This week provided an opportunity to catch up with U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo as he conducted a public forum in Andover Monday evening, and on Wednesday at a meeting in his east Wichita office. Pompeo, a Wichita Republican, is in his first term representing the Kansas fourth congressional district, which includes the Wichita metropolitan area and surrounding counties.
As has been the case with his other forums or town hall meetings I’ve observed, it’s standing room only, and popular topics are federal spending and debt. At the forum in Andover, Pompeo presented charts showing the course of federal spending and debt under President Barack Obama’s plans, and under alternatives proposed by Republicans, specifically Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin representative who is chair of the House Budget Committee and architect of the budget that recently passed the House of Representatives, but not the Senate.
Historically, the U.S. government has spent about 18 to 19 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). But the Obama budget calls for that percentage to rise, and that’s what causes the projected increase in debt, he said. Republicans have proposed a budget that gets the country back to historical levels of spending.
On raising the federal debt limit, Pompeo said he voted against it once, and “I will vote no absent radical change in our spending behavior.” A questioner pressed him to vote no under any circumstance. Pompeo said that there is money that has been obligated but not yet been actually spent, so the only option is default if the debt limit is not raised at some time. “We have to acknowledge that the Congresses before us and the folks who voted them in have put us in this place.” To get us off our spending addiction, Pompeo said we need significant and real short-term spending cuts, real spending caps (he recommended 18 percent of GDP), and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
In telling the audience how the country got to this position, Pompeo said there has been a culture of “yes” in Washington. When someone walked into a Congressman’s office over the last 70 years and said I’ve got a good program, the answer was yes.
On Medicare, Pompeo said that the president’s plan for fixing health care costs is to have a board of “really smart people” (the Independent Payment Advisory Board) be in charge of prices. But “price control isn’t cost control,” he said. Costs can’t be forced down by law, and if we try this, we’ll have worse access to care and lower quality care, he said.
On Social Security, a questioner asked if Pompeo would support removing or increasing the limit on income which is subject to the FICA payroll tax. Currently that limit is $106,000, and income earned beyond that is not taxed under FICA. Pompeo would not agree to that, telling the audience that Social Security, as a program, has grown far beyond the original intent. It was originally designed as an anti-poverty insurance program, but now has grown to become a much larger portion of people’s retirement income. He said that this is because people have already been taxed too much, leaving them with less resources of their own for their retirement.
Although the Republicans have not yet presented a plan for Social Security, Pompeo said he thought the plan would include no change to the present system for those 55 and over, a rise in the age at which benefits start for those presently under 55, and a change in the way cost of living adjustments are calculated. He said he would support such a plan.
Pompeo told the audience that the practice of earmarking — allocating money to be spent on specific projects and the source of much “pork barrel” spending — is over. But he warned of a “clever creature” back in Washington, which he said is using the tax code to spend money: “Instead of earmarking money for someone, you give them a tax credit. Same effect, but different mechanism.” Pompeo said he has been at the forefront of pushing back on this practice. Engaging in social policy through taxes is disastrous, he said, because the people who will win are those with the best lobbyists, and that success in business should not depend on a benefit gained through government tax policy. He said that something like the FairTax (a tax on consumption spending rather than income) or lower marginal income tax rates with far fewer exceptions would boost the economy. Pompeo has introduced a resolution declaring that it is the “sense of the House” that no new energy subsidies or credits should be created, and that all existing should be repealed.
In an interview in his office on Wednesday, he said that he twice voted against tax credits for ethanol production, even though ethanol is fairly important to his district. Also, he said he would vote against the tax credits for wind energy production. (Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is courting wind power equipment manufacturers to locate in Wichita. Without the wind power production credit, industry representatives have said its future would be much smaller.)
On natural gas, a product for which energy investor T. Boone Pickens is seeking to obtain federal subsidies to boost its use as a transportation fuel, Pompeo said that government should not pick that — or any other fuel — as a winner with taxpayer dollars. Consumers, he said, will be able to decide on which fuels are best.
In his office, he said that what he found most disturbing about the scandal involving Representative Anthony Weiner is he did not tell the truth to the American public. Had Weiner admitted his behavior early on, events might have taken a different course, he said.
I asked about the level of knowledge of civics among citizens today, and Pompeo said he thought that people are paying a lot of attention to what elected officials are doing, with a significant number of citizens are very well informed. Today, he said that the Internet has greatly reduced the cost of obtaining information about government, which he said is an important change in our political process.
On the legislative process, Pompeo said that over the last 25 or 30 years Congress has been unwilling to create “substantive markers” in legislation. Instead, it creates vague laws and funds administrative agencies to implement them. These agencies are less accountable than elected officials, and Congress has handed over much authority to them.
I asked about the deficit, which is a topic of much current interest, but also about the existing federal debt: Are we talking about paying off that debt as a goal, or is getting to a balanced budget a tough enough goal for now? Pompeo said that the debt-to-GDP ratio is the most important debt measure, and we must work to bring that down to sustainable levels.
(According to a recent U.S. Treasury report, the debt-to-GDP ratio is now expected to rise to 1.02 this year, meaning that in order to pay off the debt, it would require all the income earned by Americans working for one year and seven days.)
The only way to pay down the debt is to run surpluses — “and we’re not there,” Pompeo said, noting that the deficit this year is $1.5 trillion. The Ryan budget plan, which he said he voted for, still has deficits in the hundreds of billions. Growing the economy — the other part of the equation — will help get the debt-to-GDP ratio under control, and he said we need to work on both spending reduction and economic growth.
Talking about a budget surplus brings back memories of the last time there was a budget surplus, which was the final years of the Clinton administration. Since Clinton raised income taxes during his term, liberals often argue that we should do the same now as a way to cut the deficit. But Pompeo said the foundation for the prosperity of the Clinton years — which lead to the surplus — was built during the Reagan and the first Bush presidencies. Also, Clinton faced a Republican Congress, which applied some restraint on the growth of spending. We also forget that some of the Clinton-area prosperity was due to the Internet dot-com bubble, which, like the housing bubble later on, proved to a false and unsustainable prosperity.
On the current housing crisis, Pompeo laid its blame on many years of bad federal government policy, including the government’s goal of increased home ownership as an “article of faith,” without recognition of the economics of home ownership. He said he believes that the federal government is still propping up home prices in certain markets, so the problems with the housing market are not behind us, as markets have not been able to discover the correct prices for homes.