had a post in progress highlighting some good ideas from the proposal, like more investments in high-speed rail and clean energy programs, and reducing taxpayer subsidies for the oil and gas industries. There are bad ideas too, such as a pathetically small “cut” of $78 billion for defense spending over 10 years. The word “cut” misleads here because we’re talking about a slightly smaller rate of growth for the defense budget. Our military spending skyrocketed during the last decade and should be reduced substantially if Washington officials are serious about reducing the deficit.

The moral failure of Obama’s budget becomes clear when you look at the $400 billion in cuts he proposes for non-defense discretionary spending (which is half as large a portion of the budget pie as the military). Many of those cuts will hurt the vulnerable: less money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and some student aid programs, to name a couple of egregious examples. Obama also wants a “bipartisan” conversation about “strengthening” Social Security, and Washington bipartisanship on Social Security is sure to harm working people and future retirees.

Since the Republican-controlled House of Representatives won’t enact the president’s spending plans, the budget document is important mainly as a sign of Obama’s priorities and political calculations going into this year’s negotiations with Congress.

Speaking of political calculations, I was struck by Representative Bruce Braley’s statement on the president’s draft budget document–so much that I shifted gears on this post. Braley’s comments were another sign of a noticeable change in tone since he won a third term in Iowa’s first Congressional district. During the last Congress, Braley’s policy statements often emphasized the importance of public investments. In the past two months, he has he put deficit hawkishness front and center. Several examples are after the jump, along with background putting Braley’s new rhetorical style in political context.

Here’s Braley’s statement of February 14, 2011, regarding the president’s spending blueprint for 2012:

“Today, the President released a budget that clearly involved some tough decisions – and I’m glad to see he is making an effort to address the very real problem of our outrageous deficit,” said Rep. Braley. “I was pleased to see some of the President’s proposed cuts, and while it’s a good start, I think we can go even further.

“This budget clearly reflects our new national reality – the era of big borrowing and big spending is over. But we can, and must, go even further to reduce our deficit. As I said to the President and Speaker Boehner in a letter last week, we can’t present Americans with false choices over issues as important as our national deficit and debt. We must work together – in the House, with the Senate and with the President – to present a responsible, common-sense budget plan to the American people. Our country’s future depends on it.”

Last week Braley struck an unusual (for a Democrat) pose against raising the national debt ceiling. Statement of February 9, 2011:

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01) sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner asking them to provide a plan to avoid raising the debt ceiling. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner has stated that the U.S. will reach its debt limit sometime in April or May – and Speaker Boehner has indicated that the House will take a vote on raising the debt limit soon.

“Our national debt is around 14 trillion dollars and growing. That’s unacceptable,” said Braley. “Voters across the country spoke loud and clear last November – they want us to get spending under control. The President and Speaker are giving Congress and the American people a false choice – vote to raise the debt ceiling or vote to shut down the government. I know there’s a better way. We must put forward a common sense, middle-of-the-road plan to bring down our debt and avoid having to make this false choice in April or May. That’s why I hope the President and Speaker Boehner will propose a plan to avoid this scenario.

“I know, and the American people know, that we will have to make tough choices and tough cuts. I look forward to this process and to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get our spending under control. But I cannot accept a situation where we kick the can further down the road. If we don’t stop borrowing and spending now, when will we?

“In December, I voted against the $850 billion package of Bush tax bonuses for the rich because I know those tax bonuses are such a significant part of our national deficit. Both the President and Speaker Boehner supported them. Now, I want to hear their plan for cutting government spending in a way that doesn’t force us to raise the debt ceiling once again.”

A copy of the letter is attached.

When House Republicans voted last month to repeal the health insurance reform law, Braley’s official statement led with fiscal concerns:

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01) voted against the Republican bill to repeal the health care reform law.

“The new majority campaigned on balancing the budget and getting our deficit under control, but their very first legislative initiative would blow a $230 billion hole in our deficit,” said Congressman Braley. “There’s no way I could support this irresponsible legislation.”

