Michele Bachmann: The House Rebel with a Fiscal Cause
Policy + Politics

Michele Bachmann: The House Rebel with a Fiscal Cause

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Washington will be a very different place next year once a new freshman class of conservative House and Senate members arrives. That’s the view of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., queen of the Tea Party and a formidable political force. Bachmann says voters spoke loud and clear when they put the GOP back in power in the House last month, and that will lead to an ongoing drive to cut spending, shrink government and resist tax hikes of every stripe.

Bachmann has shared the limelight with Sarah Palin and other conservative superstars in recent months, and demonstrated extraordinary fundraising prowess by raising more than $11 million for her reelection bid – the most raised by a House candidate. As head of the now-53-member House Tea Party caucus she founded in July, Bachmann will serve as den mother to an influx of dozens of newcomers who were elected under the Tea Party banner in November.

For sure, there have been setbacks, including her recent failed attempt to win a House Republican leadership post. And critics are vocal. Ryan Rudominer, spokesman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, “Michele Bachmann is more intent on imposing her extreme social doctrine and dangerous agenda than on creating jobs and growing the economy.” Political scientist Steven Smith, of Washington University in St. Louis, says that Congresswoman Bachmann will likely “find Washington frustrating, so giving attention to the conservative movement in the country will be attractive to her.”

Still, the spirited Bachmann is now readying for her new role as power broker in the 112th Congress. As Congress met this week in a lame duck session, Bachmann talked to The Fiscal Times about vital economic issues.

The Fiscal Times (TFT): You’ve spoken out against increasing the debt limit. What do you recommend instead to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on obligations?

Michele Bachmann (MB): We can no longer live under the delusion that we can spend money we don’t have. Unfortunately, the stimulus bill and ‘cash for clunkers’ go right down the same road of all the foolish spending that’s occurred. We didn’t see a reduction in unemployment from that. In fact, the administration has been warning that the ‘new normal’ will include elevated levels of unemployment. That’s nonsense. We don’t have to be content with elevated levels of unemployment. We need to be bold about cutting spending.

“In seven years, Medicare will be flat-out broke. We know
this is about to happen. We need to make reforms right now.”

: How would entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare be impacted, then?

MB: If we can get government spending back to 2006 levels — though I know our Republican leadership has been calling for a return to 2008 spending levels — and then begin the process of sitting down with our Democratic counterparts and coming up with true, viable reforms for Social Security and Medicare, I think we’d send a positive signal that we do want to work together on a solution. This year, Social Security is spending more money than it’s taking in, and within seven years, Medicare will be flat-out broke. If our fiscal ship is heading toward an iceberg, we need to turn it around right now so that someday, very vulnerable senior citizens don’t go to their mailbox and see an IOU from Medicare and Social Security.

TFT: What other legislative priorities do you have in mind?

MB: We need to address the tax tables. It’s irresponsible that this hasn’t been done before. Here it is December, and businesspeople and individuals not only have no idea what the tax rates will be, they also don’t know what will happen with the death tax, with dividends taxes, with capital gains.

“People are almost paralyzed financially in my district. They see
a big question mark coming out of Washington—and very few answers.”

: Have you heard from people in your district on this?

MB: It was the number-one issue during the campaign. Businessperson after businessperson said to me, ‘Michele, what are these people thinking? We have no idea how to plan.’ People were very polite—they’re always very polite in Minnesota—but they were also getting angry. They felt the incompetence coming out of Washington. They felt their elected officials were failing to appreciate and understand how difficult it is for businesses to move forward. I say this as a businessperson myself. My husband and I own a business [a mental health-care clinic] with about 50 employees, so we know the challenges. And people aren’t sure what the new requirements of Obamacare will mean for health insurance premiums.

So rather than adding certainty in our economy, people are almost paralyzed financially in my district. They see a big question mark coming out of Washington and very few answers.

TFT: What, realistically, do you believe lawmakers can accomplish in this lame duck session?

MB: Quite a bit, if we want to. It would be very easy for us to pass a measure that simply extends the current tax policy with no increase in taxes, and to continue the policy of zero taxes on the death tax. Also, with capital gains and dividends, we could continue the current rate so we don’t see the huge spike in dividend. But we all know from experience [what keeping current tax policy will do]. We will see failure of job creation if we see tax increases. Something like $1.2 billion will leave my district and come to Washington, D.C., if the tax policy isn’t extended — that would really hurt my district and would mean about 2,000 jobs lost.

TFT: You’ve said you’d be willing to support a tax bill that extends the tax cuts for the highest earners, even temporarily. What led you to that compromise?

MB: I think businesspeople would like more of a long-term solution. But if we can’t get that, then I can accept a continuation of the tax cuts for two years as long as it’s not tied to any additional spending, because quite frankly we can’t afford additional spending.

TFT: We’ve heard so many times that a freshman class in Congress will make a big difference, and yet, time and again, it doesn’t. What’s different about this class?

MB: The quality of the members. They came in on a message of fiscal austerity, of getting our house in order. They know Americans are taxed enough already and are not eager for taxes to be raised. They see that the government has spent more than it’s taking in and they’re not about to let that happen any longer. And they have a very strong allegiance toward our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. I think that you will see them wanting to act within the limits of the Constitution. I’m very excited about what I’m seeing. This will be a repositioning, if you will, of members going forward.

TFT: Some experts say the strong investor response to the recent GM stock sale is a sign that the auto bailout worked. Do you agree?

MB: I don’t think that’s true. The taxpayer is not winning in this equation. Clearly, this is a strong subsidy of the IPO. The Chinese are involved in purchasing equity interest in GM — this has never occurred before in our country, where we have our government and now a foreign government purchasing what was formerly the largest car company in the United States. We need the federal government to get out of proprietary interests and privately held businesses and go back to adopting free market economics, the system that created our nation to be the greatest economic powerhouse in the world.

TFT: What more should government be doing to spur the private sector to create jobs?

MB: Government needs to recognize what its jurisdictional limitations are. That has been the problem of government really since the mid-1960s, when we saw the explosive growth of the welfare state. And unfortunately we’ve all witnessed in this living laboratory of the last 40 years the failure of the welfare state. Not only has it not lifted people out of poverty, it’s expanded the rates of poverty, and unfortunately it’s also perpetuated more out-of-wedlock births — and that doesn’t help the children who are born into those situations. We need to retool what government does. We need to encourage people in both private business and charitable institutions to be empowered to help those on the social welfare side, but then also to let the economy go forward, innovate and thrive. Clearly, government is not the engine of prosperity. Government has proven to be a very poor manager of relieving people’s suffering.