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Congressman Keith Ellison. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
America is not broke, despite what advocates for austerity would have us believe.
This is a very wealthy country.
Unfortunately, transfers of that wealth are not taxed in the same way as the work of American nurses, carpenters, bus drivers and shop clerks. As a result, the federal government struggles to balance budgets, and a yawning gap, between a super-rich 1 percent and the great mass of everybody else, keeps growing.
Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, wants to do something about that.
Ellison is reintroducing his Inclusive Prosperity Act, a proposal to add a small “financial transactions tax” on high-volume, high-speed trading by Wall Street speculators. The tax—similar to one that the US imposed until 1966, and to taxes maintained by 40 countries worldwide—would generate roughly $1 trillion in revenue over 10 years.
That’s money that can help to stabilize federal finances and pay for programs that are currently threatened by the proponents of austerity.
“A lot of people in Washington like to talk about reducing the debt and deficits. Well if you really care about reducing the deficit, how about asking Wall Street speculators to pay their fair share?” says Ellison. “This bill will add a tax of a fraction of a percent on transactions made by the same Wall Street firms and stock traders who crashed our economy in 2008. This tax alone will generate up to $300 billion a year in revenue, stabilizing the deficit and allowing us to invest in the things that matter—education, roads and bridges, and health care for our seniors and veterans.”
Ellison recognizes reality.
“We’re not broke," he says. "We’ve got plenty of money. It’s just not in the hands of the American people because the people with so much of the wealth bought lobbyists and influence to get loopholes for themselves so that they would not have to pay for the civilization that is America.”
Ellison’s not listening to the lobbyists. He’s facing the facts.
“The money is in the hands of the most privileged and well-to-do Americans, many of whom churn—and I don’t say ‘trade,’ I mean ‘churn’—stocks, bonds and derivatives on Wall Street,” says the congressman from Minnesota who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “So one of the ways for us as Americans to recoup the money is to tax them when they do this churning of these financial assets. It’s a transaction tax. It is appropriately named by its most vigorous advocates a ‘Robin Hood Tax.’”
The Robin Hood Tax won’t solve all of America’s budget problems. But the union that has been leading the advocacy for passage of Ellison’s proposal, National Nurses United, notes that it “would create a Wall Street sales tax, providing critical new revenue for such critical needs as jobs, healthcare, education, and the international fight against HIV/AIDS and climate change. It would also allow the U.S. to join the rest of the world in a growing system of financial transaction taxes.”
Ellison’s bill is attracting support from more members of Congress—Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, Judy Chu, D-California, John Conyers D-Michigan, Barbara Lee, D-California, James McGovern, D-Massachusetts and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia—and from leaders of groups such as National People’s Action, the National Organization for Women, HealthGAP and Friends of the Earth,
"As the Inclusive Prosperity Act demonstrates, there is not actually a scarcity of public funds for global public goods," Friends of the Earth officials explained in endorsing the Robin Hood Tax movement. "It is a question of political will."
That will is growing, in the US, and abroad.
Eleven European countries—including key US allies and trading partners—are currently in the process of embracing financial transaction tax proposals.
There’s a dawning international recognition that the answer to austerity is not merely to defend necessary programs from assaults by billionaire-funded groups such as America’s “Fix the Debt” coalition—and the politicians who defer to the pressure for cuts. It is to find the resources to maintain existing programs and to fund new initiatives.
This is something that Americans who seek to establish a genuine safety net for the ailing, the aged and the vulnerable—as well as the whole of society—well understand. That’s why, after Ellison reintroduces his legislation, the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, National Nurses United and other supporters of a financial transactions tax will rally and march in Washington on April 20.
Their message is directed not just at Congress but at the Obama administration, which has been slow to embrace international efforts to implement the Robin Hood Tax.
They’re demanding that Treasury Secretary Lew and President Obama “Stand with the People NOT Wall Street,” and saying, “Wall Street banks and corporations are raking in record profits while our communities continue to suffer job losses and cuts to public programs. Instead of lining the pockets of corporate fat cats, this money should go to our children’s Head Start programs, Grandma’s retirement, and fixing our broken healthcare system. It’s time for the administration to stand with the people and tax Wall Street.”
Working America, the AFL-CIO's primary non-union offshoot, is launching a 50-state strategy. Read Josh Eidelson's report.
Faneuil Hall, Boston. (Flickr/Tony Fischer)
It happened that I was scheduled to do a Boston radio show Monday afternoon. We were going to talk about national politics. But the deadly bombing at the Marathon changed everything, not just in Boston, but nationally.
It was one of those days when we all had to pause and reflect on where our country is at, and where it might be headed.
But it was not the first such day. We’ve had a lot of them. Indeed, we have had a lot of them in mid-April.
We all know April 15 as Tax Day. But is also a day that has seen deep tragedy. One hundred forty-eight years ago, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died.
Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth terrified a nation—not just Northerners but Southerners who had only days earlier concluded a brutal Civil War and who understood the importance of Lincoln to the reconciliation of the Republic.
One hundred thirty years after that agonizing period in American history, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh terrified the nation when he drove a truckload of explosives to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Enraged by the siege two years earlier at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, McVeigh committed what would be recognized as the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11, 2001, attacks.
