This week on Facing the Future, we listen to a veteran Blue Dog Democrat bark one more time. That would be Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) who has represented his Nashville area district for more than three decades. Concord Coalition national field director Phil Smith and I spoke with Cooper about his decision not to seek re-election after a Republican state legislative redistricting plan divided his district among neighboring Congressional districts all currently held by GOP representatives. Cooper was a founding member of the Blue Dog coalition in the House, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats who have consistently emphasized responsible budgeting and bipartisan cooperation.
According to Cooper, voices like his are increasingly lonely in Congress, but he remains committed to being an advocate of sound fiscal policy for younger Americans.
Cooper drew a comparison with environmental policy. “I’ve always had a good environmental voting record,” he said, “and our young people are especially concerned about that. They understand sustainability when it comes to the environment. Unfortunately, many of them do not understand sustainability when it comes to our budgeting.”
“If you can’t afford it, it’s not going to happen. Budgets constrain all human activity. We can’t wish budgets away, we have to deal with them. Ideally, we need to live within some sort of reasonable constraint, so we can still borrow money when we need to. We’ve been playing fast and loose with this for a long time.”
Cooper points out that younger generations of Americans have grown up in an era with near zero interest rates, which has created a false sense that debt has very little cost. As interest rates start to rise to combat growing inflation, that bubble will burst and there very well could be a day in the not too distant future when the largest federal line item of spending is servicing the national debt.
While conservative on fiscal matters, Cooper advocates some very progressive social, economic, and environmental views. He says he would rather be spending federal funds on those programs to lift people out of poverty and reduce income inequality. But to do that, we have to address the national debt.
Cooper says a big part of addressing the national debt is getting health care costs under control, which he says are sinking the economy, and many Americans are simply unaware of the growing chunk of their paychecks these costs eat up.
“The main reason that Americans have faced more than 30 or 40 years of cash wage stagnation is the fact that the cost of their health benefits has been exploding,” said Cooper. “Overall compensation has actually more or less kept in line with the economy. But unless you get sick that year, you don’t see any value in your health insurance. Right now, it’s upwards of $20,000 a year for a family policy. That’s a lot of money. And in fact, we’re not getting the value for it that we should, because other nations actually have healthier populations and are spending far less money. So we have to rein in our health care sector, and we need to get value for money. That’s what we look for in all other parts of our economy, but in health care, because it’s so hard to measure, some people foolishly think that because it’s expensive, it must be good.”
Cooper gives credit to the Trump administration for federal legislation that attempts to force hospitals and other health care providers to show full price transparency, but says only half of all of those mandated to provide a full accounting of their costs are actually doing so.
One other issue Cooper says he hopes Congress can make progress on is comprehensive immigration reform that reorients our policy towards attracting more people of working age from across the globe, in order to provide long-term stability to our labor force and keep the economy growing for the next 30-50 years.
On our later segment of the program, Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and chief economist Steve Robinson joined me to review the astoundingly good jobs report for the month of January, which showed 467,000 new jobs created and shattered even the most optimistic projections. We also explore how these jobs numbers might impact the Congressional debate over appropriations, and reflected on a rare moment of recent bipartisan comity between two prominent members of the US Senate.
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.