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Debt deal’s cuts won’t hurt north country much, Owens says

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WASHINGTON — For all the talk about deep spending cuts in the deal Congress reached to raise the federal debt ceiling, the north country probably won’t feel much pain — at least at first, Rep. William L. Owens said Monday.

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, voted for the deal, which passed the House on a bipartisan vote comprised largely of middle-of-the-road lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

“In the first tranche of cuts, not a great deal of concern,” Mr. Owens said when asked what Northern New Yorkers might see in terms of less generous federal programs. Most of the roughly $1 trillion in cuts prescribed for a decade will come not from reductions in current spending but from slicing the anticipated increases in various programs, he said.

The hard part comes later, when a bipartisan committee required by the legislation starts looking for an additional $1.8 trillion in deficit reductions, Mr. Owens said. The 12-member panel, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, will be allowed to consider additional taxes or other sources of revenue to help close the deficit, although that is a considerably more difficult route politically.

Mr. Owens said he is concerned about the committee’s work because Congress has dictated the amount of savings to be achieved without having any idea which programs lawmakers will eventually be asked to cut. But even there, he said, he thinks Congress can achieve many savings without the draconian cuts liberal lawmakers fear and many conservatives advocate.

Certain outdated tax credits could be eliminated, for instance, he said, adding to revenue in a way that isn’t exactly a tax increase and might not be so objectionable to Republicans. And many programs can be run more efficiently, he said.

“So I think there’s a real opportunity to close that gap dramatically without additional cuts,” Mr. Owens said.

Cuts to national security, such as defense, are possible, as are cuts to entitlement programs, but the route to those sorts of cuts is narrow because they would be required only if the bipartisan committee fails to find its cuts elsewhere. The specter of cuts to defense and entitlement programs such as Medicare is designed to be unappealing to both sides and to give a strong incentive for other solutions, Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owens joined most, but not all, of his New York colleagues in support of the measure. Among upstate lawmakers, Reps. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, voted no. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-Onondaga Hill, joined the more conservative wing of her party in voting against the deal. Rep. Christopher Gibson, R-Kinderhook, supported it, saying the alternative would be a default that could lead to still higher unemployment and greater government debt due to rising interest rates.

Although spending cuts are on the way, Mr. Gibson said, locally-oriented programs such as grants to fire departments will survive. “It’s going to be more competitive,” he said.

Rep. Richard L. Hanna, R-Barneveld, who also supported it, said the debt limit “needs to go up thoughtfully.”

“I think they’ve done a good job changing the conversation,” Mr. Hanna said of leaders who crafted the deal to focus on spending reductions.

On the other hand, Mr. Hanna said, the spectacle by which Congress reached the deal so close to the Aug. 2 deadline was regrettable. “We looked like we were unable to govern,” he said.

Mr. Owens found plenty to dislike as well. As a matter of substance, he said, the deal should have been more open to additional government revenue, likely through a rollback of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Each of the bipartisan groups that examined the issue has said some kind of revenue increases are necessary to seriously reduce the deficit, he said.

Public polling also suggests the public supports the idea of new taxes, particularly on the wealthy, as well as spending reductions to restore the government’s fiscal balance.

Republicans cast aside the group’s advice and refused to have a conversation about new taxes, Mr. Owens said.

“This was not reflective of real collaboration,” Mr. Owens said.

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