As I talked with my friend Jeff Santos on his Boston radio show, and as I participated in other interviews Monday, plenty of calendar connections were mentioned. It was on April 20, 1999, that the Columbine killings took place in Colorado, and on April 16, 2007, that the Virginia Tech massacre was carried out.
The calendar seems to have a dark spot in mid-April. But we should be careful about seeing it as much more than that.
In various interviews Monday, I was asked (as someone who wrote extensively about the Oklahoma City bombing and who was in Washington and wrote a great deal from that city on 9/11) whether there might be a connection that could tell us something about the Boston attack.
I kept coming back to a memory of 1995, when a number of “experts” suggested in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing that it looked to be the work of terrorists with Middle East connections. The speculation was linked to recent history; the World Trade Center had been attacked in 1993 by conspirators, later identified as Muslim extremists with ties to terrorist cells, who had used a truck bomb. But the speculation with regard to Oklahoma City was off the mark.
Ultimately, on that day, it was another link to recent history that had meaning. McVeigh was furious with his government’s actions in Waco, where a long standoff had come to a violent conclusion two years to the day before he attacked the Oklahoma federal building.
The memory of past mistakes and miscalculations provides at least a measure of instruction for moments such as these. People look for explanations. And sometimes for scapegoats abroad, and at home. They get excited, angry and maybe a little too certain that they have the answers; on social media, there was a lively debate about calendar connections. When I noted a few that were being discussed in broadcast reports Monday, people came back with more—including references to the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.
But I think most people recognized that the ironies of timing are usually just that.
Most people also recognized that we ought not lose sight of what is most important in this moment.
Boston is a city of great history.
But on Monday, the people of the city—and the runners who had come to join its great Marathon—wrote a new chapter. There was tragedy, yes. But there was, as well, epic courage. And we should note both.
This is a time to mourn the dead, to mend the wounded and to honor the heroism of Boston cops and firefighters who, as President Obama explained Monday, provided “a reminder that so many Americans serve and sacrifice on our behalf every single day, without regard to their own safety, in dangerous and difficult circumstances.”
At the same time, it is necessary to identify those responsible for the bombing, to hold them to account and to assure that proper steps are taken to maintain public safety in a free society. There is nothing wrong with Americans expressing opinions about the inquiries, prosecutions and official responses—passionate opinions, political opinions. The freedom to engage in these debates is an American birthright won in struggles that can be traced to the Boston streets where Sam Adams and Paul Revere and Crispus Attucks forged an ideal of liberty. They also sought and established the rule of law. And it is valuable to recognize that we can and should place a good measure of trust in the able investigators who already are at work tracking down the killer or killers who committed a heinous crime in Boston Monday. As the president suggested in his statement to the nation, their reasoned conclusions—as opposed to speculation—are what should take us from the “investigation stage” to the accountability moment.
While we can be cautious about drawing conclusions from the calendar, however, there is one historic connection that is of consequence.
In Massachusetts, Monday was marked as Patriots’ Day. It’s a state holiday set aside to recall the first struggles of the American Revolution, which played out on late nights and early mornings in mid-April of 1775.
Patriots’ Day is when we remember the events leading up to the battles at Concord and Lexington, when farmers and shopkeepers challenged soldiers of the mightiest military force on the planet.
The country forged by those rebels against the British Empire has experienced great trauma, misery and pain. But it has also known courage, in Middlesex villages and towns 238 years ago, and in Boston on Monday, where police officers and rescue personnel ran to aid the victims of the bombing before the smoke had cleared. Where Mayor Tom Menino, recovering from surgery, checked himself out of the hospital and took charge of the response. Where runners in the Marathon kept on running to a nearby hospital where they gave blood to aid the victims of the attack.
America is strong country that has taken blows and recovered at every stage of its history. At our best, we recognize that we do not have to trade liberty for safety. Nor do we have to let a moment of terror force us to live in unthinking fear of our neighbors, near or far. This is a country that traces its history to “a cry of defiance, and not of fear.” That is the connection, Longfellow made, so well and wisely, “borne on the night-wind of the Past, through all our history, to the last…”
And, thanks in no small part to the poet, we all recall that the rebellious Paul Revere was a Bostonian who rode at the signal from his great city’s Old North Church. The church remains, a touchstone of liberty that is strong in the present. The same can be said of the city. This is a history worth telling.
Read Dave Zirin's reflection on the legacy of the Marathon.
Representative Greg Walden. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The most misread—perhaps the proper word is “miscovered”—story of the current budget wrangling in Washington is that of Republican Congressman Greg Walden’s savage condemnation of President Obama’s proposal of the “chained-CPI” Social Security cut.
“When you’re going after seniors the way he’s already done on Obamacare, taken $700 billion out of Medicare to put into Obamacare and now coming back at seniors again,” declared the congressman from Oregon, “I think you’re crossing that line very quickly here in terms of denying access to seniors for health care in districts like mine certainly and around the country.”
That stirred a fair measure of criticism from the regular readers of talking points distributed by the “Fix the Debt” coalition of Wall Street billionaires who want to cut benefits for the vulnerable in able to fund tax cuts for, um, Wall Street billionaires. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Scarborough ripped Walden: “[He] attacked the president from the left. He was harsher than I think Bernie Sanders was. He was harder on the president than I’ve seen Robert Reich be.”
