Tom Petri and the Important Issues

Tom Petri doesn't simply take positions on public policy issues -- he leads! Believing that it is more important to do good than to simply look good, he doesn't spend time on bills designed primarily to be popular and showy. Instead, he identifies problems and spends the time necessary to come up with answers which will actually work.

Sometimes this means developing new approaches to concerns which others have put on the back burner, and then looking for opportunities to bring those problems into the spotlight. At other times, it means taking a fresh look at issues which have been widely discussed but on which there is no consensus.

Here are some of the initiatives in which Tom Petri plays a crucial leading role:

Student Loans
Tax Relief for Middle Class and Poor Families
Health Care for All
Protecting and Strengthening Social Security
Campaign Finance Reform
A Level Playing Field for Dairy
Wasteful,Environmentally Destructive Water Projects
Protecting Americans' Savings

Student Loans

As a member of the Education Committee -- and now as the Vice Chairman and likely next Chairman of that committee -- Tom Petri has long fought for a system of student loans which would always be affordable because the rate of repayment would vary according to the post-school income of the borrower. Working with the Administration and with the Education Department, over the years he has managed to get important parts of his proposal enacted into law, currently as part of the Direct Student Loan program.

By stimulating competition among student loan providers, Petri's efforts have significantly lowered borrowing costs for all student borrowers – including those who choose not to take out a Direct Student Loan.

But Rep. Petri is fighting to finish the job. First, subsidies in the program should be based on the ability of former students to repay their loans, rather than on the amount of their parents' resources at the time when they apply for loans. And, secondly, the Internal Revenue Service should be provided as an option for the simple and straightforward collection of income- contingent loans through income tax withholding. With repayment schedules based on the ability to pay, former students would calculate their student loan payments as part of calculating their taxable incomes.

Tax Relief for Middle Class and Poor Families

Low income families with dependent children need help avoiding the "poverty trap" of welfare dependence. And middle class families with dependent children need tax relief to help make ends meet.

The poverty trap closes in on a low-income worker with children if she tries to get ahead by earning more wages through more hours, a harder job, more training, or whatever. Or if she marries someone who also has earnings the government knows about. If she does these things, she discovers that government benefits she receives phase out so quickly as her earnings increase that her efforts to move up the income ladder and become more self- sufficient can actually leave her family worse off than before. The loss of benefits affects her and her family just like additional taxes.

Legislators have created the poverty trap mess by designing every program in a vacuum without ever considering the combined effects. As part of a long-term effort against the poverty trap, Rep. Petri has introduced the Poverty Trap Study Act to create a commission to help create a coherent approach to welfare and tax policy.

To provide tax cuts for those who need them most, Rep. Petri is developing legislation which would eliminate the current income tax personal exemption for those under 18, replacing that exemption with an increase in the per child tax credit to at least $1,270. This tax credit would be refundable, which means that those who are supporting one or more children but are too poor to owe taxes would instead receive wage supplements – but to benefit, they would have to be both working and supporting a family.

In practice, this proposal would provide the most benefit for family wage earners too poor to owe taxes, and for those who are in the 15% tax bracket.

For the lowest income workers, the new credit would be coordinated with the current earned income tax credit (EITC) so as to improve the EITC in three major ways, including cutting from 21% to as little as six percent the maximum added marginal tax rate caused by the EITC's phaseout. That would let people keep more of any income they earn, and give them more opportunity to move up the income scale.

Coordinating the new child tax credit with the EITC would also provide larger benefits for larger families and reduce the "marriage penalty" – the extra income taxes working couples have to pay by virtue of getting married.

Health Care for All

Tom Petri has long fought for basic health care coverage for every American through a concept he calls "Multicare."

Rep. Petri's Multicare proposal would change incentives in federal tax laws in order to give everyone a basic fixed subsidy for health coverage, would stimulate competition among private health plans, and would improve incentives for cost control.

Multicare would also change the rules governing private insurance to eliminate inequities which deny affordable coverage to those in need. It would ensure that everybody could purchase affordable, reliable coverage regardless of pre-existing medical conditions.

By making use of market incentives instead of top-down, one- size-fits-all approaches, Multicare would avoid large, complicated bureaucracies and intrusive micro-managing of individual health plans.

Most people would receive basic coverage which they could choose to supplement. Low-income Americans would receive additional subsidies for broader coverage. Senior citizens would keep their right to Medicare coverage, but could exchange their Medicare for private coverage if the latter provided a better deal.

Rep. Petri also supports legislation to make prescription drug coverage more affordable. And he was an early – and continuing – supporter of legislation to make it legal for individuals and pharmacies to purchase high quality medicines through the mail from Canada and other countries where many medicines sell for less.

