As the United States begins a final month of negotiations before the looming Jan. 1 "fiscal cliff" deadline, this area's Republican members of Congress are more or less sticking to the party line of shunning tax increases on the top 2 percent of wage earners and instead calling for spending cuts.
Athens County is split between two congressional districts, with U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, representing Ohio's 15th District that includes the majority of Athens County, and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, whose sprawling east-Ohio district includes two southeastern-most Athens County townships, Troy and Carthage.
Stivers said he sees an increase in tax rates as a "last resort," while Johnson argued that tax rates should not go up at any level, calling for "comprehensive tax reform" and a "fairer, flatter tax."
President Barack Obama sent U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Capitol Hill this past week to pitch his plan. This proposal calls for nearly $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue over the next decade, while making $600 billion in spending cuts, including $350 billion from Medicare and other health programs.
It also contains $200 billion in new spending on jobless benefits, public works and aid for struggling homeowners — and would contain a provision making it virtually impossible for Congress to block Obama's ability to raise the debt ceiling.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from West Chester in southwest Ohio, was quoted by the Associated Press saying he was "flabbergasted" by the president's proposal, which he called "nonsense," adding that "there's clearly a chance" of going over the cliff.
The so-called fiscal cliff is series of draconian tax hikes and spending cuts that would automatically go into effect without a deal, potentially hurling the nation's economy into another dangerous recession just as it's clawing its way out of the last one.
Making the media rounds, the AP said Geithner characterized the GOP position as "normal political theater," expressing confidence that a bargain could be struck.
A large impediment to reaching a deal is a disparity between the president's proposal to extend what are known as the "Bush-era tax cuts" for the great majority of Americans who make less than $250,000 per year, and Republican insistence that the cuts be extended for everyone, including that top 2 percent tax bracket.
"The only thing that stands in the way of an agreement that's good for the American economy is if a group of Republicans decide they're going to block any increase in tax rates on the wealthiest Americans," Geithner said according to CBS NEWS. "I think it's very unlikely they choose to do that, of course, because there's so much at stake."
Boehner and House Republican leaders countered the president's proposal Monday with what essentially amounted to a re-introduction of the Simpson-Bowles plan that failed to make it out of its own committee last year.
In a letter short on details, the Republicans proposed raising $800 billion through unspecified loophole closings and limits on tax deductions while holding firm on declining to raise the top marginal tax rate on the top 2 percent of earners.
Moreover, the Republican plan calls for raising the Medicare retirement age from 65 to 67, as well as a variety of other cuts amounting to the slicing of $600 billion from federal health programs. Also, the proposal saves $200 billion by applying a less generous measure of inflation to all federal programs, including Social Security benefits.
Since Monday, Boehner has been taking shots from the Tea Party base of his party who are slamming him for considering any revenue increases whatsoever through tax changes.
U.S. Rep. Stivers declined to be interviewed about the situation for this story, instead sending an emailed statement through spokesperson Courtney Whetstone.
"Congressman Stivers thinks that during the current negotiation, everything needs to be on the table for discussion; however, increasing tax rates has always been a last resort option for him," Whetstone said. "He believes Congress first needs to make a good-faith effort to seriously reduce government spending. Only then would it be acceptable to have a conversation with the American people about how much government they want and how they want to pay for it."
Johnson, meanwhile, said during a phone interview on Wednesday that from his perspective Washington is not facing this problem because Americans are taxed too little, but rather because Washington spends too much.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we're going to see an agreement that's going to avert the fiscal cliff," he said. "I can't tell you when that's going to come… I know there's a lot of political posturing and things like that going on."
Johnson characterized the current tax code as "burdensome," saying that the answer lies in broadening the tax base by increasing employment levels.
"Job creation and economic issues are the big (things) on everyone's mind," he said.
Johnson said that the president's plan to roll back the tax cuts for the top marginal bracket of individuals making more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000, would generate $800 billion over 10 years.
"With an annual deficit of $1 trillion, you're talking about addressing only 8 percent of the annual deficit," Johnson said. "What do we do about the other 92 percent? That's where curbing government spending has got to be on the table."
The president's proposal does include other tax reforms in addition to that top rate change, as well as reforms to Medicare spending.
However independent experts have continually noted the looming insolvency of some of the nation's largest programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The administration has said that it will negotiate on long-term fixes to those systems, but posits that including Social Security reform in the fiscal cliff debate is a nonstarter.
Johnson said that both Medicare and Social Security need to be strengthened and preserved. He said that these are not "entitlements" but obligations that the government is compelled to see through.
"It's time to stop the political posturing, roll up our sleeves and really get down to the tough work at hand," Johnson said.
Regarding taxes, Johnson reiterated his position that the problem in Washington lies on the spending side and that tax rates should not go up for any tax bracket.
He did call for "comprehensive tax reform," however, and a "fairer flatter tax," though he did not provide specific details for how that should be done.