True believers in the austerity fantasy were upset that a Republican was objecting to balancing the budget on the backs of seniors, orphans and people with disabilities. The Club for Growth complained that “the last thing Republicans should attack the Democrats for is for making the most minor reforms to our entitlement programs.” Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin proposed that Republicans “muzzle” Walden. Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who knows Walden, was so upset about anti-cuts talk coming from his side of the aisle that he declared that “for Republicans to do this is beyond shameless.”
So the headlines announce that Republicans were squabbling. As if that is news.
The real news, the story that is not getting anywhere near the attention it merits from Sunday talk-show pundits and Sunday talk-show politicians, is the story of why Walden is saying what he is saying. And why the austerity caucus is so upset.
If Walden were merely a Republican backbencher representing a retirement community, or if he were a freshman congressman from a swing district, his remarks would be dismissed as a predictable exercise in political self-service.
But Walden is no newcomer to the House, or to high-stakes political campaigning.
He’s one of the savviest political players in Congress. A veteran state legislator who managed congressional campaigns before his own election to the House in 1999, he “gets” how to win elections in competitive regions and states. And his fellow Republicans recognize this reality: He chaired the House Republican Leadership through 2010 and, when Republicans retook the chamber that year, he chaired the House Majority Transition Committee.
Walden is now the head of the National Republican Campaign Committee, meaning that he is responsible for making sure that Republicans hold their House majority in 2014. That explains why Walden is ripping the president’s decision to go with “chained-CPI.” And it explains why austerity opponents are ripping Walden—they fear that any rips in the fabric of fantasy that suggests only a cuts agenda (as opposed to a growth agenda) will balance budgets.
Walden is not reading from the “Fix the Debt” playbook.
He is interested in winning elections.
And he knows that a Democratic president talking about Social Security cuts is a winning issue for Republicans.
A cynical winning issue, to be sure. But a winning one all the same.
Indeed, even as top Republicans went through the motions of criticizing Walden, one of his closest aides pointed to polling that shows overwhelming opposition to Social Security cuts and explained with regard to the congressman: “His job is to hold the House.”
Translation: Ripping the president’s “chained-CPI” proposal is smart politics.
Even if it is cynical for the party of Paul Ryan to object to assaults on Social Security and Medicare by a Democratic president, the cynicism works. Pointing out—loudly—that a Democratic president and his allies are abandoning a historic Democratic commitment does not turn Democratic voters into Republican voters, it turns Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents into non-voters.
This has long been the essential element to Republican success in mid-term elections.
A key to the Republican breakthrough of 1994 was the fact that former President Bill Clinton had advocated for and eventually signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. The scheme, while enormously popular with Wall Street speculators and newspaper editorial writers, was feared and despised by union members. Those voters stood down in congressional districts across the country. Turnout was abysmal, dozens of Democratic House members lost and Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House.
Never mind that Clinton had secured passage of NAFTA with the help of Gingrich and the Republicans. Frustration among union voters who had enthusiastically backed Democrats in 1992 gave the advantage to the GOP in 1994.
Similarly, in 2010, many of the prime talking point for Republicans as they displaced Democrats in congressional districts across the country were taken from the traditional Democratic playbook: Obama had not done enough to create jobs, it was said, and Obama’s health reforms “took” $700 billion from Medicare. Turnout tanked among likely Democratic voters.
Never mind that the obstruction of job creation came from the Republicans, and never mind that Medicare efficiencies associated with the Affordable Care Act project were embraced by Republicans like Ryan in their budget plans. The disappointment among Democrats created an “enthusiasm gap” that favored the Republicans.
Greg Walden, who was a prominent Oregon legislator and potential gubernatorial candidate in 1994, and who was an essential player in the House Republican leadership in 2010, knows the history. Unfortunately, too few Democrats "get it." Of course, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, does; he refers to a Democratic president undermining Social Security as "terrible politics." So, too, does Congressman Bill Pascrell, the New Jersey Democrat who says of the president's "chained-CPI" advocacy, "Seniors vote in even heavier numbers, proportionately, in off-year elections. So just looking at a political standpoint...I would think that this would be a damning blow to our chances of taking back the House next year."
That’s what Greg Walden is counting on.
That's why he's saying what he is saying.
Anyone who is interested in the politics of 2014 knows that Greg Walden is not pontificating about policy. He is laying political traps that will spring on the Democrats if they put their party on the side of “chained-CPI” and the austerity agenda.
Meanwhile, Darrell Issa and company ramp up their assault on the Postal Service. Read Allison Kilkenny's take.
A USPS van. (Joseph Barillari)
Can Americans beat the austerity agenda of Wall Street Republicans and compromise-prone Democrats? Can we prevent deep cuts to essential services? Can we preserve the commons in the face of a full-frontal assault from politicians and pundits who are ever at the ready to attack the public sector and public employees on behalf of their crony-capitalist patrons?
Yes, sometimes in the David versus Goliath struggle, David wins.
That happened Wednesday when the board of governors of the US Postal Service abandoned an announced plan to eliminate Saturday delivery of the mail.
