My values system was shaped by a nurturing family and biblical lessons while growing up in a church parsonage in a small town, Sumter, S.C. Early on I internalized Micah 6:8, “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly.” The Book of James made a big impression on me, and not just because of my name. The edict in Chapter 2, Verse 20, “Faith without works is dead,” always struck me as a call to action.
I served this year on the debt-reduction task force chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, and since August I have worked with my colleagues on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction in search of common ground and a mutually acceptable pathway to decreasing our national debt, eliminating our deficits and expanding our economy. I made clear when I was appointed that I thought “compassion” should be our watchword and sacrifices should be shared.
In September, I laid out in The Washington Post my vision for the joint committee’s work. I wrote that I wanted to support a plan that makes smart cuts in unnecessary and duplicative spending, raises revenue through closing loopholes and creating a more balanced and fair tax code, and creates jobs and economic opportunities for working men and women.
Our committee has held countless conversations, private meetings and public hearings among ourselves and with our colleagues and constituents. During testimony from the director of the Congressional Budget Office and the heads of the Bowles-Simpson and Rivlin-Domenici debt commissions, I raised concerns about ever-widening gaps between America’s rich and poor. Over the past 30 years, the wealthiest in our country have enjoyed income growth of more than 65 percent for the upper 20 percent; the wealthiest 1 percent have had growth of 275 percent, while the lowest 20 percent have experienced only 18 percent growth.
Studies by the CBO and others have concluded that the middle 60 percent have seen their share of after-tax income decline 2 percent to 3 percent and that they are barely getting by, with little or no hope of ever getting ahead. This widening wealth gap is immoral, unsustainable and un-American. Congress must, and our committee should, address the fundamental inequities in our society. Our product should serve to reinvigorate the American dream and restore the sense of fair play that so many have worked so hard to establish over generations.
After three months of bipartisan and bicameral discussions, it is clear to me that the ingredients for an equitable way forward are there. The problem is finding the political will to bring it to conclusion. Although we are charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years, I agree with those who have said we should do more. I have embraced a big, bold and balanced approach. I have said many times that I’m a $4 trillion guy, and I believe that such could be attained without Democrats breaking faith with any of our constituents or our Republican colleagues breaking with any of their political commitments.
I understand signing pledges and suspect that all of us have agreed to them at one time or another. But it is beyond me how one defines eliminating a preference or closing a tax-code loophole as a tax increase. Loopholes that allow extremely wealthy and sophisticated Americans to avoid paying any, or an appropriate amount of, taxes while the middle class gets squeezed and working people struggle to pay their bills are fundamentally unfair. That is the big issue and the main obstacles to accomplishing something of which we can be proud and by which our nation will be strengthened.
I often reflect upon the Apostle Paul’s written admonition that “when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.” It would be a sad commentary on our state of affairs if a decade-old political pledge to a corporate lobbyist were allowed to prevent bipartisan progress on our nation’s most pressing issues. Yet with massive across-the-board budget cuts hanging over us like the sword of Damocles, that seems a possible outcome.
As the clock winds down to the committee’s deadline, I am often asked whether we will achieve our appointed objective. My reply remains the motto of the great state of South Carolina: “Dum Spiro Spero.” “While I breathe, I hope.”
James Clyburn, a representative from South Carolina and assistant Democratic leader of the House, wrote this for Sunday’s Washington Post.