If enacted into law, the Republicans’ repeal would also roll back the most popular provisions that protect consumers from insurance company abuses. Insurance companies would once again be able to deny coverage to children and adults with pre-existing conditions, prevent young adults from staying on their parents’ plans until age 26 and drop coverage for pregnant women and cancer survivors.

“The health care law, and the Republicans’ effort to repeal it, has a human face,” said Braley. “My nephew was finally able to take a new job, knowing his four-year-old son Tucker won’t be dropped from his new health plan because of a liver cancer diagnosis. That’s just one family. There are millions like them in Iowa and across the country.”

“My Republican colleagues also don’t seem to understand the very serious ramifications of their political games – or they haven’t read their own bill. The text of their bill clearly states that they intend to repeal the health care law and restore its provisions as if it had never been enacted. One consequence of that language is that if this bill becomes law, millions of seniors across the country would be forced to pay the government $250 that they received and already spent under the health care reform law. I know Iowa’s seniors can’t afford that – and I certainly won’t let my constituents pay the price for this political stunt.”

Similarly, Braley cited fiscal concerns in voting against Obama’s tax deal with Republicans in December:

Washington, DC – Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) voted against exploding the deficit by $858 billion dollars this evening.  The bill passed the House by a vote of 277-148.

“Americans spoke clearly on November second. Congress must get serious about reducing the deficit and become better stewards of their tax dollars,” Braley said.  “After endless talk about fiscal responsibility, the looming threat of a growing deficit and forcing America’s next generation into crushing debt to China – a so-called tax deal has been produced that will explode the deficit by $858 billion dollars.  We cannot keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to difficult decisions about the deficit, especially with a package that threatens the financial stability of our nation.”

Braley spoke on the floor regarding the bill.  His remarks are attached.

Bleeding Heartland posted Braley’s floor remarks on the tax deal here. Many Democrats who voted against that bill made a moral argument against extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but Braley’s floor statement again made the case in fiscal terms. Excerpt:

Those were some of the good things included in this deal. Unfortunately, the merits of those good things do not outweigh the bad things in this deal. I cannot justify mortgaging our children’s futures to provide a Christmas bonanza to the privileged few. I refuse to support increasing the deficit by at least $81 billion to provide a tax break to the wealthiest persons in this country. I refuse to support a bill that would balloon the deficit by $23 billion to provide an average tax break of more than $1.5 million to only 6,600 families a year. And I unequivocally refuse to threaten the long-term viability of social security with a shell game to pay for diminished social security contributions.

I’m voting “no” on this bad deal because we cannot keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to difficult decisions about the deficit, especially with a package that threatens the financial stability of our nation. I urge my colleagues to join me in voting “no.”

About that whole “Americans speaking clearly” thing: I don’t agree with the premise of Braley’s statements, which suggests Democrats lost in November because voters want Congress to get serious about the deficit. Pick a poll, any poll, let’s say the latest Pew Center poll, and you’ll see that Americans are more concerned about jobs and the economy than about the deficit. Unemployment has been at historically high levels for some time, and Democrats were the party in power. Moreover, an “enthusiasm gap” boosted Republican turnout relative to Democratic turnout in most states. That’s a recipe for a landslide right there.

I don’t blame Braley for shifting gears after the election. He barely won a third term, 49.5 percent to 47.5 percent, against the little-known Ben Lange. Braley’s political career might be over already if not for decent early voting numbers in his district and a couple of conservative third-party candidates, who got more votes combined than Braley’s margin over Lange. In fairness to Braley, he was on the receiving end of about $1.6 million in spending by the American Future Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That’s big money for an incumbent to face anywhere, but it’s especially significant in a low-cost media state like Iowa. No incumbent wants to battle that kind of outside spending, especially when facing an inoffensive opponent in a tough cycle for your party.

Braley’s clout is also lower in the new Congress. Two years ago, he had a seat on the coveted House Energy and Commerce Committee and was picked to be a vice-chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A year ago, insiders told the National Journal that Braley was one of the “most-promising” Democrats in Congress. But Democrats lost a bunch of seats on Energy and Commerce when Republicans took over the House. Braley was one of the low-seniority casualties. He now serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as well as the Veterans Affairs Committee. He has a new role at the DCCC, helping deal with outside spending by Republican-aligned groups.