"Today's announcement that the USPS has cancelled its plans to end Saturday mail delivery is a victory for our middle class families, our rural communities and our small business owners… who rely on this critical service,” declared Congressman Mark Pocan, a Democrat who just two weeks ago rallied in frigid weather outside a Wisconsin post office as part of the national campaign to block the cut.
Pocan’s right on every point, except one.
The saving of Saturday delivery is not just “a victory for middle class families, our rural communities and our small business owners.” It is an important reminder that it matters to mobilize against the austerity agenda, even when the odds are daunting.
The battle against austerity has many fronts, all of which trace back to the question of whether necessary services will be maintained or diminished. That’s certainly the case in the debate about whether to cut Social Security benefits with President Obama’s “chained-CPI” undercutting of cost-of-living increases. The same goes for proposals to means-test Medicare and Medicaid, and of course to implement House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s voucher scheme.
But nowhere has the austerity threat been more evident in recent months than in the attempt by Postal Service managers—and their allies in Congress—to eliminate Saturday delivery. When the Postmaster General announced the move from traditional 6-day service to 5-day service, anyone who knew anything about the USPS knew what was happening. By creating a delivery void that would extend from Friday morning to Monday afternoon, the Postal Service was being rendered so dysfunctional that Americans would turn toward private carriers.
The American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers and other unions explained that elimination of Saturday service would so undermine the system that privatization of the most attractive mail services would be virtually inevitable. Communities across the country organized to save post offices, sorting centers and jobs. Small business owners, weekly newspaper publishers, election officials and advocates for the elderly and people with disabilities spoke up for affordable and regular delivery of everything from prescription drugs to absentee ballots.
In late March, they rallied in communities, from New York City to small towns on the Great Plains, as part of a “National Day of Action” organized by the Letter Carriers and other unions. It was the highest profile protest of a months-long campaign that got Congress—which is charged by the Constitution with maintaining the service—to call for the retention of Saturday delivery. But the Postmaster General kept pushing for the cut, until Wednesday, when the USPS board of governors announced it would “delay this implementation at this time.”
This is a big deal. Services will be maintained. Jobs will be saved. Rural communities and urban centers will retain their vital cores.
But what happened Wednesday is not the end of the fight.
Maintaining Saturday delivery is important, arguably vital, to the future of the USPS. But, says Pocan, maintaining 6-day service “does not end the need for comprehensive reform at the USPS.”
The definitional battle is the one to free the postal service from the onerous burdens placed on it by Congress, especially the congressional mandate that the USPS prefund 75 years of future health-care benefits for retirees. In his new budget, President Obama proposes temporary relief for the Postal Service by reducing payments into the funds by $10.6 billion over the next two years—along with more flexibility so that the service can compete.
That’s a place of beginning for a real discussion about stabilizing the service.
But the Obama budget is not going to be approved anytime soon. And there are immediate threats.
Postal managers continue to hack away at the service. Indeed, as American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey notes, “While Saturday mail delivery has dominated recent discussions, little attention is being paid to other drastic measures the USPS is taking that will significantly delay mail and permanently damage the nation’s mail system. Since 2012, the USPS has closed 114 mail processing plants, one third of the nation’s mail processing capacity... These closures will eliminate jobs, harm communities, and delay mail delivery every day—Monday, through Saturday.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who has taken the lead in the anti-austerity struggle—not just as the Postal Service’s stalwart champion but as the most ardent critic of scheming to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—recognizes that the fight is not finished.
Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, have introduced legislation to repeal the pre-funding requirement, which they refer to as “the crippling law responsible for 80 percent of the mail system’s funding woes.”
But they and their allies—including Pocan—are not merely dealing with fiscal matters. They're proposing a Postal Service Protection Act that would:
* clear the way for the Postal Service to help customers take advantage of email and Internet services.
* lift legal bans on services such as notarizing documents.
* create a commission composed of successful business innovators and representatives from small business and labor to make recommendations on other ways the Postal Service could generate new revenue and thrive in the 21st century.
The Postal Service, like most public services, can survive and thrive in the 21st century. But that will never happen if the austerity agenda is extended. It will only happen if that agenda is challenged—with not just one “Day of Action” but with days and days and days of activism on behalf of the sound economics and social responsibility that is the opposite of austerity.
What would a healthier, wealthier and wiser tax policy look like? Read Mattea Kramer's take.
Social Security checks at the US Treasury. (AP Photo/Bradley C. Bower)
US Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Mark Takano, Congressman Mark Pocan, Congressman Rick Nolan and leaders of organizations that oppose President Obama's anticipated assault on Social Security went to the White House Tuesday to present petitions signed by 2.3-million Americans who reject the president's proposal for “chained-CPI.”
The "chained-CPI" scheme would restructure cost-of-living adjustments in a way that cuts Social Security benefits for millions of seniors and veterans.
Sanders has vowed to “do everything in my power to block President Obama’s proposal to cut benefits for Social Security recipients through a chained consumer price index.”
And he's got allies. Joining the senator and the House members at the White House were representatives of Social Security Works, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the National Organization for Women, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, the Campaign for America’s Future and MoveOn.org.
They were joined by Damon Silvers, the director of policy for the AFL-CIO, who announced that if the president goes forward with a budget that proposes Social Security cuts he will do so "without cover" from the labor movement.
