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Tea Party Offers a 1¢ Solution

Activists Seek to Set Annual Spending Cuts

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A flat-rate spending-cut plan advocated by tea partyers is gaining fans in Washington, D.C.

The One Cent Solution requires Congress to reduce federal spending by 1 percent — one cent per dollar — of gross domestic product annually until 2018. That would take it from 25 percent of GDP to 18 percent, where it would be capped to balance the budget.

The seemingly simple proposal has drawn conservative activists and Republican lawmakers alike. Rep. Connie Mack IV (Fla.) has 41 co-sponsors for his version of the plan, called the One Percent Spending Reduction Act, and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) introduced a companion bill in his chamber last week.

It appeals to those seeking a more gradual approach than the dramatic and immediate cuts proposed by some hardliners affiliated with the tea party. Earlier this year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed $500 billion in cuts over one year. The 1 percent cut would be about $150 billion based on last year's GDP.

And unlike many other ideas floating around Washington to reduce the deficit, this one came from, and is popular with, the grass roots.

The chief cheerleader for the idea is Bruce Cook, a Georgia businessman and former state bureaucrat who calls himself "a Mr. Smith guy who goes to Washington."

Before his recent activism, Cook founded an abstinence-centered sex-education program. He also served in Georgia state government as head of the Department of Human Resources under Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, where Cook implemented budget cuts that critics said hurt teen health programs.

Last year, Cook turned his focus national and started the nonprofit Citizens for Restoring America's Financial Future.

"The whole debt and deficit issue is at the forefront of people's minds. This gives them a plan," he said in an interview.

Once he had the One Cent Solution, Cook took two routes to get it to Capitol Hill. He hired lobbyists at Venn Strategies, whom he paid $90,000 between January and March, according to the firm's disclosure forms.

Cook also began presenting his plan to local business clubs and tea parties. Cook launched a grass-roots tour June 28 in Tennessee, hoping to reach 100 cities and get 1 million signatures on a petition for the plan.

"If we can engage the public, then they start to understand and communicate with their Members of Congress," he said. "We believe that, with the current conditions in Congress, legislators really need to hear from the folks back home."

So far, Cook has recruited 230 people to spread the word and has gathered nearly 5,000 signatures.

Together, the lobbying and advocacy efforts have won Cook and his plan access to Capitol Hill. When Mack introduced his bill in May, the Congressman invited Cook to appear at the press conference alongside him. Enzi also met with Cook's group before crafting the Senate bill.

Cook intended for the plan to be bipartisan. It doesn't specify which programs should be cut, but it requires that everything, including military spending, be on the table.

"What we do is force Congress to have a process," he explained.

But tea partyers have gravitated toward the plan and its focus on cuts. Harold Bost, co-founder of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party in Georgia, said many in his group are determined to see it passed.

"We're going to fight and do everything we can do to help make that happen," Bost said.

No Democratic Members have endorsed the bills, and they are unlikely to do so, according to Michael Ettlinger, vice president for economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. Ettlinger said the plan's 18 percent cap on spending is "just not a good idea."

"There's just no way you can do it without seriously handicapping programs that are unequivocally needed," he said.

The last time spending was that low was 1966, according to the Office of Management and Budget. President Bill Clinton came close to reducing spending to 18 percent of GDP in 1999, but the healthier economy at the time meant that the government generated more in tax dollars and spent less on anti-poverty programs than it does now.

Still, the 18 percent spending cap, which would match the government's projected tax revenue, isn't that different from other conservative proposals. The Heritage Foundation has proposed spending be reduced to 18.5 percent of the economy within the next decade.

"Going back to 18 percent is really hard. My personal view is that's something that is absolutely necessary," said Alison Fraser, director of the foundation's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

Fraser disagreed with one aspect of Cook's plan and the bill Mack introduced. She said Congress must have the flexibility to ignore the cap when the country faces a severe financial crisis or goes to war, as it has in recent years.

The Mack bill requires a two-thirds majority to waive the spending cap. Otherwise, if Congress fails to agree on what to cut, it would automatically enact cuts across the board.

Defending that idea at a press conference about the bill, Mack said, "Enough is enough when it comes to Washington's appetite for spending."

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