Nobody has ever called Sen. Mike Crapo a showboat. Unlike many of his colleagues in the Senate, the Idaho Republican doesn’t toss off provocative sound-bites or elbow his way to a prime position in press briefings.
That unusual reticence for a successful politician makes it all the more remarkable that Crapo has emerged, suddenly, as a key player in an effort to develop a proposal to address the nation’s most pressing domestic issue — reining in the long-term deficit. As a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators that has been meeting behind closed doors to try to hammer out a comprehensive deficit proposal, the 59-year-old lawmaker acknowledges the substantive and political challenges, but at the same time, sounds upbeat about prospects for a breakthrough.
“We are making progress,” he said in an interview in his office. Crapo, who also served on President Obama’s fiscal commission, did not provide details of the deliberations, but he did offer some insight into the complexity of the task.
He said the group is “working through issues one at a time,” and grappling with the fact that in this area, the “politics are not static.” The group’s effort, he added, “just requires an immense amount of attention.”
The Idaho Falls native, who has compiled a very right-leaning record in the Senate — he tied seven other Republicans as the most conservative member of the Senate in National Journal’s latest vote ratings — compared the back-and-forth of developing a comprehensive proposal to manipulating a balloon. “If you push in at one side, it pops out on the other,” he said.
That Crapo would have plunged into such a high-stakes effort didn’t surprise five of his colleagues interviewed for this story, all of whom repeated, mantra-like, how tenacious and respected Crapo is. “Senator Crapo is an understated senator of enormous ability. He is a Harvard law graduate. He has the confidence of almost everyone in our caucus. He has got a 100 percent conservative voting rating by most groups,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Republican conference chairman, said.
Similar sentiments came from across the aisle — courtesy of Ben Cardin of Maryland, who tied for the most liberal senator in 2010 and who sits on two committees with the Idahoan. “I find Sen. Crapo to be one of those who likes to get results, who likes to get things accomplished,” Cardin said. “He is a pleasure to work with. He understands how the political process works.”
But given his conservative bent, can Crapo and the other two very conservative Republican members of the gang — Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Tom Coburn, R-Okl. — reach a deal with the group’s Democrats, including liberal Dick Durbin of Illinois and moderates Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Mark Warner of Virginia?
For example, when pressed about taxes Crapo noted, “Everything has to be on the table, but that doesn’t mean that everything has to be dealt with in a traditional way. Historically the way we have dealt with revenue issues is a traditional battle over whether to raise taxes or cut taxes.”
The president’s fiscal commission rejected that approach when it rebuffed the creation of “another huge tax engine,” Crapo said, referring to the value-added tax. “Instead, we evaluated the fact that if you look at our tax code, you could not probably devise one that is much more unfair, complex, expensive to comply with and anti-competitive in terms of our competitive posture in the world economy. And if we were to look at the issue in the context of tax reform rather than tax increases or tax decreases, we could actually reduce tax rates and grow the economy.”
But Budget Committee Chairman Conrad, who announced earlier this year he was not seeking re-election after five terms, has made it clear in Budget hearings that more revenues will need to be generated to get out of the fiscal ditch. The North Dakotan, who also served on the fiscal commission, noted that on the five occasions since 1969 when the budget has been balanced, revenues were between 19.5 percent and 20.6 percent of gross domestic product, higher that the more recent 18 percent level.
“Revenue at that [18 percent] level would not have produced a single balanced budget in a single year in all of those 40 years,” he said at a Budget Committee hearing on Feb. 17. Crapo disagrees. Noting in a brief second interview that the historic level has been in the 18-plus percentage range, he said, “I, personally, would prefer to see us focus on the historic average and then be more aggressive on controlling our spending policies in order to bring us into balance.”
How this issue of the revenue side of the fiscal fix is worked out is just one of many big challenges the gang faces. “The biggest challenge will be dealing with the standard political reaction that we have seen in America, historically, to major reforms — whether it be the reforms of discretionary spending, entitlement spending or the tax code. Special interest politics in America will be energized and activated to essentially attack any major reform proposal that includes a significant reform of their particular interest,” Crapo said.
Meanwhile, Coburn, 63, a physician and solid conservative who served on the fiscal commission, was dismissive of one of the most aggressive special interest groups. When asked on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” on April 2, about the harsh criticism of any proposal that includes higher taxes from activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Coburn said it constitutes little more than “background noise” and fails to address “the real problems ... in front of us.”
But as if to underscore the difficulties of selling a comprehensive proposal, Coburn’s fellow Oklahoman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okl., decried the “Senate gang” approach to solving problems. Noting that the fiscal problem is “a very partisan thing,” Inhofe said in an interview that when Democrats had a large majority in the House and Senate, they spent “unprecedented amounts of money” that made the deficit “bigger than our entire budget was in 1996.”
“That went right down party lines. So, to me — and it is just to me and not a position of the [Republican] party — when I see people lining up Democrats and Republicans, it gives the false impression that this is a bipartisan problem, and I don’t think it is a bipartisan problem,” Inhofe added.
Another unlikely member of the gang, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who is associated mostly with farming issues as the former chairman and now ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, made clear in an interview in February that “the American people … realize the seriousness of this [deficit issue].” He added: “Doing nothing is not an option.”
Chambliss did not underestimate the enormity of the task. “It is so complex, to try to put it on paper, that we are having a little problem in the drafting of it. That is what is taking time, but we will get it done,” the 67-year-old lawmaker said. “Then it will become a matter of how the leadership handles it.”
Warner, who served as governor before his election to the Senate in 2008, said on CNN on April 3, that the goal is to develop “a five- to 10-year plan … that will bring down our spending, that will reform our tax code, that will generate the revenues and the spending cuts we need to start chipping away at that $14 trillion debt.”
Durbin, 66, who served on the fiscal commission and is the most liberal member of the gang, is the number two Democratic Senate leader — a perch that might help him sway others in his party to buy in to the gang’s eventual proposal. Durbin has been a vocal critic of Paul Ryan's budget proposal.
“We'll come at it differently,” he said on Meet the Press last Sunday. “The idea of sparing the Pentagon from any savings, not imposing any new sacrifice on the wealthiest Americans, I think goes way too far. We have got to make certain that it's a balanced approach and one that can be sustained over the next ten years.” The fact that six senators with such different views are working together is a very positive development, Crapo said. “On this group of six, you see [across] the political spectrum, from far left to far right. I believe that is a very positive phenomenon.”
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