The advocacy is significant, as Obama has yet to formally submit his budget. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, couples his outspoken opposition to the "chained-CPI" proposal with a message, "It's not too late to stop this."
It is the hope that Harkin is right that has inspired the dramatic response to news of the president's proposal. Americans really are, as Democracy for America chair Jim Dean notes, rising up in outspoken opposition to any cut in Social Security—but, especially, to a cut proposed by a Democratic president.
"Real Democrats don't cut social security benefits, period, and it's positively shameful that a Democratic President is leading the charge to do so," says Dean. "Protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits from cuts is a bedrock principle of the Democratic party. So, let's be clear: Any congressional Democrat who goes along with the plan the President is proposing and votes to cut Social Security benefits should be prepared to face the ire of the progressive base of the Democratic party and the primary challenges that come along with it."
Yet, most indications are that President Obama is still preparing a budget plan that would cut Social Security with the "chained-CPI" scheme. White House talking points regarding the budget plan still state that it includes "particular proposals in this plan like the CPI change."
The White House is already trying to soften the blow, with rhetorical flourishes and technical arguments, but Harkin is right when he says: "Call it whatever you want—the chained CPI is still a cut to those who need help the most."
By any reasonable measure, the fight over "chained-CPI" is, at this point, between progressives and the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has already rejected the Obama budget plan—sight unseen. The question now is whether Obama will go ahead with the plan to compromise Social Security in order to reach a "grand bargain" that certainly appears to be out of reach.
If he does, it will be Obama who is putting Social Security cuts on the table—along with, some reports suggest, means testing for Medicare.
The president, who was reelected as the choice of Americans who seek to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, may be prepared to abandon a commitment that has defined Democrats for decades.
Progressives have been blunt in stating that they will not follow Obama's lead if he proposes cuts. "Americans all over the country depend on every single dollar they get from Social Security to put food on the table and pay for housing," Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, announced late last week. "Using chained CPI will shift more costs onto already struggling American families, seniors, veterans—including our 3.2 million disabled veterans who also depend on the Social Security calculation for their Veterans Affairs benefits—individuals with disabilities, and children on survivors’ benefits."
But the critical question is whether Democrats will tell a Democratic president that he cannot count on their support for cuts to Social Security.
Most House Democrats signed a February letter to the president that declares: "We remain deeply opposed to proposals to reduce Social Security benefits through use of the chained CPI to calculate cost-of-living adjustments. We remain committed to making the changes that will extend solvency for 75 years, but Social Security has not contributed to our current fiscal problems and it should not be on the bargaining table."
The 107 signers of that letter—which was circulated by Ellison, Grijalva, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, John Conyers of Michigan and Donna Edwards of Maryland, with support from the likes of Minnesota's Nolan and Wisconsin's Pocan—make up a majority of the House Democratic Caucus. Another 30 House Democrats have signed or agreed to the sentiments of a letter (circulated by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson and Takano, a California Democrat) that says: "We will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits—including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need."
Those are the sentiments of FDR Democrats, who recognize that their party is—and should continue to be—defined by a historic commitment to maintain programs created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.
The problem, of course, is that pressures for loyalty to party principle are sometimes trumped by pressures for loyalty to the agenda of a party's sitting president.
Thus comes the test for congressional Democrats—and for their partisan constituents.
What will the Democratic party stand for in the budget debate?
President Obama still has it in his power to unite the party around the FDR standard.
If he fails to do so, however, congressional Democrats will have to decide whether there are some compromises that Democrats cannot accept.
All of us—especially President Obama—are Thatcherites now. Read Maria Margaronis's take.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Obama closed his 2012 campaign with a populist flourish that seemed to suggest he was finally coming to believe his own rhetoric about the need for growth, as opposed to austerity. The strength of his message earned the president a mandate: a popular vote margin of almost 5 million, a landslide win in the Electoral College and significant gains in Senate and House races.
But now, he proposes to squander that mandate in pursuit of a “grand bargain” with House Republicans—a bargain that would replace the current approach to calculating cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients with a “Chained-CPI” scheme. The change will harm not just seniors, children and people with disabilities, but a fragile economic recovery.
Additionally, the president is reported to be prepared to propose some means testing for Medicare.
This is not Paul Ryan privatization. But it is a classic austerity cut.
It is wrong economically, and politically.
“Social Security is not driving the deficit; therefore it should not be part of reforms aimed at cutting the deficit. The chained CPI, deceptively portrayed as a reasonable cost of living adjustment, is a cut to Social Security that would hurt seniors,” says former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. “There are several sensible reforms to Social Security that should be considered to help make it sustainable, including lifting the ceiling on income subject to Social Security from $113,700 to $200,000 or more, as well as instituting a 1 percent raise in the payroll tax rate, a rate that hasn't changed in over 20 years.”
Reich, a Democrat, warns that the president’s plan abandons a historic partisan commitment.
“(Ever) since Social Security's inception in 1935 and Medicare's 30 years later, Republicans have been trying to get rid of them. If average Americans have trusted the Democratic Party to do one thing over the years, it's been to guard these programs from the depredations of the GOP,” explains the former Clinton administration Cabinet member. “Why should Democrats now lead the charge against them?”
