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The Republican’s Dangerous Game of Budget Brinkmanship

2011 July 12

Any politician who tells you that the budget crisis can be solved by cutting spending is lying.  Any politician who says we can get out of the budget crisis by raising taxes is also lying.  Our budget crisis is so large, we will need to cut spending and raise taxes if we are to have any hope of making any real progress on our debt.  The United States is facing an enormous fiscal crisis in the midst of  a recession, and we have been heading this way for a long, long time, and the shock of politicians have displayed at finding ourselves in such a quandry strikes me as ridiculous and disingenuous.  We are fighting three wars, we’ve been cutting taxes for the last ten years, the economy isn’t generating the funds and jobs it used to, and Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security have been in danger of going bankrupt for at least the last 30 years.  And now we are in danger of defaulting on our loans if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, even though the debt ceiling was raised seven time during the Bush Administration.  Congressional Republicans are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the U.S. and world economy by demanding spending cuts in exchange for the debt ceiling vote, and in meantime holding our economic future hostage.

Congressional Republicans aren’t taking the budget crisis seriously, even though they insist they are only ones who do, because Democrats want to spend us into oblivion with their Socialist programs.  No, Congressional Republicans aren’t taking the budget crisis seriously because they only want to cut spending on programs they see as wasteful (social safety nets, educational and medical programs, etc.) and are unwilling to consider spending cuts on other programs, like the military budget—which composes 19.3% of the total budget, the same as expenditures on health care.  Republicans also refuse to close tax loopholes for the uber-rich, wealthy corporations, or anything else that could be construed as “raising taxes”, something Republicans seem to be allergic to.  But if not for taxes, how would Republicans fund their precious military programs, like the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, a.k.a Missile Defense Agency, a.k.a Star Wars), veterans’ services, the G.I. Bill, border protection, and law enforcement?

The government can’t function without funds, and funds are raised through taxation. If we abolish taxes and rely on the generosity of individuals (which is something some of my tea-party acquaintances have suggested) the government wouldn’t last a week.  People can be very generous, but when it comes to taking money out of their own pockets voluntarily to fund programs that benefit the general public, people are inherently self-interested and greedy.

Anyone with half a brain knows that we cannot continue spending as we have for the last 3o years, that entitlement programs and social safety nets need to be adjusted  to prevent them from going bankrupt and taking the government with it.  But with Congressional Republicans refusing to agree to any “revenue enhancements” (taxes) it’s hard to categorize the actions of Republican congressional leadership as anything but brinkmanship, a term that emerged during the Cold War, originally describing the threat of nuclear annihilation (hello, M.A.D.) in order to push dangerous events to “the verge of disaster in order to achieve the most advantageous outcome.”   This political tactic is not new, but it has rarely been taken so far or been so characterized by partisanship.  And for that we can all thank Grover Norquist, the legendary conservative power-broker and lobbyist who founded the conservative advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and created the Tax Payer Protection Pledge.  The Tax Payer Protection Pledge is distributed to all national and local politicians, and essentially requires candidates to swear to “…oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and…oppose any net reduction of elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”  There is no legal threat if a candidate does not take the pledge, or if a politician doesn’t hew to its draconian requirements, but there is a very real political threat.  The ATR will use its massive financial resources and political clout to defeat any politician who refuses to take the pledge, or who takes the pledge and breaks it.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently wrote on op-ed for the Washington Post entitled “How Grover Norquist Hypnotized the GOP” in which he described an encounter with Norquist at a Harvard reunion on a panel on politics:

During his presentation, Norquist explained why he believed that there would be a permanent Republican majority in America.  One person interrupted, as I recall, and said, “C’mon, Grover, surely one day a Democrat will win the White House.”  Norquist immediately replied: “We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

Essentially, that is what the Republican House Majority is doing.  Governor Patrick continued:

It is now clear that the Republican strategy is to drive America to the brink of fiscal ruin and then argue that the only way out is to cut spending for the powerless. Taxes — a dirty word thanks to Norquist’s “no new taxes” gimmick — are made to seem beyond the pale, even as the burden of paying for our society shifts disproportionately to the middle class and working poor. It is the height of fiscal folly. It is also not who we are as a country.

Given the position of Republican Congressional leadership, it’s hard not to believe that they hate poor people, old people, students, and immigrants.  In the last ten years, the rich have gotten richer, and the richest obscenely rich.  The data and graphs in this Mother Jones article depict exactly how unequal wealth distribution is in this country in depressing detail.  Further, the distribution of wealth we are currently seeing hasn’t been seen since 1928, right before the Great Depression.  I do believe people should be well-compensated for their successes, and those who start successful companies and create jobs deserve financial reward.  I am not suggesting we turn to a Communist system.  But we do have to address the staggering (and growing) income inequality in this country.  Taxes and revenue to run the government have to come from somewhere, and I think most Americans agree that individuals and corporations should be taxed according to their means; those with more means should pay more.  If we really do live in a just society, we cannot justify continuing tax breaks for the wealthy, and paying for it on the backs of working and middle-class Americans.  Last year, Americans paid more in taxes than billion and trillion-dollar corporations like Bank of America, Verizon, GE, FedEx, Apple, and BP thanks to the same tax loopholes that the Obama Administration wants to close in their proposed budget.

We need politicians on both sides of the aisle to stop dicking around and get serious about solving the very real challenges presented by the budget crisis.  As President Obama said in his press conference on Monday, solving the budget crisis will require shared sacrifices, but Congressional Republicans only want to have things their way and have demonstrated themselves unwilling to negotiate, despite the large spending cuts the Administration has proposed.  The majority the Republicans hold in the House does not empower them to rule by fiat.  We live in a democracy, and democracy requires compromise.  Seven months ago, Speaker John Boehner said the battle over the debt ceiling would be “the first really big adult moment” of the new Republican House Majority.  Well, Speaker, I think your new majority needs to stop throwing a temper-tantrum and start actually acting like adults.

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