Steele: Put It All On The Table To Address Deficit

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele says it's time for Congress to seriously address the budget deficit. In an article for TheRoot.com, he writes that Republicans and Democrats' "wailing and gnashing of teeth" about spending, taxes and debt is dishonest. Host Michel Martin speaks with Steele about his take on deficit reduction.

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MICHEL MARTIN: We are going to continue our conversations about the deficit now with the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. He recently penned his first article for the online publication The Root. It's titled "America, We Need to Talk About the Deficit." In that piece he says that the quote, wailing and gnashing of teeth by establishment types on both sides of the aisle is dishonest when it comes to spending, taxes and debt, because he says that both are doing little to actually address America's fiscal health and unemployment issues. And Michael Steele is with us on the line now from his home office in Maryland. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

MICHAEL STEELE: Oh, it's a pleasure to be back with you, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, I wanted to ask, though, just about the tone of the piece. You're pretty critical, as you said, of establishment types, saying that they're really not actually doing anything. But in the past year, you know, there have been a number of high-level bipartisan commissions that have at least brought the issue forward. There are working groups in each house that are working on this issue. Are people really doing nothing?

STEELE: Well, let's see. It's great to have a meeting. How many meetings have we had on the deficit and the debt and budget issues over the last 30 years or 10 years - or five minutes? I mean, the reality remains that having a meeting is not the same as getting it done. The president's own debt commission was largely ignored by the president himself. And when that report first came out, he has not talked about it. He has not embraced it. And even since, the deficit commission has been sort of struggling to get attention in what they're proposing.

STEELE: And that is not just a common-sense solution to dealing with these problems, but an honest one in which you put everything on the table - from defense to entitlements to, you know, whatever is out there that we're spending money on - to really assess critically whether or not they have the same market value that's going to allow the American economy to grow into the future.

MARTIN: I notice that you said entitlement spending and defense spending, but I didn't hear the word taxes mentioned by you, as part of what everything needs to be on the table. Is it just, as a former RNC chair, you just can't bring yourself to utter the word taxes?

STEELE: No, no, no.

MARTIN: Or you really do think it should be off the table?

STEELE: No, I don't think it should be off the table. What I'm saying is, let's start with spending before you get into more spending, or taking more money out of people's pockets. You know, I love my friends on the left and their mantra against the wealthy. But I haven't found anyone in this country who wakes up in the morning and say, all I want to be today is poor. People aspire to wealth creation in this country. We get that.

No one should have to pony up an extra dollar, at this point, until we see from the Congress and the White House a serious effort to control the spending. Once you understand how much you have to spend, then you can more adequately - and, I think, equitably - assess how much more you may need to meet the needs of the country.

MARTIN: You add in your piece that it takes an audacious stroke - like House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan's proposal on Medicare, which we were talking about just a few minutes ago - to break what you call the bait-and-switch of budget politics. One of the things I'm curious about, though, is how does a proposal like that help break the logjam, when so many Democrats are just viscerally opposed to it? Like you just heard congresswoman Frederica Wilson say we're not going to solve this problem on the backs of the most vulnerable. And that's how I see this.

STEELE: Well, you got to get off of that.

MARTIN: So how do you break that - do you know what I'm saying? How do you break that logjam?

STEELE: With all due respect to the congresswoman, I would agree with her that yes, you know, a lot of the heavy spending that we see, and a lot of the deficit growth that we've seen, began in the Bush years. But it went through the roof over the last two years, in terms of the spending side of this. And the reality of it is, we've got to focus more in terms of the amounts of cost that these programs - whether it's a Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security program, a defense program, whatever it happens to be - to see: Is that dollar that we're spending really returning to us some real value?

MARTIN: Let me just press you on one point, which is - that congresswoman Wilson made. She says that the reason that the country is in the debt situation that it's in now - reminding us that in January of 2001, the budget was balanced; there was, in fact, a surplus; and that the reason that we are in the position we are in now is that there were two large tax cuts, that there were spending increases. But for the first time in U.S. history, there were two wars waged solely on borrowed funds - which were then followed, of course, by the recession, which of course drove - and it - so...

STEELE: She's absolutely right. I mean, the prescription drug program - totally unnecessary spending. And a lot of fiscal conservatives had deep heartburn about programs like that, that came along. I like to call it big government Republicanism that spent a lot more than the nation was taking in. Anytime you're cutting taxes and continue to spend more, that's an automatic deficit. I mean, just do the math.

But the reality of it is, you know, you can talk about what Bush did, but you also need the - the congresswoman also has to be honest about what President Obama has done. The trillions of dollars that have been spent in the last two years - on stimulus money that hasn't stimulated anything, on a health-care program that has a lot of due and payable ,that was not paid for.

So the reality of it is, both sides have played this Washington shell game for far too long. And if we're going to be serious about the future - meaning my kids, your kids, everyone else's kids and their kids - then we've got to be serious - beginning today - about what we're willing to pay for, and what else we need to do to make sure that that long-term sustainable viability of programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are in place for the 25-year-old in 40 years.

MARTIN: Michael Steele is the former chair of the Republican National Committee. His first article for the online publication The Root is titled "America, We Need to Talk About the Deficit." If you want to read that piece in its entirety - we hope you will - we'll have a link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org. Click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Michael Steele, thanks so much for joining us once again.

STEELE: Thank you.

MARTIN: We hope you'll come back and see us.

STEELE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Michael Steele joined us from his home office in Maryland.

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