The president’s pursuit of a “grand bargain” was quickly rejected by House Speaker John Boehner.
Yet, despite the record of Republican obstruction, the White House has placed a major Social Security cut on the table.
“Social Security is too important to the economic security of the American people to be used as a bargaining chip. The president's own Secretary of the Treasury and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget has written about the budget,” says Nancy Altman, a founding co-director of Social Security Works. “The problem is not Social Security; the problem is the mismatch between outlays and revenues in the rest of the budget.' Applying the so-called chained CPI to Social Security cuts the benefits of every single Social Security beneficiary, now and in the future. The very groups who worked the hardest and voted in the highest percentages to re-elect the president—working families, women, people of color, young Americans—will be the ones hurt the most by the cuts the president is reportedly including in his budget.”
That’s a message that was echoed frequently Friday, as progressives pushed back against the president’s plan.
“What the president is proposing is going to hurt a lot of people,” said Sanders.
The senator from Vermont is not going to let that happen without a fight. He has launched a petition opposing the president’s approach. It reads:
At a time when the middle class is disappearing, poverty is increasing and the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider, we demand that the federal budget not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our country.
A federal budget that reduces the deficit by cutting cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and disabled veterans, raising the Medicare eligibility age and lowering tax rates for the most profitable corporations in this country is not a grand bargain. It is a bad bargain.
We oppose the chained-CPI, a new way to measure inflation and consumer prices designed to cut benefits for Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and their survivors.
We are strongly opposed to benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the needs of our veterans.
We demand a budget that puts millions of Americans back to work in decent paying jobs.
We demand a budget that makes sure that the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations pay their fair share.
Within hours of the White House confirmation of the president’s plan, the petition had already attracted more than 33,000 signatures.
At Indiana University, budget cuts are only one chip in the austerity game. Read StudentNation's primer on the campus-wide strike happening this week.
Tony Evers. (Flickr/WisPolitics.com)
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced that he would use his upcoming budget to expand private-school voucher programs, even some Republican legislators objected.
But the loudest objection to Walker’s approach, and to the broader national push to shift taxpayer dollars away from public education and toward private experiments, came from Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. Evers, an educator who in 2009 was elected to lead the state's Department of Public Instruction, appeared before the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and in communities across Wisconsin to state that opposition. “This has to stop,” he said. “The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”
Complaining that the previous Walker budget had cut $1.8 billion from public schools, Evers argued that it was wrong for the governor to use his 2013-15 state budget plan to essentially freeze public school funding while hiking spending for private voucher school students by as much as $1,400 each.
Staking out so clear a position in opposition to the governor’s agenda—not just on vouchers but on a host of education policy issues—was risky. Evers was up for reelection and he faced a determined challenge from Republican state Representative Don Pridemore, a steady supporter of Walker’s legislative agenda. The governor did not make an endorsement in the nonpartisan race and that miffed Pridemore, one of the most conservative members of the legislature. But the challenger's campaign was cheered on by the Republican Assembly Speaker, conservative radio hosts and activists.
A well-regarded and easy-going figure, Evers could easily have mounted a cautious campaign for the statewide post.
Instead, he campaigned across the state prior to Wisconsin’s April 2 statewide election with a message that Walker’s voucher scheme posed a threat to public education.
“This money isn’t coming from Madison. This money is coming directly from your school districts,” Evers told teachers and parents. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the priority is here,” Evers said. “It’s not public schools. It’s voucher schools. It’s privatization, and don’t let anybody tell you differently.”
With a challenger campaigning as a proponent of vouchers—and charging that Evers was too closely aligned with educators and their unions, which backed the superintendent’s reelection—the race offered Wisconsinites what the Associated Press referred to as a “stark choice.”
Voters responded by giving Evers a 61-39 victory statewide.
“Today’s election offered voters a crystal clear choice between two very different philosophies about education,” the superintendent declared on election night. “Voters spoke loudly and clearly, affirming their commitment to Wisconsin’s strong public schools and calling for a much-needed reinvestment to support the over 870,000 public school kids in our state.”
Lisa Subeck, the executive director of the progressive grassroots group United Wisconsin argued that the election results should cause the governor to rethink.
“Evers ran on a pro-public education platform, and his victory sends a clear message that the voters of Wisconsin reject Governor Walker’s push to sink more public money into unaccountable private vouchers schools,” she said. “With the resounding defeat of pro-voucher candidate and GOP state representative Don Pridemore, the message to Scott Walker is clear. Walker should end his ideological march to expand his private school voucher program and restore funding to Wisconsin’s public schools.”
The governor may not waver. His positions are popular with conservative advocates at the national level, and it is no secret that he’s pondering a 2016 presidential run. But Republicans legislators, especially in the state Senate, have already raised concerns. Indeed, Senate President Mike Ellis says that a number of Republicans find the governor’s proposal “unacceptable.” Ellis says Walker’s proposal will be "drastically changed" during the budget debate.
How drastically remains to be seen. But Republican legislators who were disinclined to go along with Walker on the voucher issue—and the broader education-funding debate—will take comfort from the fact that, in a “stark choice” election, voters gave overwhelming support to the candidate who was outspoken in his defense of public education.
