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Congressman Tom Cole on the debt ceiling, sequester, entitlement reform and the coming CR battle

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HH: Joining me now, though, is Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma’s 4th District. He’s a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He’s also one of sort of the inner circle, and one of the people that when you’re talking to Tom Cole, you’re really talking to House leadership. Congressman, welcome, it’s great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

TC: Hey, Hugh, it’s my privilege. Thanks for having me on.

HH: Now I have been blasting the House leadership for a few weeks, but I actually wrote something nice it today, because you gave an interview with John McCormack that actually laid out the key stuff. It’s the entitlements. And then the House Republicans came out of their retreat and said hey, you’re getting three months, and we want a Senate Budget. Did you guys get, like, a communications implant in Williamsburg?

TC: (laughing) Well, I would hope so. Look, if we listen to the people that send us here, we usually do pretty well. And I would argue we’ve done the Ryan budget two years in a row. It’s not like we’re not brave enough to go put things out there that we know we’re going to be attacked on. We’ve actually cut discretionary spending, something they didn’t do in ’95 and ’96, but it’s $100 billion dollars less than it was just over two years ago, and frankly, $191 billion dollars less than the President has requested. We can handle the appropriations thing, but we need to get at the entitlements. That’s where the real money’s at, and that’s where the tough political decisions have to be made. So hopefully, we can use these three triggering events that we’ve got coming up – the sequester, the C.R., which means the end of all Congressional spending authority at the end of March, and the sequester, of course, comes up at the end of February, that’s the across the board cuts, and of course the debt ceiling to try and wring as much as we can in spending cuts and in budget reform. We’ve got to get the Senate to finally write a budget, you know, to finally do its job, try to get the President to finally put a plan on the table that actually seriously impacts the problem over the next decade. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.

HH: Now in the interview you gave to the Weekly Standard, the reason I was so enthusiastic about it, you said some things that we don’t often hear. We’ve got to raise the Medicare eligibility age.

TC: Oh, no question. No question.

HH: And the other things, just tell the public what kind of…these aren’t…

TC: Right, and these are things, by the way, that the President at various points, because I would go well beyond this, but the President at various points put on the table – raising the Medicare age, hooking it with Social Security, probably raising both over time, is certainly something we ought to consider. On Medicare, we ought to look at means testing for high income individuals. We certainly ought to look at chained CPI. The President’s talked about that before, Democrats squeal. It slows down the increase in benefits, not a lot for any individual, but a lot of money over time. You mentioned in your blog, and I couldn’t agree more, part of the Budget Committee and helped to write the Ryan budget, essentially the transfer of Medicaid…

HH: To the states.

TC: …to the states as we’ve got it laid you, you know, we did that with welfare, and it worked. We always, the state people will always run these programs, quite frankly, better. And we didn’t slash the spending in it, but we slowed it down, made it inflation plus one, and trust the folks at the local level. Believe me, I trust Governor Mary Fallin in Oklahoma, my former colleague up here, and my colleague in politics for over 20 years, a heck of a lot more than I trust anybody in the federal government to run things.

HH: Terrific guest, by the way. So Congressman, is there any way to communicate to the public how much money we would be saving if we did those small, and they are small. Medicare to 67 or 68, Social Security up to 68-69, the chained CPI, they’re abstract, they’re necessary, but people don’t connect them with actual…

TC: Yeah, you’ve got to start putting the numbers with them, like chained CPI is over $300 billion dollars over a ten year period.

HH: Okay.

TC: And I can’t off the top of my head give you the numbers for the Medicaid and the Social Security, and there’d be a debate there as to whether you wanted to push it on up to 70. I think you should, given how long life spans are, but there will be a lot of yelling and squealing. But again, I think you’ll see a lot of the numbers, because we’re starting to work on the Ryan budget again. And you know, each time he’s done it, he’s made it better. And this time, we’re going to go after it with the goal of trying to reach complete balance within ten years. So it’s probably going to be more aggressive than anything you’ve seen in the past.

HH: So will some of these…

TC: And Paul and I have already talked about, because I’d pushed two years ago to put Social Security, and now I think it’s actually mathematically the easiest one to deal with, and the one that’s actually, it’s awfully big and awfully important. And so let’s do that. And I think this time, we might, although final decision on that hasn’t been made.

