Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, walks away from the microphone during a news conference after a House GOP meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Just hours before a default on our national debt and sixteen days into a wrenching federal government shutdown, it now appears that the barest measure of sanity has prevailed in Washington. The Senate has reached a deal to reopen the government at current funding levels through January 15 and to pass a debt ceiling hike though February 7. The measure is expected to clear the House tonight with scant but necessary Republican support.
Because the deal only includes minor concessions, the Beltway consensus is that it represents a resounding defeat for Republicans, who “surrendered” their original demands to defund or delay Obamacare. In the skirmish of opinion polls, that may be true, for now. But in the war of ideas, the Senate deal is but a stalemate, one made almost entirely on conservative terms. The GOP now goes into budget talks with sequestration as the new baseline, primed to demand longer-term cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And they still hold the gun of a US default to the nation’s head in the next debt ceiling showdown.
Surrender? Any more “victories” like this and Democrats will end up paying tribute into the GOP’s coffers.
This debate started in 2011 when the president accepted that he couldn’t get support for jobs programs and instead called for “balanced” deficit reduction that included tax increases on corporations and the wealthy and spending cuts. In response, Republicans threatened to default on America’s debts, forcing through the Budget Control Act, which cut nearly $1 trillion in spending over ten years with no tax increases and exacted another trillion in cuts either by agreement of a “supercommittee” or, failing that, automatic across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion over ten years. Now the Republicans’ “surrender” locks in that sequester while pushing for further reductions to basic safety net programs—all while tax increases remain off the table and the threat of default is still pointed at the country’s head. Tea Party zealots may have lost their bid to torpedo healthcare reform, but the right continues to set the terms of the debate.
This is particularly perverse because austerity only adds to the country’s troubles. More than 20 million people still need full-time work. Incomes are still stagnant. The top 1 percent continue to capture what little growth there is. The International Monetary Fund says even that will slow, projecting a rate of 1.6 percent growth in the coming months. We are closer to a renewed recession than a healthy recovery. Meanwhile, deficits are falling more rapidly than at any time since the demobilization after World War II. More spending cuts will only cost jobs and slow growth.
We should be debating the real challenges ahead. How do we get the economy moving and create jobs? How do we empower workers to gain a fair share of profits? Can we forge a global effort to shut down off-shore tax dodges and end the obscenity of multinational companies pocketing millions in profits and paying nothing in taxes? Will we squander the opportunity to rebuild our decrepit roads, airports and sewers when interest rates are low and labor in abundant supply?
The GOP may be bearing the brunt of the public’s rage, but anger is also directed at Washington and government generally. Nearly eight in ten say the country is seriously off-track. The Tea Party may be plummeting in public esteem, but it is taking government down with it. There is simply no way to rebuild widely shared prosperity without a government with a clear strategy in the global economy. There is no way to make needed public investments and temper the extreme inequality that threatens our democracy without progressive tax reform. The terms of the Republican “surrender” take us in the wrong direction.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated. A previous version appears in the November 4, 2013 print issue.
Everybody is trying to get Congress to do its work, including an interfaith group determined to sing to Congressman Paul Ryan so that “his heart is broken…[and] he will act courageously,” according to Greg Kaufmann.