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Tony Evers speaks in Milwaukee, June 1, 2010. (Flickr/WisPolitics.com)
Debates about education policy often get muddled, especially at election time. Though school board contests across the country regularly touch on local elements of the fight over the future of public education, and though legislative contests frequently raise policy details, it is rare that voters in a high-profile statewide contest face an absolutely clear choice on a broad range of education concerns.
But in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has attacked teacher unions and hacked away at education budgets, and where Walker now proposes a sweeping expansion of a controversial vouchers scheme to shift public money to private schools, voters will have a chance to register their response Tuesday.
Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, a nonpartisan official elected four years ago, is up for reelection. And he is, for all intents and purposes, running against Walker’s education agenda. Evers’s campaign is blunt, ripping the governor’s approach as an assault on public schools, and highlighting the fact that “Tony has stood up for Wisconsin's kids and working families, fighting back against a devastating $1.6 billion cut in state funding for education.”
Evers was one of more than 900,000 Wisconsinites who signed petitions seeking to recall Walker, who survived the June, 2012, electoral challenge but remains a highly controversial figure in Wisconsin and nationally.
As Tuesday’s election approached, Evers appeared before the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee to call for the rejection of those portions of Walker’s budget dealing with education. Noting that the governor’s budget would increase state funding for voucher school initiatives by 32 percent without increasing overall school funding, Evers declared: “This has to stop. The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”
Evers has been steady in his criticism of vouchers schemes, which he says have not delivered for students or communities. "To spend hundreds of millions to expand a 20-year-old program that has not improved overall student achievement, while defunding public education, is morally wrong," the superintendent has argued.
That’s the opposite stance from the one taken by Evers’ challenger, State Representative Don Pridemore, a Republican closely aligned with Walker. Backed by GOP legislative leaders, Pridemore is an ardent advocate for vouchers who echoes the arguments made by conservative critics of public-sector unions and the teachers who are active with them.
The Evers-Pridemore race offers what the Associated Press has correctly identified as a “stark choice” for voters on a range of education issues that begins with the voucher debate but does not end there.
Pridemore backed Walker’s controversial 2011 assault on collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees, along with the governor’s cuts to funding for education and public services. Evers is backed by the Wisconsin Education Association and American Federation of Teachers union locals in the state. And his campaign literature has featured images of the superintendent talking with teachers during mass rallies at the state Capitol.
At almost every turn the candidates differ. Evers has spent thirty-six years as an educator, while Pridemore has never taught in a public school nor administered one. Evers talks about education as a tool to help young people achieve their dreams, and to promote citizenship. Pridemore talks about how his education priority is “making sure our kids are prepared for the workforce.”
Pridemore wants to respond to school violence by allowing armed volunteers to patrol the hallways. Evers thinks that’s a poor idea.
But the core difference is with regard to the commitment states and communities bring to maintaining public schools.
Pridemore embodies not just the Walker agenda, but the vision advanced by national groups that complain about budgeting resources for public schools while promoting the diversion of taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools.
Evers embodies the classic pro-public education agenda. He doesn’t just defend public schools; he’s gone so far as to propose during the current campaign that state spending be increased by roughly $225 per pupil.
“Tony firmly believes education is our pathway back to middle class prosperity,” the superintendent’s campaign declares. “To rebuild our economy and restore the American Dream, every child must be a graduate ready for college or a career, and re-investing in education will help get us there.”
That’s bold talk these days. But Evers is asking voters to make a bold choice in favor of public education—and of the budget priorities that sustain strong public schools.
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Senator Sherrod Brown. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has for years battled to break up “too-big-to-fail” banks, arguing, “American taxpayers don’t want us to wait until another crisis develops. They want us to ensure that Wall Street megabanks will never again monopolize our nation’s wealth or gamble away the American Dream.”
Now, as the US Senate looks to reshuffle its most powerful posts following the 2014 election, Brown is a serious contender to take over as chair of the Senate Banking Committee.
If Democrats retain control of the chamber, a senator who has proudly tangled with Wall Street and the nation’s biggest banks might actually be given the authority to investigate and regulate what the populists and progressives of a century ago referred to as “the money power.”
That’s a very big deal, as Brown is not merely an outspoken critic of oversized banks. The Ohio Democrat has built bipartisan support for break-up-the-banks legislation, and he has a populist eye for issues that highlight the struggle to end the excesses of Wall Street and the banks. Just last week, he secured a unanimous Senate vote for a resolution to end federal subsidies for the biggest banks.
So how could Brown, who is just starting his second term, become chairman of the powerful Banking Committee?
The current chair, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, will retire after the 2014 election. That puts Senator Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, in line to chair the committee; but Reed is also in line to chair the powerful Armed Services Committee, and it is widely believed he prefers that position.
Next in line is New York’s Chuck Schumer. But Schumer hopes to eventually replace Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. And that makes his decision complicated.
Because Schumer is broadly seen as being close to Wall Street, the big bankers would love to see the New Yorker take the committee chairmanship. And he may well do so—if only to block Brown. But Schumer is savvy enough to know that doing so could damage his long-term prospects as a contender for a leadership post. Why? Because the Senate’s burgeoning progressive caucus—which will be a factor in any leadership race—wants to get tougher with the banks. And because a stint as Banking Committee chair, especially if it is characterized by compromises with the industry’s biggest players, could tarnish Schumer’s image and make him a less attractive leadership prospect.
