James S. Tyree
CNHI News Service
Norman, Oklahoma — The country’s political and financial systems face huge problems, but may not be as hopelessly messed up as they seem.
It was an underlying, if unspoken, theme to U.S. Rep. Tom Cole’s opening comments and answers to questions at a town hall meeting Thursday at the National Weather Center.
Cole said Congress, often criticized for partisanship that paralyzes policy-making, has managed to strike three major, last-minute deals over the past few months.
It extended the Bush tax cuts while extending unemployment benefits, passed the 2011 budget and agreed last week to raise the debt ceiling while cutting at least $2.1 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years.
“It has not worked well,” Cole said, “but it worked fitfully.”
He said Congress is likely to find easier agreements on three upcoming matters: Approving trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea that could create 750,000 U.S. jobs, passing a highway bill and approving job-creating incentives for companies to bring foreign-earned revenue back into the country.
Earlier in the day, Cole visited three Norman businesses owned by women — OMS Technologes, Fancy Cakes Etc. and the Pink Elephant Cafe — with Norman State Reps. Scott Martin, Aaron Stiles and Emily Virgin.
At the town hall meeting, Cole also discussed the U.S. government’s credit downgrade by Standard & Poor and military losses in Afghanistan, and he answered questions on entitlements, tax breaks, energy production and other topics.
Some audience members asked the congressman why he isn’t doing more to cut spending; others questioned the wisdom of a balanced budget Constitutional amendment.
Cole said he favors a balanced budget amendment, but reminded the audience that doing so requires two-thirds approval by both the House and Senate, followed passage in three-fourths of state legislatures.
“Even if it didn’t happen, I think the (national) debate would be worth it,” he said. “It forces people to stop and think about what to do.”
On the credit downgrade, Cole said two other credit-rating agencies have kept the country’s AAA rating, adding that Standard & Poor gave Lehman Brothers a AAA rating days before it went down in 2007.
“Having said that, we must be careful not to shoot the messenger,” Cole said. “The message is that the long-term debt trajectory still isn’t good.”
He told the audience that filled the National Weather Center’s auditorium that the debt ceiling compromise cut $900 billion from spending over the next decade and another $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion in cuts will be made by December.
A retired Army officer who earlier in the day attended the funeral of a serviceman killed in Afghanistan lamented that a small percentage of people care about the war and how little news coverage it’s getting.
“America is not at war,” he said, “the military is at war.”
Cole said this country spends more on caring for its veterans than all other countries combined and that both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have approved significant increases for their benefits.
While funding Medicare presents a huge fiscal problem that gets bigger by the day, Cole said Social Security, while also needing reform, is in far better shape now than in the early 1980s.
With Medicare, though, Cole said the average person pays about $109,000 into the program, but will draw out $340,000 worth of benefits.
Adding to that deficit will be the 10,000 people turning 65 every day, a trend Cole said will continue each day for 19 years.