Alfonse D'Amato

Congress: Stop fiddling while American taxpayers get burned


Let’s imagine our house on fire. What’s the first thing we’d want to do? Put it out! Try to save it to be repaired and reoccupied. But too often these days, when our Washington politicians see a fire, they throw gas on it, hoping to start new with their own plan for a dream house. That goes for both political parties, and their arson better stop soon, before the smoldering problems we face become an inferno.

Let’s start with health care. Democrats built a firetrap with their so-called Affordable Care Act. They wired it with so many faulty, convoluted provisions that it now threatens to engulf the entire health insurance system. If health care isn’t fixed now, insurance premiums will continue to soar, and insurance will be harder, if not impossible, to get in many parts of the country.

But what do they do in D.C.? The president and Republican Congressional leaders cling to a repeal-and-replace-Obamacare strategy without enough support even in their own party to get either done. When a few GOP senators express misgivings about the White House’s slash-and-burn strategy, they’re treated like the enemy. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, apparently at the White House’s bidding, called Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — whose state is particularly affected by his department — and threatened her with unspecified punishment if she didn’t toe the party line.

I spent enough time in Washington to know that making this kind of threat against a senator is about the dumbest thing you can do. Murkowski happens to be the chairwoman of the Senate committee that oversees Interior. Threatening her is not only going to fail, it’s going to hurt.

But wait, it gets worse: Now that ACA repeal-and-replace is dead, the administration is threatening to drastically reduce the federal “subsidies” that help stabilize health care premiums. But if that’s done, it turns out that federal “tax credits” would kick in that would cost $2 billion more than leaving the subsidies in place. That’s how complicated our health care system is. Tinker with one part of it and another part explodes.

Democrats in Congress, of course, seem hell bent on making the system worse, even more costly and unwieldy. They resist any serious effort to try new ideas like health savings accounts or allowing insurance to be bought across state lines. They fight reasonable efforts to contain future cost increases, and instead talk about a utopian Berniecare “single payer” system that independent analysts predict would add trillions of dollars to the national debt. Their solution to our house on fire? Let it burn down, and build a bigger one we can’t afford.

Fortunately, there now seems to be a ray of hope. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, is pulling together a bipartisan coalition to fix the health care system. He’ll get it done the right way, with hearings and input from his colleagues and health care experts. And in the House, Rep. Tom Reed of New York has assembled a Problem Solvers Caucus that’s reaching across the political aisle.

Still, the house-on-fire analogy extends to other pressing national issues. In just a few weeks, the federal government will run out of money to pay for programs Congress has voted for and the country has already bought. Defaulting on the payments for the national debt would affect everything from Social Security checks to supplies for our soldiers.

But some fringe elements on the GOP side say that unless they get their way on reducing federal spending, they’re OK with a default. Never mind that not paying bills could trigger a collapse of the country’s creditworthiness, as anyone who’s missed a house or car payment or two can appreciate.

And on the Democratic fringe, big spenders adamantly resist any suggestion to curb federal spending. Their solution: Take from the rich! Spend more on the rest! Sure, that worked great in Cuba and Venezuela.

All this infighting has left the government without a budget and staring over a debt cliff. Failing to address these financial challenges could lead to a spiral in which the markets plummet and the country slips into a recession deeper than the last, very painful one.

We all should agree that the nation’s problems need addressing: The immigration system is broken, and we need to protect our borders and stem the flow of foreign job-seekers who drive wages down for American workers. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and needs to be fixed by bringing back tax dollars stranded overseas by a corporate tax code that encourages offshore shelters. The international trade system is skewed against American companies and workers, and should be tilted back toward a fairer deal for our country. But these problems won’t be tackled unless our leaders put aside politics for the greater good of the people.

The real test of our democracy over the next few years won’t come from Russia, China or North Korea. It will come from us. The only thing we have to fear is . . . ourselves. Will we, as a nation, get down to work and solve our problems? Only if we all truly put America first.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column?