By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Finding common ground will be crucial to bridging the $90 billion chasm between the Republican and Democrat federal budget proposals, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole said Monday.
“Why don’t we start where we agree, rather than where we disagree?” said Cole, R-Moore.
Cole, who represents Oklahoma’s Fourth District, is one of four House Republicans appointed to serve on a 29-person conference committee to negotiate the budget. The committee — which includes seven House members and 22 senators — has been charged with the goal of producing a budget resolution by Dec. 13.
Cole anticipates that the process could be “very fractious.”
“It’s like negotiating Middle East peace,” he said. “The divisions that exist on Capitol Hill are divisions that exist in American society.”
The budget conference will bring four groups to the table: House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats. Additionally, the president has a budget.
Cole hopes the committee will first tackle the areas where those groups agree, such as the United States Chained Consumer Price Index. One tool for reducing the deficit and moving forward might be using the Chained CPI as a way of establishing cost-of-living increases, Cole said.
The Chained CPI, or C-CPI-U in the language of government alphabet soup, was first published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2002. It was created to be a closer approximation to cost of living than existing measurements, according to the BLS.
In simplest terms, instead of using only rising costs in set categories, allowance is made for consumers shifting to lower-cost items. The BLS website uses the example of pork and beef as an illustration: If the price of pork rises, people buy less pork and more beef.
Rather than using the increase in pork prices as a set cost-of-living increase, the Chained CPI takes the substitution to lower-cost beef into account.
Tying budget cost-of-living increases to the Chained CPI means a “slower rate of growth,” for programs like Social Security.
“It’s not a reduction — benefits don’t grow as rapidly,” Cole said.
Finding common ground might get the ball rolling, but it won’t eliminate the potentially divisive nature of the talks when it comes to discretionary versus non-discretionary spending.
“The first thing is to actually get a budget,” Cole said. “We haven’t had one since 2009.”
Namely, the budget the Senate passed in March was the first in four years. Because the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House, getting a budget resolution adopted will require bipartisan effort, he said.
Second on Cole’s budget priority list is to continue to make progress on cutting the deficit. Cole said the deficit has been cut in half the last three years, but more needs to be done.
Dealing with the sequestration issue and the resulting furloughs is also a high priority for the congressman. The district Cole represents includes two military bases — Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Sill near Lawton — as well as the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the National Weather Center in Norman.
“We’re going to continue to have shutdown on this sequester system,” Cole said.
Cole believes the solution is to take a slice out of the entitlement pie, which currently accounts for 60 percent of the federal budget. Making those cuts is “politically difficult” but necessary for budget stability, he said.
“If you don’t solve the entitlement side, everything that’s discretionary is going to get hurt,” Cole said.
Identifying and eliminating waste is harder than some might think.
“People always think government waste is something other than what they use,” he said.