published Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

A window on the stalemate

The decision Tuesday by the freshmen-led House of Representatives to retreat on its reckless budget cuts for two weeks to avoid a shutdown, albeit temporarily, of the federal government this week suggests that a chastened sense of reality is setting in. Veteran House Republicans, well aware of the damage they incurred from the 1995 shutdown, have apparently counseled their tea party-leaning freshmen class about the lessons learned in the prior wreckage: Americans rightly expect stability of government, continuity of essential services, and prudent management. And they don’t particularly cotton to flame-throwers who don’t care who gets hurt.

That’s not to say that the compromise — the $4 billion in cuts for a two-week patch quietly proffered by GOP leaders last weekend to gain another two weeks of negotiating time — will lead to a smart budget consensus that will stand up for the rest of the fiscal year through September. The Republicans’ tea party faction, including many of the 87 new House members who stormed congressional elections last fall on promises to slash the budget, still say that the Americans they stand for want them to keep their campaign promises. They further say, without any evidence of public consensus, that those promises entail many of the damaging cuts they have proposed.

The two-week truce aside, that claim represents a problem that is yet to be resolved. The particular $60 billion in cuts the tea partiers still demand would mainly devastate nutrition programs, clinic and family planning services for millions of lower-income women and children. They would gut health insurance now provided to 31 million children in low- to moderate-income families. They would eliminate essential aid to hundreds of thousands of students in Head Start early learning programs. They would slash Pell grants for need-based college students, and cut valuable volunteer national service programs like Americorps.

They would undercut environmental protection, mortgage foreclosure relief and needed transportation and infrastructure investments (i.e., the long-delayed and badly needed Chickamauga dam replacement lock). They would cut funding to a range of other programs, from small-business aid and development grants to public radio to community block grant programs. The latter are used by Chattanooga and Hamilton County to help support the Community Kitchen, to help the Chattanooga Housing Authority move the homeless off the street and restart their lives, and to support community impact funds that help poorer neighborhoods cut crime, build cohesiveness and restore stability.

Such cuts are inherently myopic. For starters, economists predict they will slow economic growth by more than 1 percent and spur joblessness. And as with a collateral push by the nation’s governors to cut Medicaid, they do not consider what will happen to the people and communities they abandon to greater public health care burdens, or to inadequate infrastructure, increased poverty, poorer nutrition and higher crime.

The cuts do not make problems disappear; they literally make them worse, and leave them to fester, to the detriment of all citizens and in reckless disregard for the economy and the jobless.

It is a glaringly conspicuous irony, moreover, that the $60 billion in cuts that the Republicans are pushing to implement for the remainder of the current fiscal year are not nearly as costly as the gratuitous tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans that Republicans demanded be extended — at a cost in lost revenue of some $90 billion a year — barely 10 weeks ago, in December, before Congress shut down before Christmas.

Americans cannot have forgotten that Republicans stood in lock-step to demand that those expiring Bush tax cuts, which chiefly benefit the ultra-wealthy — the top one-tenth-of-one-percent of Americans, billionaires and multimillionaires all — had to be shoved down our throats before they would consent to allow extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the other 98 percent of Americans, whose net family incomes top out at $250,000 annually.

So long as Republicans are focusing their tax cuts on the 12 percent of the budget that covers just discretionary spending and the EPA, and then just the programs that help the neediest Americans and protect the environment, Democrats should continue to fight them over the cuts— even in the teeth of a renewed threat to shut down the government.

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