The Georgia Republican has other interests on Capitol Hill, certainly.
As the former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he’s an influential voice regarding this year’s Farm Bill, which he happens to oppose in its current form. That also gives him a basis for calling for revisions to the federal guest-worker program to prevent a repeat of last year’s labor shortage that was so costly to Georgia producers.
As vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss stays involved with America’s national defense. He just returned from a trip to Asia where he met with some of the country’s spooks, and he’s heading out again this week to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“It’s pretty scary. There are lots of things that I hear that keep me up at night,” he said in a recent address to the Atlanta Press Club.
Still, he remains focused on the deficit.
Chambliss and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., started in 2010 what became known as the Gang of Six, the working group of an informal, bipartisan group of forty or so senators concerned about how to cut spending and boost revenue. They became the prototype for the Super Committee from the House and Senate that ultimately flopped in its effort to enact a concrete plan.
While the committee disbanded without success, the trigger of broad spending cuts and tax increases that was supposed to goad Congress into passing the Super Committee’s recommendations remains alive. It is set to kick in with the new year, and Chambliss wants to act before it does.
Of course, that’s an eternity away in political timekeeping. In the meantime are this year’s elections.
Two men whose names aren’t on any voters’ ballots this year are nevertheless worried about their own election next year as Senate majority leader, depending on which party takes control. And their reluctance to force tough choices on Congress for fear of angering voters is what’s prolonging the deficit turmoil, according to Chambliss.
“Here’s what’s going to happen Dec. 31 if we do nothing,” Chambliss said. “First of all, the (Bush era) 2001 tax package will expire, and every taxpaying American will see the largest tax increase in the history of our country.”
Well, those subject to the alternative-minimum tax and the estate tax will when those return to their pre-Bush levels.
At the same time, doctors treating Medicare patients will lose 27 percent of their income, a jolt that many observers expect will prompt them to turn away older patients who don’t have private insurance.
Then, whoever wins the Oval Office will quickly be asking Congress to raise the debt level within days of the inauguration.
The Gang continues to kick around ideas.
“We’re not giving up. We’re still meeting,” Chambliss said. “... We’re going to continue to work at it.”
He’s evening lobbying for a debate between the presidential nominees just on balancing the budget. If the candidates were frank, it would be fascinating. But if they want to get elected, they won’t offer any specifics.
Chambliss, who doesn’t have to worry about re-election this year, has offered some politically risky choices of his own. He has said the farmers he defends are going to have to take a hit in the Farm Bill.
He talks about “tax reform” and “closing loopholes” as a way to generate revenue -- another way of to say killing those deductions and credits found on the 1040 form.
He went so far as to applaud Mitt Romney for considering elimination of the mortgage deduction on second homes, but Chambliss recognizes no politician is going to completely eliminate mortgage and charitable deductions.
He would use the Bush tax cuts as a bargaining chip to convince Democrats to make spending cuts. Among those is Medicare, and more than raising the eligibility age by a year or two, he said.
Chambliss says he’s willing to take the criticism for pursuing deficit reduction.
“You’ve seen the arrows I’ve been taking. I don’t care,” he said. “I care about this country. If you’re going to make these votes based on what’s good for you politically, then you’ll make the wrong vote. You have to care about the future of the country.”
Naturally, politicians will resist the cuts with the same rhetoric. And they are likely to use a standard ploy of immediate tax increases with a pledge to reduce spending some time in the future, a future that usually never comes.
So far, Chambliss and his Gang haven’t had a lot of tangible accomplishments. But if persistence counts for anything, they may.
All of the action will come in a lame-duck session after the election. Until then, Chambliss is laying the groundwork with a message that doesn’t vary.