Braley still leads the House Populist Caucus he founded in early 2009, but that group seems to have gone dormant. The Populists lost some members in the November election, and this year the only statement I’ve seen from the caucus announced a new leadership team (a couple of new vice chairs).

During the past two years, the Populist Caucus demanded various policies related to jobs, public investment and trade. Look at the four-point “Blueprint for Recovery” Braley advocated on behalf of the Populists a year ago. Braley talked about paying down the national deficit, but his emphasis was job creation and public investment, to be paid for by a new tax on Wall Street bonuses and a transaction fee on speculative stock transactions.

Judging from Braley’s recent statements, we won’t hear much from him about new taxes on Wall Street going into the 2012 elections. He still talks about job creation–for instance, in his response to Obama’s latest State of the Union address. But Braley appears to have calculated that being tough on the deficit is better politics than bashing Wall Street speculators.

Speaking of 2012, Braley will seek a fourth term in a substantially larger district. Most prospective maps I’ve seen keep the metro areas of Waterloo/Cedar Falls, Dubuque and the Quad Cities in IA-01, adding a bunch of counties in northeast Iowa. That part of the state includes both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning turf, but Republican Tom Latham has been able to win the area comfortably in the last several cycles. Some redistricting scenarios pit Latham and Braley against each other, which could be challenging for Braley. Latham has a bigger campaign war chest, more seniority and chairs a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

I am not convinced that becoming a vocal guardian of fiscal discipline is a great political strategy for Braley. The deficit isn’t voters’ primary concern. I also question whether a Democrat can win a competitive election on what is typically Republican issue turf. You and I know that Republicans don’t really care about fiscal discipline–if they did, they wouldn’t keep supporting unaffordable permanent tax cuts. Still, the public image of the GOP is that Republicans are for lower spending than Democrats, and it will be hard for Braley to single-handedly reverse that stereotype.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

FEBRUARY 16 UPDATE: Braley was the only member of the Iowa House delegation to vote for an amendment scrapping funding for an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter backup engine the Pentagon doesn’t want. The amendment to the continuing resolution on defense funding for the current fiscal year passed on an unusual bipartisan vote of 233 to 198 (roll call).

  • I agree with Braley -- the deficit matters

    Jobs and the economy are almost ALWAYS at the top of people’s priorities — “It’s the economy stupid.”

    The takeaway from the PEW article you linked is this:

    The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 5-9 among 1,503 adults, finds that concern about the budget deficit has increased in recent years. Currently, 64% view reducing the budget deficit as a top priority, up slightly from 60% a year ago, and 53% in 2009. Yet reducing the deficit continues to lag far behind the economy and jobs among the public’s priorities.

    64% of people consider reducing the budget deficit as a top priority– and the honest truth is that most of the American public probably doesn’t even know what’s going on with our deficit.

    The deficit is a national security problem and it’s getting worse. The deficit is hurting the dollar — it’s hurting our trade with other countries.

    The reason the deficit isn’t EVERYONE’S top priority because we haven’t had any “camel back breaking” moments.  What will happen when the first country starts making a run on our dollar? What happens if Russia or China makes good on their promise to switch their trade currency?

    When one of these things happens, EVERYONE will make the deficit a priority, but by then it could be too late.

    I’m a Democrat who fully supports our President — but I love that my Congressman is standing up against the deficit.  We need more people “breaking party” to talk about this tough topic, even if it means voting against a bunch of legislation that I might like to see past.

    Painful decisions will need to be made sooner than later.

  • Populist?

    What kind of populist gives up talking about Wall Street when most voters in November blamed Wall Street for the economy?  

  • Great piece

    I don’t think anyone is going to be making a run on our dollar any time soon.  Our relationship with China as complicated as it is, in some ways is mutually beneficial.  I  still agree with a lot of the comment made above however.

    I don’t think the concept of being a deficit hawk and caring about public expenditure are necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Bill Proxmire and Russ Feingold for example believed in a fully functioning federal government.  I don’t want to put Bruce Braley in their league yet, but it will be interesting to see where his career goes.  

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