Thursday, March 10, 2011

Debate Shift

The Democrats have allowed the Republicans to dictate the terms of the budget discussions.  With Obama and most Democrats buying into Republican talking points about the overarching importance of solving the long term deficit problems immediately, the discussion has been limited not only on how much to cut, but on how much to cut from domestic discretionary spending.  Finally, a mainstream Democratic leader is seeking to re-frame the debate.

New York Senator Charles Schumer has, in stark contrast to the Republicans, come up with a coherent plan that would actually reduce the deficit.  He persuasively argues that any agreement on the budget must go beyond simply cutting funds to discretionary domestic programs.  Schumer's key point, which bears repeating over and over, is that the Republicans are not about reducing the deficit, they are about reducing government.  As he puts it:  "Right now a very small, very intense ideological tail is wagging the dog over in the House of Representatives.  Their fervor for spending cuts is not grounded in deficit reduction at all.  Instead the far right wing has deliberately confused two separate issues. They've conflated reducing the deficit -- which is not their true priority -- with cutting government -- which is."

The cuts Schumer's progressive plan calls for include reductions in military spending and subsidies to agribusiness and the gas and oil industries.  It seeks to crack down on tax dodges and income shelters of big corporations.  Schumer is also pushing for a surtax on millionaires and billionaires.  At the same time, he insists that Social Security is off limits.

As Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly put it:  "For weeks, the Republican line has been that we're in the midst of a budget crisis -- which they prefer to forget they're largely responsible for -- but the resolution must come by approving brutal, job-killing cuts to a small portion of the larger budget. Schumer, in effect, was telling the GOP it's time to expand the party's horizons -- if there's a genuine crisis, why not look at the rest of the budget, too?"

Ezra Klein explains why this "might prove a clarifying moment."
If Republicans are only willing to consider cuts to non-defense discretionary spending as part of a deficit-reduction deal, then whatever their aim is, it's not really deficit reduction. That's not how you reduce the deficit. If they're only willing to consider deep cuts to this year, as opposed to policies that would save a larger amount of money over the next few years, then it'll raise the possibility that they're motivated more by the specifics of an unwise campaign promise than by concern over the budget. Either "we're broke" or we're not. But if the answer is that we are -- and that's certainly what John Boehner has said in the past -- then it's time we started acting like it. The idea that you can balance the budget simply by doing things liberals don't like and Americans don't notice is a campaign fiction, not a plausible fiscal philosophy.
Republicans are pretending to care about budgets and deficits, at the state and national level, when their true goals are to gut social programs that help the disadvantaged and the middle class, and to destroy liberal institutions.  In an insightful article, The Strategy Behind the Budget Battles, Professor Allan Lichtman discussed the long-sought Republican strategy to defund organizations that provide the American left with its political power and its "hard currency."  This can be seen in the way the GOP is going after unions, Planned Parenthood, NPR, and legal services for the poor, while not touching tax subsidies for agribusiness and big oil.

Good for Schumer for seeking to "broaden the playing field," as he termed it, and for putting the Republicans on the defensive for once.  If the rest of the Democrats join in this could get interesting.

[Related posts:  Do The Right Thing; Crazy-Making Democrats, Telling the Truth About Social Security, Dead Armadillos; Let 'Em Eat Catfood; Must Read: Krugman]


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