Fort Mill Times

Spratt puts economy at top of legislative agenda

Rep. John Spratt
Rep. John Spratt

With the Democrats soon to be in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, U.S. Rep. John Spratt has a long list of initiatives he wants to accomplish this term - internationally, nationally and in his South Carolina 5th district.

But it all begins and ends with the economy.

"The issue that overarches and overshadows everything else is the economy," said Spratt, whose name frequently had been mentioned for a role in the next administration. "There is a strong feeling among economists, particularly my government economists, that the situation right now is the worst recession we've seen since the Great Depression. We're beginning to feel the effects of it here in South Carolina."

First elected in 1982 and current Budget Committee chairman, Spratt's name had been mentioned to lead the Office of Management and Budget, a post that wound up going to Peter Orszag.

"I knew I was a possibility, but frankly, as they looked at the situation tactically, the White House budget people would have to recognize they probably would be better off having me as chairman of the budget committee in the House," Spratt said. "Because that's the first place, the first hurdle the budget has to clear. I didn't think it was likely to happen, but if it did, I would have talked to [Obama] about it. Truth of the matter is, it would be an agonizing decision. I'm happy where I am. And the person they picked is the person I would have picked if I had to make the selection."

With President-Elect Obama vowing a number of stimulus initiatives, including heavy investment in roads, bridges and other infrastructure, Spratt wants to bring those dollars into South Carolina.

"We're beginning to feel the affects of it," he said.

"You're beginning to see layoffs and plant closures that would not have occurred except for the condition of the economy."

If infrastructure proves a focal point for government funds to rebuild the economy, Spratt said he'll push for funding for the proposed I-73 to help build the South Carolina economy.

"It would be a boost for our sector of the state that hasn't been growing like other areas," Spratt said.

Other infrastructure improvements for South Carolina also will be a priority, including DSL and modern Internet capabilities to lure new industry into the state, he said.

"Firms are coming in and looking at different locations and they like this and like that and when they ask what kind of DSL lines do you have and what kind of Internet hookup do you have and all we have is copper line in some places, that's a deciding negative for a plant location here," Spratt said. "That's a full agenda right there and we haven't even talked about international issues."

Full agenda

Spratt has a lot on his plate once the next administration is in office.

"My chief responsibility is to chair the budget committee and put together a budget that leads us to balanced sometime in the foreseeable future," Spratt said. "It definitely won't be [balanced] next year and it probably won't be [in 2010], but we have to put a plan in place to head toward fiscally responsible goals. And a balanced budget is definitely one of those goals."

Spratt said legislators must work to reverse the federal budget deficit. President Bush inherited a $236 billion surplus that by 2004 turned into a $412 billion deficit.

"We have to get back on the right path," the congressman said.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a native South Carolinian, is a student of economic panics, recessions and depressions and he has called the current economic crisis the worse the nation has faced since the late 1930s, Spratt said.

"What's going to be in the next stimulus package I can't tell you. I can't tell you how large it's going to be, but it's going to be a significant stimulus package and it will include - this will be the first order of business as we go back in January - an extension of unemployment benefits."

He said it will be difficult at best to come up with a budget resolution that will look towards balancing government spending while doing enough to right what has become a foundering economy.

"What I would like to do is come up with a budget that will pump up the economy in the near term but in the long term move us back to balance. But that's not easy to do because we don't know how long this downturn is going to last," Spratt said.

Whatever the plan when it comes to bailing out the automobile industry or providing assistance to airlines that once again are threatening Chapter 11 bankruptcy, legislators' top goal is to make this recession as short and as shallow as possible, the congressman said.

"After that," Spratt said, "we have to get back to the agenda, the political agenda on which [Obama] ran. He's indicated he'll have to prioritize, because he can't do everything."

At the top of the list is energy research and shifting tax concessions away from petroleum manufacturers back to universities and firms researching energy alternatives, he said.

Education also is at the top of the list.

"We can't be the most profitable country in the world and have second and third-rate schools," Spratt said. "The two go hand in hand, prosperity and the quality of our educational system."

Americans also should look to see Obama follow through on his promise to begin a troop drawdown in Iraq.

"I see in the foreseeable future us going down a brigade every couple months, but also shifting those troops to Afghanistan," Spratt said. "The freed-up forces for the large extent will end up for the time being in Afghanistan while we get a grip on that place."

Finding Osama bin Laden, who took credit for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., is yet another problem Obama is saddled with, the congressman said.

But with Democrats in charge of the federal government, it should be easier to get things done once the difficult decisions are made as to what needs fixing first.

"It's the economy," Spratt said. "The first thing we need to do is make sure there is plenty of liquidity in this economy. The first thing is to prevent the situation from getting any worse by unfreezing the credit markets that have been almost shut down completely for a good couple of months."

The federal government interventions into the markets have done what they were designed to do, Spratt said, holding things together for now.

"What didn't happen is we didn't have a complete collapse of the credit markets or a complete collapse of the economy," he said. "Most of the remedies were being applied to Wall Street, not main street. But that's simply because liquidity starts on Wall Street and reaches main street because the arteries of credit run throughout the economy."

And it had better start moving through the economy sooner rather than later, or else the honeymoon period Democrats will enjoy eventually will run out, he said.

"The thing fortunate for Obama is that the economic debacle we're in happened on somebody else's watch," Spratt said. "Not that it gives him the opportunity to blame it on somebody else. But what it does is give him a little bit of slack with the American people who won't hold him guilty for this situation we find ourselves in. But that leniency will last about six months, maybe a year, and if it's marked by an increase in unemployment or a decrease in economic activity, as time goes on he'll be increasingly held responsible for the circumstances. He'll be held responsible whether he's responsible or not."

Spratt said it is important for Obama to "get out of the starting blocks" as fast as he can with economic stimulus.

"But he won't be successful overnight," Spratt said. "Every economist I've heard says at least a year, but they're just pulling numbers out of thin air. Nobody knows how this is going to work out."