Residents push Pitts over ‘Fiscal Cliff’ vote

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Largely collegial event features satirical carols, detailed talk about spending and taxes at Congressman’s district office

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

Local residents gather to sing satirical Christmas carols and talk spending and taxes in the district office of U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts in Unionville, Monday evening. The local group, organized in part by MoveOn.com and the Kennett Area Democrats, was one of more than a hundred similar such gatherings at district offices around the country.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — At a time when partisan bickering is the norm, there was a surprisingly collegial discussion Monday night between local residents and staffers for U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts on the so-called “fiscal cliff” talks ongoing in Washington, D.C.

As happened at congressional district offices around the country — a program organized nationally by MoveOn.org and locally in conjunction with the Kennett Area Democrats — about two dozen residents visited Pitts’ Willowdale office Monday night, sang a modified Christmas carol and engaged in spirited but largely polite conversation over tax cuts and entitlement reform with Pitts’ District Chief of Staff, Thomas Tillett.

The group wanted to press Pitts to support a discharge petition on a bill passed by the U.S. Senate that would extend current tax rates for 98% of the population — those in attendance from the 16th Congressional District signed a letter asking the Congressman to support the bill. The discharge petition was the first of three questions the group had for Pitts. The second asked him to specify the deductions and loopholes in the federal code code he supported closing and how much those would save. The final question asked about his stance on cuts to Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security benefits and what the overall savings would be in his plan.

While Tillett did address all three issues during a roughly 20-minute question-and-answer session with everyone crammed into the district office, Pitts is expected to more formally respond to the residents in writing in the coming weeks.

Although it was clear that there were clear policy disagreements between the residents and Tillett, speaking on behalf of his boss, much of the discussion was civil and built around breaking down budget numbers — spending and revenue — and how the country found its way into the current financial situation.

Wayne Braffman, of Kennett Square, who organized the event said that Pitts’ staff were “gracious” and worked with him to make sure there were no misunderstandings similar to an October protest event that led to State Police being called and the event being ended early.

Tillett was willing to address Pitts’ positions on the issues, but cautioned that the district office is more focused on constituent services, as is typical. Most policy work is done in the Congressman’s Washington, D.C. office.

Addressing the discharge petition — a mechanism where 218 members of the U.S. House of Representatives can force an up or down vote on a bill when it is bottled up in committee or when floor leaders decline to bring it to the floor for a vote — Tillett said that such moves “are almost never successful.” He assured the group, though, “Congress does not support raising taxes on the middle class.”

Tillett said that the “fiscal cliff” situation was the result, put simply, of too much spending with too little income coming into the federal government.

“We have a serious problem in this country,” he explained.

He said federal revenue amounted to roughly $2.4 trillion, while federal spending was $3.7 trillion.

“Elected officials have been promising benefits to people without paying for them,” Tillett said. Up until now, that money has been borrowed, pushing the burden further into the future, rather than addressing it now.

Although he expressed guarded optimism that the Republican leadership of the U.S. House and Democratic President Barack Obama would find enough common ground to get some sort of deal done in the coming weeks to prevent widespread tax increases and spending cuts currently called for by previous legislation, it would impossible to predict how such a deal would look like.

“I won’t predict that,” he said. “That’s a fool’s errand.”

He did say it would be difficult to make either large cuts to current spending or bring in enough money to offset the current deficit. While he said expected that some tax deductions would face the axe — although that might come in the form of an income barrier (specifically, a set limit on the maximum income deduction, that might have little or no impact on middle class taxpayers but would increase the amount of taxes paid by the wealthy). Tillett also said he felt it was unlikely that current deductions for charitable giving, home interest or the Child Tax Credit would end up on the chopping block.

Responding to a question about Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security and possible benefit cuts, he said he thought it was also unlikely that there would be any change in benefits for current beneficiaries of the program.

“I know of no plan to cut benefits for current retirees,” he said. “There could be changes for future retirees.”

He said there were a lot of different discussions ongoing on that topic, from changing age requirements to a “means test” meaning some wealthy folks might not qualify for benefits at some point in the future.

Some of the residents asked why there seems to be discussions about cuts to the entitlement programs, as opposed to defense spending. Tillett said that while Pitts has a long track record of supporting a strong national defense, he would be open to looking at areas where spending could cut, citing some post-9/11 grant programs — and possible savings as the nation’s military pivots to a new mission: less large-scale engagements and more focused on the threat of terrorist organizations.

But he noted, as is an issue elsewhere in government, one of the biggest cost-drivers in defense spending is retiree benefits, something most lawmakers — Democrat or Republican — are not likely willing to cut.

The options, though, aren’t going to be easy, he said. Tillett said that about 22% of the budget is spent on Medicare/Medicaid; 20% is spent on Social Security; 20% is spent on what he termed as “income maintenance” various welfare, food stamp and unemployment programs; 20% is spent on defense and homeland security; 6% goes to pay debt service, interest on the money borrowed to cover the deficit; leaving just 13% for everything else the federal government does.

Put bluntly, he said, the single best option is to put people back to work, increasing the amount of money coming into the federal government and reducing the amount of funding needed for the “income maintenance” category.

“I think everyone can agree that high unemployment is unacceptable,” he said. “The best way to cut the deficit is to put people back to work.”

And while some cuts are needed in spending, it’s not an easy option, noting on person’s “needless spending” is another’s “crucial program.”

“People tell me we need to make cuts,” Tillett said. “It’s not as simple as people think. I say ‘tell me where.’ It’s difficult. It’s very difficult to raise taxes, it’s very difficult to cut spending.”

There were a handful of heated exchanges about the proper tax burden for the wealthy as the session started to wrap up, prompting some of the residents to leave — and continue to offer protest at the intersection of Route 926 and 82 during the evening rush hour.

Pitts is expected to issue his formal response in writing in the coming weeks.

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