PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In the wake of Democrats’ loss in this week’s Wisconsin recall — and with a potentially decisive lame-duck session of Congress looming in five months — labor and liberal Democrats are digging in their heels on deficit reduction.
On a Saturday morning panel at the annual Netroots Nation conference, AFL-CIO Chairman Richard Trumka renewed his criticism of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan, arguing that labor and progressive activists must “give our friends a little bit of backbone” to oppose cuts to federal entitlement programs.
“If you notice, more and more Democrats have been trying to embrace Simpson-Bowles. ... Don’t let them digress into this deficit nonsense that says the only way that we can go forward is by cutting benefits,” Trumka told the crowd.
The Simpson-Bowles plan, which would achieve $4 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, has been cited as a potential blueprint for a “grand bargain” on tackling the country’s $16.4 trillion debt.
But the proposal has long antagonized both parties’ bases. And even with the increased chatter on Capitol Hill about the need for a sweeping debt-reduction plan as across-the-board defense cuts and the next debt-ceiling fight loom early next year, Trumka’s remarks Friday were a reminder that opposition to the proposal remains strong.
Arguing that Simpson-Bowles “has some very odious things in it,” Trumka urged progressive activists to oppose such spending-cut-heavy deficit-reduction plans, so that Americans “don’t get the notion that the rich had a party and yet again we have to pay.”
“If we create jobs, you grow your way out of this,” he said. “The revenue increases, and you don’t have to worry about cutting back.”
Also speaking on the Saturday morning panel were Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Erica Payne, founder of The Agenda Project; and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
The panel was moderated by Heather McGhee, director of the Washington office of Demos, who argued at one point that Simpson-Bowles represents “a fundamental undoing of the last 60 years.”
Progressive angst over Simpson-Bowles aside, the proposal doesn’t appear to be moving forward on Capitol Hill anytime soon: bipartisan legislation modeled on the plan drew the support of only 38 House members when it was brought to the floor in March.
On the Saturday morning panel, anger toward the financial sector was also palpable. At one point, Payne told attendees to take out their cellphones and then recited a phone number for them to save.
It was Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s office line.
“Just say that you’re calling and you think that he should get rid of Jamie Dimon from the board of the New York Fed,” she said, referring to the JPMorgan CEO who some have argued should step down from the New York Fed following his firm’s recent $2 billion trading loss. “Just call him once a day for a week. You’ll be fine.”
Bernanke testified this week that any action on Dimon is up to Congress.
In response to an audience question on whether the White House had asked any of the panelists what should be done about the economy, Krugman described his conversations with the Obama administration and then sounded a note of resignation.
“There was a critical moment there when we could’ve done much more, which, unfortunately, passed,” he said, adding that the White House “didn’t start to listen until it was too late.”
Asked by another questioner about where progressives stand more broadly, Trumka contended that the movement had succeeded in bringing about Obama’s changed stance on same-sex marriage and that those in the base must continue to pressure Democrats and “force them to come this way.”
“As much as anybody, you convinced this president that he had to come over on that issue. ... All of us have to start staking out some territory and staying with it, publicly and privately with them,” Trumka said.
He added that there were times that Obama “was talking about debt reduction and forgot about job creation,” but that “finally he realized that he was in [the GOP’s] backyard, playing their game on their rules and their turf.”