GOP Senate hopefuls in Missouri mostly in step on economy

Continued tax cuts, less scrutiny of Wall Street and a repeal of the president’s health-care law.

On those economic issues in these tough economic time, little daylight exists between the three top GOP candidates in the Aug. 7 contest to be the party’s nominee for a Missouri U.S. Senate seat — Rep. Todd Akin, former St. Louis businessman John Brunner and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Each hopes to take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in the fall campaign.

For example, all three said they would vote to repeal the health-care law, despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling finding it constitutional.

All three GOP contenders said they want to rely on the free market to help solve the problem of the uninsured — the chief aim of President Barack Obama’s landmark legislative accomplishment. Brunner said he would count on American generosity, as well.

“The free market and freedom of choice have made so many goods and services affordable,” Brunner said. “Will we have health care for every person in America? No. But in a robust economy, Americans have done a good job taking care of their own.”

The law sets up exchanges to provide greater choice and competition among health care plans for consumers. The GOP candidates contend that it is too restrictive and the government will still play too much of a regulatory role.

Brunner and Steelman have also claimed the law will cut Medicare by $500 billion. That savings would result not from slashing benefits, but from lowering payments to medical providers to reduce the future growth of the program.

All three Republicans have sounded alarms about the nation’s $1 trillion-plus deficit, which represents how much the federal government is in the red. Usually a non-controversial exercise, the debt-ceiling debate has become a political flashpoint.

Raising it would not add more debt. It would simply allow Congress to borrow more money to actually pay for what it has already purchased.

Not to do so could mean the U.S. would default on its debt. The notion that Congress came close to doing that last summer unsettled the financial world, creating uncertainty about Congress’ ability to deal with the debt.

“I could see a one-time vote to increase the debt ceiling if, at the same time, we had a dollar-for-dollar cut in expenses,” said Brunner, who used to run Vi-Jon Inc., a St. Louis maker of private label personal care products. “We need to look, as well, at a balanced-budget amendment. Right now we’re just kicking the can down the road.”

Steelman said her support for raising the debt ceiling would be contingent on Congress passing such an amendment to the Constitution.

“What Congress needs to do is pass a budget that’s within the means of our spending without having to raise the debt ceiling,” she said. “That would require them to do a little bit of work.”

Akin has voted for debt ceiling increases in the past, and been attacked by Brunner for doing so. But he and other House Republicans balked last year when the issue came to a head, creating turmoil not only between the House Republican majority and the White House, but inside the GOP as well.

“That’s one of those votes that take a little soul searching,” Akin said. “Our economy is in such rough shape, I felt like it was about time to say, ‘Enough. Stop. We’ve got to reset.’ I don’t take the issue lightly.”

With unemployment nationally still hovering above 8 percent and businesses slow to spend money, all three hopefuls want to cut federal spending and extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone. That includes those aimed at the wealthiest Americans. The tax cuts were due to expire in 2010, but the White House and Congress cut a deal to continue them through 2012.

While critics said letting them expire would help eliminate the deficit, Steelman said she was wary.

“Is there any indication to you or anyone else in America that Congress would not spend that money?” she said. “They’re not going to use it on the debt to reduce the deficits.”

Brunner is worth at least $26 million, according to personal financial disclosure reports, and perhaps as much as $108 million. Asked why wealthy Americans like himself deserve a tax cut, he said:

“Do we really believe at the end of the day that transferring money from private citizens to the central government will turn the economy around, or that private citizens have a greater capability of investing and creating jobs?” he said. “Whose money is this? Who can do a better job?”

Akin said it would be a mistake to end the tax cuts when the economy is still struggling. He and Steelman both said Washington doesn’t need more money, just the desire to spend what it does have more wisely.

As for the national debt, which represents the total amount of money that government owes its creditors and which now stands at more than $15 trillion, none of the three candidates would consider a tax increase to help raise revenue.

Akin, Brunner and Steelman also contend that new additional regulatory oversight approved since the Wall Street meltdown hurts the economy, and they want to lift it. They said that it stifles job creation, which would generate more tax revenues.

Congress passed the new rules on banks as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and consumer protection law, to tighten financial scrutiny that didn’t exist before the meltdown. Government inquiries have shown that banks played a major role in the home mortgage debacle that helped trigger the global economic collapse.

The Republican Senate candidates do differ on agriculture, Missouri’s top industry. It injects nearly $18 billion annually into the state’s economy.

But the drought has heightened economic concerns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday that as a result of the rainless summer, Missouri’s corn crop is the worst in the nation.

Akin and Steelman said they would have opposed the bipartisan farm bill which recently passed the Senate. It would provide price supports and crop insurance programs for farmers, among other agricultural services, as well as food assistance for the poor. That accounts for about 80 percent of the costs. The bill also would cut federal spending by $23 billion over 10 years.

Steelman said she supports many of the farm programs in the Senate bill, but both she and Akin objected to most of the money going to food assistance. Akin said he would put the farm programs in separate legislation.

But Brunner has come under fire from all sides, including McCaskill, who supported the bill, for refusing to declare how he would have voted.