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Food Stamps or Teachers? | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Food Stamps or Teachers?

The GOP midterm election strategy is clear: stubbornly oppose anything and everything that might improve the economy and bank on voters to blame Democrats for these tough times come November.

There is perhaps no clearer sign of the poisonous political environment this stance has created than the battle to pass a $26 billion package to help states and local governments make Medicaid payments and avoid laying off 140,000 teachers. The only way Majority Leader Harry Reid was able to break a Republican filibuster was with offsets largely through—if you can believe it—$12 billion in cuts to food stamps.

That's right. Never mind that many people using food stamps are already living through a depression, not a recession. Never mind that food stamps are one of the most reliable ways to stimulate spending—those receiving the benefit are definitely going to pump that money back into the economy by purchasing goods.

But the food stamp lobby doesn't have quite the same pull as the Chamber of Commerce or US corporations—which have seen their profits rise by 36 percent this year and enjoy profit margins as a share of GDP that are near post-war records—or the states themselves which face $140 billion in budget shortfalls in the upcoming year.

Even worse, Reid initially had to table this proposal because the (all hail the) Congressional Budget Office said the bill would still add $4.9 billion to the deficit when Democratic leadership proposed cutting "only" $6.7 billion in food stamps. By nearly doubling that food stamp cut the Democrats won the votes of Republican Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to break the filibuster.

The political calculus is stunning: $1 trillion-plus for the banks—no problem. $10 billion for teachers and $16 billion to help the poor get healthcare? Only if it's deficit-neutral. What's next? Maybe they can axe some low-income energy assistance during these hot summer months?

With this kind of downsized politics in the Senate, so many good proposals are left foundering. Take the infrastructure bank proposed by Michael Lind and Sherle Schwenninger of the New America Foundation, and others. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson recently wrote that it would break the cycle of businesses receiving federal help, laying off workers, slashing benefits, and shipping jobs and production overseas—all while hoarding cash.

"A new American infrastructure of roads, rail and broadband is not only an economic necessity but also the investment with the highest multiplier effect in creating new jobs," Meyerson writes. "A US infrastructure investment bank, such as that proposed by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), could leverage significant private capital to begin America's rebuilding, though the idea has encountered rough sledding in (surprise) the Senate."

Ethan Pollack, policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, said an infrastructure bank would also "create a long-term commitment that would give state and local governments, and private companies, more certainty and more options in how they are able to finance projects."

Pollack points out that not only does the economy desperately need this spending to create jobs, but even the deficit hawks should see the benefits of making these necessary infrastructure investments now, rather than later.

"It's much cheaper to build now than later," said Pollack. "Capital and labor costs are down, and interest rates near historic lows have pushed down the cost of financing the construction."

But in this political climate, where the CBO, Ben Nelson, and the Maine Sister Senators call the shots, it seems the chances for good proposals like these are slim to none.

If we're going to have a Senate that isn't a place where good legislation goes to die, seems it's high time to reform the filibuster. Pollack has been fighting the battle to get states and local governments funds throughout this crisis, and the filibuster is clearly on his mind these days.

"Progressives need to make confronting the institutional restraints we are up against a priority," he says. "It would only require fifty-one votes at the beginning of the next session of Congress to get rid of the sixty-vote supermajority required to pass legislation in the Senate."

Indeed, the filibuster and other rules of the Senate can be changed at the beginning of a new session through a simple majority vote with the vice president presiding, and there is growing momentum around lowering the sixty-vote threshold. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin has spoken favorably of it, and many freshman senators—led by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall—are aggressively pursuing it. Senator Tom Harkin recently wrote of his good reform proposal in The Nation, and Rules Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer has held a series of hearings on the issue.

Maybe with smart filibuster reform Democrats will no longer be in the position of choosing between food stamps and teachers.

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