New Jersey‘s Bob Menendez, the third Democratic senator in line for the Banking Committee chairmanship, has given every indication that he is more interested in remaining chair of the Foreign Relations Committee—a post he took up when former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry became Secretary of State.
That brings us to Brown.
Already, media outlets that cater to the financial and political elites are abuzz regarding the prospect that a populist with a proven track record when it comes to building bipartisan coalitions for reform might suddenly be in a position to get tough on the big banks. The headlines tell the story:
To be clear, Brown is not a critic of all banks. Just the behemoths that could, were they to stumble, crash the US economy. Brown talks up community banks and credit unions that play by the rules and serve consumers. Indeed, he wants to make sure that the federal government respects small banks, rather than simply bowing before the big guys.
While many other Democrats have been willing to compromise on the “too-big-to-fail” issue, Brown has been steadfast. When the Senate was debating what would eventually become the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Brown broke with his fellow Democrats and sought to enact the Safe, Accountable, Fair & Efficient (SAFE) Banking Act. That measure would have capped the size of banks so that none could control so large a percentage of the economy that the threat of its failure might demand a new bailout.
Brown was blocked then, but he’s back with a new version of the bill, and with a Republican co-sponsor, Louisiana Senator David Vitter.
Arguing for that bill, Brown asked, “How many more scandals will it take before we acknowledge that we can’t rely on regulators to prevent subprime lending, dangerous derivatives, risky proprietary trading, and even fraud and manipulation?”
And Brown answered: “We simply cannot wait any longer for regulators to act. These institutions are too big to manage, they are too big to regulate, and they are surely still too big to fail.”
It’s been a long time since the Senate Banking Committee was chaired by a progressive populist who is willing to take on not just “too-big-to-fail” banks but to demand that the banking industry serve communities and treat consumers fairly. And it’s been even longer since a populist chairman had an ally on the committee like newly-elected Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a key ally of Brown’s.
History does record, however, that big things happen when the oversight responsibility is handed to a senator who worries more about Maine Street than Wall Street.
When Democrats gained control of the Senate in 1933, Florida Senator Duncan Upshaw Fletcher took the chairmanship of what was then the Banking and Currency Committee. Charged with identifying the guilty men whose greed caused the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and the Great Depression that followed, Fletcher worked with a crack New York prosecutor, Ferdinand Pecora, to call the bankers and the speculators to account. Pecora and his team were so aggressive, and so effective, that they even got J.P. Morgan Jr., to acknowledge that he had paid no income tax in 1931 and 1932—an admission that provoked a national outcry and demand for reform.
The reforms came quickly. The Banking Committee’s high-profile inquiry cleared the way for the enactment of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933, the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Securities and Exchange Commission was established in 1935 to enforce those new laws, along with a host of other measures that end myriad abuses.
The combination of Fletcher Duncan and Ferdinand Pecora put the people back in charge in the 1930s, and provided generations of Americans with protection against the threat posed by unregulated and under-regulated banks and brokers. The combination of Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren could do the same in the twenty-first century.
That prospect scares behemoth bankers.
But it should excite Americans who recognize that the nation’s economy—and its democracy—will never be secure for so long as “too-big-to-fail” banks are allowed to call the shots.
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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Why is Governor Scott Walker writing a book?
Well, to be more precise, why is former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen (famously, along with Dick Cheney, one of Washington's most ardent defenders of "enhanced interrogation") helping Scott Walker write a book?
That’s easy. Just ask Jeb Bush. Or Marco Rubio. Or Mitt Romney. Or John McCain. Or Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who put out the classic Power to the People back in the 1990s.
If you’re going to run for president—and, as he more or less acknowledges whenever he’s talking to national political writers, Scott Walker is quite interested in seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—you’ve got to produce a book.
There are, of course, some rules when it comes to writing your way into the running.
For instance, you’ve got to suggest that you are interested in more than your own story, that you’ve got answers for America.
So you need a title like, um, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.
And, in case any Republican county chairs in Iowa or New Hampshire miss the point, the publisher that’s paying you big bucks to produce the tome must peddle it with lines like this one: “In Unintimidated, Governor Walker will share the inside story of how the battle for Wisconsin was won—the reforms he enacted, the mistakes he made, the lessons he learned, and how those lessons can help conservatives win the battle for America.”
Get it? “Help conservatives win the battle for America”?
The publisher has to say things like: “It’s not just a memoir—it’s a call to action.”
Get it? “Call to action”?
And of course, the publisher must refrain from mentioning that Scott Walker’s austerity agenda has failed. No need to go into the details about how, with the implementation of the governor’s assaults on public employees, public services and public education, Walker’s Wisconsin has dropped to No. 44 in job growth and trails neighboring states when it comes to creating unemployment.
After all, Scott Walker’s not producing a memoir, nor anything akin to a useful program for American economic renewal. He’s writing a manifesto for his 2016 presidential run. And as the country’s No. 1 proponent of austerity, he will remain entirely “unintimidated” by the frustrating fact that—if it is the “nation’s challenge” to put Americans back to work in good-paying jobs with secure futures—Scott Walker’s answers are not a campaign promise. They’re a threat.
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