August 18, 2011 1:17:00 PM
Members of the Columbus Kiwanis Club received a surprise when they showed up for the group''s weekly meeting at the Columbus Country Club: U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., gave them a pop quiz on their knowledge of federal spending and the national debt.
Wicker touched on a number of hot-button topics, from health care to Social Security and Medicare, saying while he doesn''t support eliminating such programs, he does believe the government needs to rein in spending.
A big supporter of the so-called "Ryan Budget," proposed by Budget Committee Chairman and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in May and defeated by a Senate roll call 57-40, Wicker said he not only voted for the plan but "greatly respects" Ryan.
The controversial plan called for a repeal of President Barack Obama''s Affordable Care Act, revamping the Medicare and Medicaid systems, closing corporate tax loopholes, and overhauling portions of the tax code.
Wicker asserted that although Ryan''s plan was "said to be cruel," -- a television ad by The Agenda Project depicted a man pushing an elderly woman over a cliff and asked "Is America Beautiful Without Medicare?" -- it would have brought the federal budget into solvency by 2050.
According to Wicker''s quiz, the federal government will spend the largest chunk of money on health care and Social Security in 2012, borrowing approximately 43 cents for every dollar spent.
By the end of 2012, the nation''s total federal debt is expected to equal 100 percent of the gross domestic product, which is the sum of all goods and services within a country and an indicator of standard of living and economic health.
Some economists, notably University of Maryland professor Carmen Reinhart and Harvard professor Ken Rogoff, both formerly of the International Monetary Fund, say a high debt to GDP ratio bodes poorly for a country''s ability to rebound economically.
The figures are "troubling and astonishing," Wicker said, -- a statement with which many in the audience agreed, including JoAnn Ferguson, who attended the luncheon with colleagues from the American Business Women''s Association.
Ferguson, who is 65 and on Medicare, said hearing the statistics was "frightening," but it helped her better understand some of the cuts being proposed.
"You have to change with time," Ferguson said. "I can see why we have to make the changes. It''s necessary."
But for people like Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, hearing about Obama''s freeze on the federal government''s discretionary spending, also known as "pork barrel spending," was a glum harbinger of hard times ahead, especially as the city and county governments wrangle budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.
"We''ve been used to earmarks," Smith said. "It''s really hurting the city and county. We''re at a standstill."
Wicker sponsored 223 earmarks totaling $415.4 million in last year''s Senate spending bill, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent non-partisan governmental watchdog group. But ultimately, Wicker joined forces with fellow Republican senators to symbolically ban the practice as part of a show of support for federal fiscal belt-tightening.
He told Kiwanians he still thinks bringing home the bacon is good though, adding that it''s not just for "bridges to nowhere," alluding to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin''s 2005 backing of $223 million in earmarks to build a bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska to Gravina Island, which is home to roughly 50 people. The issue became a controversial topic in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.
As for a proposed tax increase by President Obama, Wicker was blunt, saying, "A tax increase in this fragile economy would be a job killer."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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