HH: I hope you do. Senator Kyl has always said to me that’s the easiest one to fix, and I think the American people would support it. So tell me what is the strategy as you come up, I know you’re going to do the three months, and they’ve got to do the budget deadline. That’s a great master stroke. Are you going to put these entitlement reforms into the C.R? Where are they going to show up in print?

TC: Well, they’ll probably show up, the C.R. doesn’t really affect the entitlement reforms. It really would have to be in the budgetary negotiations with the Democrats themselves. I think that if we get the three month deal done, and you know, we’ve got to have all the Republicans basically line up and support it, because we’re not going to get Democratic votes to do that, and hopefully my colleagues will do that. Then the next thing to me is to let the sequester happen. Those are across the board cuts. That’s, I don’t think that’s the best way to cut, but the American people support it, and they support it overwhelmingly.

HH: Not the Defense part, Congressman.

TC: Well, I agree with you on that, but that’s not what, the way the law’s written. So you’re either going to let it happen or not, but I agree with you. I sit on Defense Appropriations subcommittee, and I’m not happy about what’s already happened to Defense. We live in a very dangerous world.

HH: Yeah, I just went down to Pendleton, and I saw what’s happened to the Marines, with the 20,000 Marines going out and their equipment.

TC: Absolutely.

HH: This is a nightmare. So I’m not sure, the sequester makes a lot of sense, but there’s got to be something to save our national deterrent from this impact.

TC: Well, what the Speaker has argued, and that I think is true, is look, we’ll hold at that sequester number, but we’ll come up from the sequester number if you’ll work with us on a budget that balances in ten years. I mean, we just hold it until we get a budget. So it’s not meant to be a once and forever thing. And obviously on Appropriations, we’ll reconfigure on an annual basis, and I have no doubt Republicans will do what they’ve always done, they’ll put a heck of a lot more emphasis on Defense than any other kinds of spending out there.

HH: Okay, so the procedural stuff, when will we actually see the entitlement tweaks? And they are tweaks. They’re not the overhaul that the Ryan budget has, but we’re not going to get that in this government.

TC: Well, the best chance, a lot of this is going to depend on whether or not the President, because we’ve got to get through a Democratic Senate, we’ve got to get a presidential signature on it. So all these things linked together are designed to bring the President to the table and again, several of these things, he’s said he’s interested in before. So why should it be so hard to do them now?

HH: Agreed, but when will the Republicans actually say in black and white we want to raise Medicare, Social Security, bloc grant Medicaid, pass it from a committee…

TC: Well, we already have that, Hugh.

HH: Yeah, that’s…

TC: A lot of that stuff is already in the Ryan budget.

HH: It’s in the budget, but it’s not…

TC: It already is, and it will be again, and we’ll be, that budget will be laid out again, you know, according to time tables, probably sometime in early April. It always happened.

HH: You see, that…

TC: But I think we ought to be talking about this all the way through, and I think it needs to be part of the discussion when we reach sequestration.

HH: Well, I hope you come back next week, because…

TC: …because this is where the cuts need to come…

HH: Yeah, but…

TC: …it’s not on the discretionary side of the budget. It’s certainly not on the Defense discretionary side of the budget.

HH: Agreed, but the Republicans have to put it in black and white and send it to the Senate in a way that the public can say you guys really did vote to raise the Medicare age, and not…

TC: No, I agree with you 100%. Again, I don’t get to make all those decisions, but I think you’re absolutely right. And this is one we have to be unequivocal on. Now if we can’t make them pass it, okay, they didn’t pass it. But the good thing about this conference, Hugh, is that it’s actually a brave conference. The Republican conferences, you know, back in the early part of the decade, they would have never done anything like the Ryan budget on Medicaid, Medicare. They would have never done some of the tough stuff they’ve been willing to do, so…

HH: Yeah, but it’s like the Cleveland Browns. It’s brave, but it’s slow, and it doesn’t communicate well. So I’m hoping you pick up the pace. Congressman, thank you for joining me, Tom Cole from Oklahoma’s 4th district. Come back early and often.

End of interview.


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