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U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney has a hunch about how the nation will avoid a fiscal crisis come January, when the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire and billions in automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending take effect.
Theres a better than average chance that youre looking at a tax increase one way or another, the first-term Indian Land Republican said in an interview this month with The Herald.
The difference will be between a smaller increase if Republican Mitt Romney takes the White House, or a larger one if President Obama wins a second term, he said. Mulvaney supports neither approach.
It might work this way, he says: the tax cuts signed into law by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama are set to expire at the end of the year.
Congress would be criticized if it were to vote today to raise taxes. But if Congress waits until after the Bush-era tax cuts expire and then approves smaller cuts, they can say: I never voted to raise your taxes. I voted for a tax cut.
Thats how we end up with a de facto tax increase that still allows politicians to tell people they didnt vote for it, he said.
Managing semantics to make ourselves look good is Mulvaneys first-term inside view of Washington.
I hate to be that cynical after just two years, he said.
Mulvaney is seeking his second two-year term in the U.S. House in the Nov. 6 general election. He is being challenged by Democrat Joyce Knott.
In 2010, Mulvaney beat 28-year incumbent John Spratt, a Democrat from York. He was elected after serving just single terms in the S.C. House and Senate.
Despite the cynicism, Mulvaney has found his niche in Congress as a numbers guy with knowledge of economics, something he says not many members of Congress understand, regardless of how bright they are or how knowledgeable they are about other important topics.
He serves on the House budget and small business committees, and the joint House-Senate economic committee. Hes a member of the Republican Study Committee, the Houses conservative caucus.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a West Columbia Republican representing the states 2nd Congressional District since 2001, said Mulvaney has a rare talent for numbers and understanding the budget crisis that our country faces.
Mulvaney is a real stalwart on behalf of fiscal responsibility, Wilson said.
During the 2011 debate over raising the nations debt ceiling, Mulvaney co-authored a bill called Cut, Cap and Balance, which called for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget along with spending cuts and caps. The bill passed the House with little support from Democrats before being tabled in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
He co-authored a proposed budget that he claimed would balance in five years, a far more aggressive approach to budgeting than even Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan proposed. Ryans said his proposal would balance in 2040. Mulvaneys budget did not advance in the House.
Budget reform cant come without addressing entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, he said. Mulvaney also advocates eliminating all energy subsidies, broadening the federal income tax base and reforming the corporate tax structure to encourage companies to invest at home.
If Romney wins, Mulvaney will likely be someone to be called on by the White House and by Senate leaders to develop a budget, Wilson said.
Understanding the risks
Mulvaney said his understanding of the depths of the challenges that we face has changed since he was elected.
I did not realize that the debt was as significant as it was, he said, adding that both parties are to blame for increasing the deficit. It exposes us to such risks that quite literally there have been times it has been difficult for me to sleep.
Things are better now that members of both parties are paying lip service to the magnitude of the problem. But Mulvaney said hes not convinced that a majority of them grasp the scope of the difficulties.
In a conversation with Ryan, who also has an economics background, Ryan told him there are few people in Congress who understand the issues because they lack a background in economics.
Counting himself among those who do, Mulvaney has an advantage during a time when swelling debts and deficits are the issues dominating in Washington, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and pollster at Winthrop University.
Anyone who is branded or brands himself an expert on these topics is seen as the elite within Congress. The truth is there are a few more people who are experts on the economy, Huffmon said.
Nobody knew the economy and the budget better than John Spratt and he was a fiscal conservative for years, although he was successfully branded otherwise, Huffmon said.
Mixed feelings in the district
Mulvaneys base of support is strong, especially in York and Lancaster counties where tea party activists coalesced to help him win in 2010.
Mulvaney also impressed Rock Hill NAACP president Melvin Poole when he held a town hall last year with the NAACP at the Freedom Center.
Mulvaney gave a slide presentation and stayed for more than three hours taking questions.
Many in attendance didnt agree with Mulvaneys reasoning on issues such as healthcare and taxes, but were impressed that he stayed to answer questions and that he even bothered to come, Poole said. That was the first time and only time that we ever had a town hall meeting with somebody at that level.
But Lancaster County Democrats, near Mulvaneys home base, feel the districts needs arent being considered, said Gil Small, who served for more than a decade as chairman of the Lancaster County Democratic Party.
He sees Mulvaney as someone who opposes Obamacare, has vowed to say no to all tax increases, and opposed the presidents jobs bill, which didnt get far in either the House or Senate.
It was easy for him. Just say no, no, no. We could have sent anybody up there to do that....If you dont like it, try to amend it. Theres got to be some good stuff in there, Small said.
Small says Mulvaney should focus on bringing resources back to the 5th District and working with others as Spratt did and we miss that terribly, he said.
Some Democrats have rallied behind Mulvaneys challenger, Joyce Knott of Rock Hill, also because of how Mulvaneys policy positions affect women.
A Catholic, Mulvaney opposes federal spending on healthcare that includes abortion services. He wants to stop federal funding of organizations such as Planned Parenthood. While serving in the South Carolina legislature, Mulvaney supported pro-life measures that called for women seeking abortions to be offered a chance to view their ultrasounds.
Mulvaney wants to repeal Obamacare entirely and says House Republicans have compiled a bill of alternative solutions and wont budge on his tax stance.
But he said he has reached across the aisle.
He worked with U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, to cut defense spending. He did so without compromising his principles. Instead, he found common ground with Frank, arriving at the same goal, but maybe for different reasons.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, a Rock Hill Republican, said some politicians only know how to say no. But Mulvaney, who served with Simrill in the State House, could take a stand on conservative issues and explain why respectfully.
Thats part of whats missing from the political process today, Simrill said, the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
Across the aisle
Some of Mulvaneys State House colleagues from across the aisle had similar compliments for the Congressman, but with caveats.
State Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Bamberg Democrat, said Mulvaneys willingness to work with Democrats would likely be key to his success in Washington.
The two differed on politics and policy, Sellers said, but had respectful debates. At an NAACP banquet in Rock Hill earlier this year, Sellers said he joked, as he often did, that he was glad Mulvaney, also there, is in Washington and not in Columbia anymore. If there has to be a Republican in the seat, hes OK with Mulvaney, he said.
But Sellers said Mulvaney is getting a reputation of being lumped into the same mindset...of saying no to absolutely everything. He hopes Mulvaney resists that mindset, and instead takes the states interests to heart and looks out for South Carolinas roads, education system, and lands.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who respects Mulvaneys professionalism and intellect, said the same.
My only hope for Mick, as it is for any member of Congress, is that they work harder to work together.