Protecting and Strengthening Social Security

Tom Petri is committed to strengthening Social Security for future generations without threatening current retirees and those nearing retirement.

He supports Congress' Social Security "lock-box" policy, which prevents the current surpluses being generated by Social Security from being used for new spending or tax cuts.

He supports the current, rapid retirement of the federal public debt in order to make the federal government more financially sound when demands on Social Security and Medicare escalate with the coming retirement of the huge baby boom generation.

And he recognizes that big government policies which require high taxes and high spending ultimately undermine the federal government's ability to meet its core responsibilities, which include fulfilling its long-standing promises to older Americans.

Many questions need to be addressed to keep Social Security strong, but to provide one piece of the puzzle Rep. Petri proposes that the government establish a retirement account for each newborn American citizen, initially worth $1,000. The money for the initial $1,000 would come from the sale of government assets. This amount would be placed in the same investment funds available in the retirement savings plan currently available to federal employees.

The investment decisions among the funds would be made by parents or guardians until the account holder reached the age of majority after which he or she would be able to make such decisions.

The account holder, or his or her parent, would be able to add to the principal of the account, up to $2,000 per year tax free -- but even without additional deposits, if invested in the common stock index fund, the initial $1,000 could be expected to grow to more than $830,000 by the time the account holder would be ready for retirement.

This proposal would not replace the Social Security system. Rather, it would provide more money for it. The dollars in the account would pay for Social Security benefits for the account holder first, and only if the account were depleted would the account holder draw on the Social Security Trust Fund.

If, due to individuals adding to an account, there were more in it than necessary to pay Social Security benefits, the account holder would have several lump sum or annuity options for withdrawing the extra money.

Campaign Finance Reform

Tom Petri has a long-term, consistent record of support for campaign finance reform. He has supported and voted for every major campaign reform proposal which has come to the floor of the House, including the House's versions of the prominent McCain- Feingold bill.

Rep. Petri is also the author of his own legislation in this area. Here are the major provisions of his current bill:

A Level Playing Field for Dairy

Rep. Petri is a leading advocate in Congress for the recognition of Wisconsin's dairy farmers' right to compete on a level playing field -- a right which is currently denied to our state's farmers due to unfair federal regulations.

Partly as a result of Petri's dairy deregulation efforts, Congress has agreed to phase out discriminatory price support policies. But eliminating the milk marketing order system remains on the Petri "to do" list for the next Congress.

On Guard Against Wasteful,
Environmentally Destructive Water Projects

On numerous occasions Tom Petri has been the leading opponent of a proposal to build a $744 million water project on the Animas and La Plata rivers, and of a proposal to build a huge dam in Auburn, California near Sacramento, which would destroy the scenic American river. Although so far he has been successful in blocking these projects, their proponents continue to seek out opportunities for votes to get them started. Rep. Petri's longstanding allies in the environmental community are aware that he is ready to make the overwhelming cases against these projects whenever that proves necessary.

Rep. Petri has also been the leader of environmentalist and taxpayer coalitions on a number of similar issues in the past.

Protecting Americans' Savings

The savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s came about because the federal regulatory system fails to differentiate between risky and safe banking, is subject to political pressure, and is slow to step in when problems arise. Tom Petri's market- based deposit insurance reform proposal is designed to fix these problems.

In fact, if the Petri proposal had been in place during the '80s, the S&L scandal would have been avoided, taxpayers would have saved $150 billion of costs for the thrift bailout, and the credit crunch which helped prolong the early 1990s recession would have been avoided.

Under the Petri proposal, banks and thrift institutions would insure all their deposits through broad-based private syndicates. Since these syndicates would be risking their own money rather than someone else's, they would be motivated to charge the lowest rates to the most prudent banks, to carefully monitor the operations of banks they insured, and to force corrective action quickly if a bank started running into trouble.

The government's principal role would be to make sure the proper contracts were in place so that all deposits were properly insured, and that the risks of bank failure were widely dispersed. Taxpayer-backed federal deposit insurance would be retained as insurance of last resort, but would never be needed, even in circumstances worse than the Great Depression.

Over the past four years banking legislation has been focused on updating Depression-era banking laws. With passage of the Financial Modernization Act of 1999, federal policy has now caught up with the banking and financial services industry. Federal banking regulators, and many in the banking industry, are beginning to turn their eyes toward reforming federal deposit insurance. When this debate begins in earnest, Rep. Petri will be ready to reintroduce his proposal, which offers a better framework for the prosperity of the financial services industry and its customers in the 21st Century.

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