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Rep. LaHood says bipartisan legislative commission should develop a deficit-reduction plan

U.S. Representative Darin LaHood talks with a Unit 5 School District official
Charlie Schlenker
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood talks with Unit 5 school district official Curt Richardson at the opening of LaHood's new district office in Uptown Normal on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

Members of both major parties have increased the budget deficit in the last decade, said U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood. And both parties will have to participate in any successful effort to reduce it.

The Peoria area Republican who represents part of Bloomington-Normal has been vocal about the need to reduce spending to stabilize the budget. The federal government spending gap last year was $1.33 trillion. Total government spending in fiscal year 2022 was $6.27 trillion. The size of the national debt in January was $31.38 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The debt is larger than the annual gross domestic product.

The scope of the issue and the nature of the American system complicate budget-reduction efforts. LaHood spoke with reporters Tuesday at the opening of a new district office in Uptown Normal. He acknowledged there will have to be bipartisan pain to shrink the deficit. For Republicans, he said, that means defense cuts.

"It seems like every member of Congress has a defense plant in their district, whether it's submarines, aircraft, or something else. I think if you can't pick and choose where we cut back on our defense budget, I think you have to go across the board. I think that's the easiest way to do it, and the fairer way to do it," said LaHood.

Some policy analysts have contended it may be easier and fairer to elected officials, but not the most deliberative way to assess the needs of the Defense Department and the nation. Yet efforts to take politics out of the decision-making have had mixed success.

A federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) was designed to coordinate right-sizing defense installations. At each round of activity in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005, there was intense political activity following commission decisions, and the final list of closures and reductions turned out to be less than initially proposed.

Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul in eastern Illinois was a casualty of the 1988 BRAC. Even absent legislative involvement, there is no guarantee such decisions will not be political. Unit and base commanders and different service branches that have facilities slated for downsizing have had a history of internal Defense Department lobbying for changes to closure and reduction lists.

LaHood said 70% of government spending is on entitlements, and Democrats must be willing to accept cuts to those.

"We've looked at some of the SNAP benefit programs, the work requirements that are a part of that. We're looking at TANF and how we can make those more efficient, more effective, more accountable. I think everything has to be on the table for that. If you can't agree to that, then I think you have to look at caps, maybe 1% across the board for everything," said LaHood.

Bipartisan legislative commission?

LaHood also said he would like to see a bipartisan legislative commission created to develop a deficit-reduction plan.

LaHood cited the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction measure of 2010 as a model effort that could set a useful example for present-day budget negotiators. Bowles-Simpson was supposed to reduce the deficit by $5.5 trillion through $2.9 trillion in program cuts and almost $2.6 trillion in revenue increases over more than a decade.

The problem with such measures is lawmakers tend to backslide after cutting the deal. And conditions change that may require additional spending to address a foreign conflict, a natural disaster from weather, or say a pandemic. Both parties engage in such tinkering. LaHood himself voted for one such change — the 2018 Trump administration tax cuts.

“I think that's probably one of the most monumental things that I voted on,” said LaHood. “We moved almost 6.5 million people out of poverty after that bill was passed. The point is giving opportunities at all levels with lower taxes, people being able to spend more money. If you do it the right way, it can really benefit people at all levels of the economic spectrum. Making those permanent is something that I have generally been supportive of, always keeping in mind the deficit.”

LaHood did not answer a question on whether the 2018 tax cuts would have to be rolled back to achieve meaningful deficit reduction.

And with the next presidential election cycle coming, bipartisan compromise is not going to get any easier.

"We have to keep working at it," said LaHood.

This week, the Fitch bond ratings agency downgraded the long-term credit rating of the United States. It said the nation’s high and growing debt burden, complexity of budget processes, and penchant for brinkmanship over America’s authority to borrow money had eroded confidence in its fiscal management. It is the second downgrade in America's history.

GOP presidential politics

In a Fox News interview Monday, GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis pointed to polling suggesting he would do better than Trump against Biden in the key 2020 battleground states of Georgia and Arizona, while suggesting that Trump may not have the discipline and focus to execute a conservative vision.

LaHood declined to address DeSantis’ line of argument.

“I think it's really early in the presidential race. It's not until next year that we're going to have the first of the primaries. We're going to have a debate here in about a month in Wisconsin. That will be a pivotal point to see how people do in debates. I do think we have a deep bench of people that are running for president,” said LaHood.

LaHood said he wants someone who can win in 2024.

“I think politics should be about the future and not about the past, being about the future, having an optimistic vision as a Republican, and what we stand for is what I'm looking for in a candidate,” he said.

LaHood co-chaired the Trump campaign in the last cycle. Asked whether that reference to the future instead of the past means he will not support Trump, who is the GOP frontrunner in the next cycle, he replied, “I think it's too early. I haven't made any decisions on who I support here. We're going to have, I think, 11 or 12 different debates between now and Iowa. We'll have to see how that plays out.”

New Trump indictment

The interview with LaHood took place minutes before federal prosecutors unveiled new charges against former President Trump related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the conversation with reporters, LaHood declined to address a then-hypothetical about those charges and said he would need to read any indictment before reacting.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.