Congress has now achieved the remarkable feat of making itself less popular than Wall Street bankers.
And the way it is heading, it hasn’t hit bottom yet — there’s still 9 percent of the public that approves of the job the legislators are doing.
The entire country is terrified about the economy. There are 24 million people in need of full time work, wages are declining, one in four homes is under water, workers entering the workforce outnumber the jobs being created, Europe and China’s economies are slowing. People understandably want Congress to focus on jobs and the economy.
So how is it that after a few weeks of inching toward talk about jobs (with the president proposing a modest jobs plan and Republicans filibustering to block even a discussion of it), some members of Congress have turned their attention back to cutting spending and raising taxes — both actions guaranteed to destroy jobs, not to create them?
We’re headed toward the deadline of the supercommittee’s Gang of 12 — the despicable offspring of the debt ceiling deal. It must report its plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion (on top of the $900 billion in spending cuts mandated in the deal) before Thanksgiving. If nothing is passed before Christmas, deep automatic cuts in discretionary spending will begin to kick in — in 2013.
Last week, the majority of Democratic representatives on the supercommittee offered up an even larger deal — suggesting $3 trillion in deficit reduction, with a ratio of 6-to-1 spending cuts to tax hikes, according to the most reasonable Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline, or nearly 2-to-1 cuts to tax hikes on the CBO’s current policy baseline. Whatever the measure, the offer was markedly worse on spending than either the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission’s recommendations or the ideas ladled out by the bipartisan Senate Gang of Six.
A large chunk of the spending cuts would come from Medicare and Medicaid (some $475 billion over 10 years) and the newest establishment fad — a chained Consumer Price Index that would cut a medium earner’s Social Security benefits by about 9.2 percent in real dollars by 2042.
While Democrats reportedly also included some $300 billion in stimulus — largely by extending the Social Security payroll tax cut and extending unemployment benefits — they have decided to get into a bidding war with conservatives about cutting government — at a time of mass unemployment, when spending cuts and tax hikes will simply cost jobs.
And to make the offer enticing, they casually decided to throw in the core legacy of the Democratic Party — and the core obligation of the nation — to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
House Speaker John Boehner once more scorned the preemptive Democratic concessions, opposing any tax hikes. There may be logic to his insidious intransigence. Republicans keep saying no and Democrats keep offering more concessions. Supercommittee Republicans suggested instead a package based largely on cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, combined with magical hundreds of billions they say would be produced by slashing assistance to the elderly and the vulnerable, by selling off government assets, and by the growth sparked by tax cuts.
This leaves Congress offering a choice between the ruinous and the risible. No wonder Americans despair. A vast majority want Congress focused on jobs. They want Medicare and Social Security protected, not cut. They want taxes raised on the wealthy and on Wall Street. They want the wars ended, the troops brought home and the money saved to be devoted to rebuilding America.
The most sensible decision of the supercommittee would be to disband so Congress can reconsider the disastrous debt ceiling deal. Failing that, the supercommittee should be held to the following common-sense principle:
Jobs first. Any report should include significant investment in jobs in the early years of the decade. That would require more than simply sustaining what’s now on the table: extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance. It would require a dramatic initiative to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, a serious manufacturing strategy for the country, aid to states and localities, action on refinancing underwater mortgages, and government-funded public service jobs.
Jobs first would demand that the trigger for turning to paying down deficits and the debt be not an arbitrary date, but when the unemployment rate comes down.
When people go back to work, a good portion of the deficit problem will be erased. The remainder of the deficit comes largely from the economic costs of the Wall Street excesses that blew up the economy, as well as the lingering costs of the unfunded wars and top-end Bush tax cuts.
So it is only sensible that those who made the mess should be given the bill for cleaning it up. Close tax havens, close corporate-tax loopholes, slash the subsidies to Big Oil, the drug companies and agribusiness. Get serious about progressive taxation.
The Republican position that we can’t raise taxes on “job creators,” or anyone else for that matter, is simply a cover for sending the bill to the vulnerable, the elderly and working families. But the “reasonable” Democratic position doesn’t make sense either. How can there be “shared sacrifice” in cleaning up the mess when most Americans have been sacrificing all along, while the wealthiest Americans had the party and created the mess?
Occupy Wall Street has captured the nation’s attention, but Congress seems oblivious. Who is prepared to make Wall Street and the wealthy pay? It isn’t just the demonstrators who will be looking for the answer.
Katrina vanden Heuvel’s new book is “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”