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Gephardt says officials have to brave 'fat in the fire' to solve budget crisis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2012 - As Republicans and Democrats in Washington debate the looming “fiscal cliff,’’ former U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt predicts that a deal will be struck only if a few political heroes step up.

Heroes like former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Penn.

Both, contends Gephardt, put their careers on the line – and, some assert, lost them – by backing budget deficit deals in the 1990s that he maintains put the nation’s finances temporarily back on track.

The elder Bush and Margolies-Mezvinsky displayed “real leadership,” said Gephardt, particularly when they had to buck opposition within their own party.

Bush, for example, violated his “no new taxes’’ pledge made at the 1988 Republican presidential convention.

Now, said the former St. Louis congressman, it is time for President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to make similar tough choices.

“Leadership is taking on your own side, not the other side,” said Gephardt, who represented St. Louis in the U.S. House for 28 years, much of it as the chamber’s Democratic leader. “It’s easy to take on the other side. It’s really hard to take on your own side.”

Now a lobbyist and consultant, Gephardt suggested a similar recipe for today’s current crop of Washington leaders.

He contended that Obama – in his quest to get congressional Republicans to agree to raise taxes -- must publicly show that “he’s willing to take on his sacred cows. He’s going to have to say going in, ‘We’re going to have to cut entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid.’ ”

Democrats, Gephardt added, will “be livid” and accuse the president of threatening their party’s future. But he urged Obama to stick with that difficult political path anyway.

(Gephardt argues that the president should resist any talk of cuts in Social Security, saying that the program is necessary to elderly Americans, doesn't contribute to the deficit and needs only a few fiscal tweaks to remain financially solid.)

Gephardt offered up his assessments during a 90-minute discussion with students and others at Washington University, home of his Gephardt Institute for Public Service, before the election.

The event was scheduled to last an hour, but Gephardt forgot about the time as he began discussing the financial challenges now engulfing Washington. 

A package of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes – dubbed the “fiscal cliff” – is slated to take effect Jan. 1, unless Congress cuts a deal for an alternate way to address the nation’s huge deficits, which ballooned amid the 2008 economic meltdown.

Gephardt reminisced about the 1990 and 1993 budget deals that he helped craft. Both agreements, he added, had consequences – good for the country but bad for many leading political players.

Democrats lost control of Congress after '93 deal

Some Republicans contend that Bush lost the White House to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 because many Republicans were furious with Bush over the 1990 deal, which included targeted tax hikes.

Gephardt doesn’t entirely agree. But he says that Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress in 1994 because of the 1993 budget deal which, among other things, increased the nation’s gasoline tax by 3 cents a gallon.

“I tried to get 10 cents (a gallon), but I couldn’t get the votes for it,” Gephardt recalled, contending even now that the higher tax would have softened the federal government’s current fiscal woes.

Gephardt said that even his cold-water dose of political reality failed to move Democratic House members prior to that 1993 vote. “I told them ‘What difference does it make? (Republicans) are going to run ads against you anyway saying you increased the gas tax.' ”

That’s what happened to Margolies-Mezvinsky, who cast the deciding vote for the 1993 budget deal. She has recalled that she had to have police escorts during some raucous town halls in her district following the vote. She lost her 1994 bid for re-election

Gephardt noted that Republicans took control of the House in 1994 for the remaining decade of his time in Washington. But he added that while the loss was painful at the time, he now believes that Democrats “lost for the right reasons.”

Margolies-Mezvinsky (now the mother-in-law of Chelsea Clinton) later became a college professor and often brought students to Gephardt’s office while he remained in Congress – in the minority. Gephardt said he told her classes that they were seeing “a true American hero. This is somebody who gave up her career for the good of the country. To me, that’s the highest act of patriotism.”

Bush aware of the risk, even as he agreed to deal

Gephardt offers similar words when discussing the elder Bush, even though Gephardt made an unsuccessful bid for president in 1988 – the year then-Vice President Bush won his bid for the White House. (Gephardt also lost a quest for the presidency in 2004, in which he was sharply critical of President George W. Bush, whom Gephardt blames for some of the current budget woes because of his tax cuts and two wars.)

Gephardt recounted how the elder Bush had initially approached congressional Democrats shortly after taking office in 1989, citing the need to address the budget deficits that had risen sharply under his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

Gephardt said Democrats rebuffed Bush’s appeals because the president insisted tax hikes couldn’t be on the table – and took note of his 1988 convention pledge. Bush finally relented, telling congressional leaders of his change of heart when he had them over for dinner in the Oval Office. He told Democrats that he was willing to consider higher taxes if they were willing to cap federal spending.

Bush said he would put out a public statement underscoring his commitment. But what Gephardt remembers most was Bush’s demeanor later that evening, as the congressional leaders got in their cars to leave.

“He was standing next to me. He was going foot to foot, as nervous as a cat,” Gephardt recalled, “I said, ‘Mr. President, what’s wrong?' And he said, ‘the fat’s in the fire.’ He knew what he had done. And he knew the political risk that he was taking.”

Gephardt emphasized that he understood the reluctance, then and now. “Deficit reduction is politically poison,” he said. “It’s toxic. It’s like taking strychnine. You’re cutting Medicare, you’re cutting education and you’re raising taxes.”

Still, he asserted that what Washington and the nation need most are a president and a Congress brave enough to confront the "fat in the fire."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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