The GOP: Gobbling up our blessings

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving may be a time to give thanks for our blessings, but in Washington, the resurgent Republican conservatives want needy Americans to have fewer of them. The new Republicans have the same old leaders - and their passion hasn't changed. It isn't about offering a hand up to the afflicted - it's about handouts to the connected.

In the lame-duck session now convened until the end of the year, Republicans have continued their strategy of obstruction - opposing the New START treaty, opposing repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," opposing consideration of immigration reform, opposing even passage of appropriations for the current year. Their passion is focused on getting one thing done. They will run through the wall to extend the extra tax cuts enjoyed by those, largely millionaires, earning more than $250,000 a year.

Forget about deficit reduction. According to Republicans, these tax cuts - costing an estimated $700 billion over the next decade - need not be balanced by spending cuts, or "paid for" in the Washington parlance.

At the same time, Republicans are willing to filibuster to block extension of unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed. They won't sign on, they say, unless there are cuts in domestic spending to offset the extension. The basic support of the families of more than 3 million workers will begin to expire at the end of this month. So much for holiday cheer.

The extra tax cuts for the rich (they collect the same tax cuts as everyone else on their first $250,000 of income) will cost about $68 billion next year alone. Extending unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed will cost about $65 billion.

The top 1 percent of Americans captured a staggering 66 percent of all income gains over the past decade. America's inequality is now at record extremes. And, as the independent Congressional Budget Office and John McCain's economic adviser, Mark Zandi, agree, providing tax cuts for the rich is the least effective way to boost the economy. The beneficiaries tend to save the money, invest it in growing markets abroad, or worse, throw more into the financial casino now reopened on Wall Street, fueling the computerized hyper-speculation that has nothing to do with productive investment.

At the same, the human toll caused by the economic recession continues to rise. There were 2.9 million job openings in September, but the total number of unemployed workers was 14.8 million, with half of these workers jobless for 21 weeks or more. Long-term unemployment insurance is keeping millions of workers and their families out of poverty. It is, without question, one of the most effective ways of boosting the economy, as the unemployed spend that money to buy food, pay rent or make car payments, while looking for work.

Congress has never cut back on these benefits when unemployment was more than 7.2 percent. Today, official unemployment is at 9.6 percent, with rates reaching more than 16 percent in African American communities. With six workers for every one job opening, this is a human calamity.

Voters have more decency than today's conservative leaders. In a new national survey on unemployment benefits by the National Employment Law Project and Half in Ten, an organization whose goal is to cut poverty in half in 10 years, 67 percent of all voters believe Congress should continue to provide unemployment benefits until unemployment comes down substantially.

Why go to the wall for the wealthy while abandoning those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own? This isn't hard to fathom. Secret donors spent more than $138 million in the last election, with 80 percent of the money going to Republicans. NBC News reports that a goodly proportion of the secret funds raised by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS operation came from wealthy hedge fund managers furious at Democratic efforts to repeal the outrageous "carried interest" loophole that allows them to pay a lower rate of taxes than their chauffeurs.

The Chamber of Commerce, Bloomberg reports, pocketed more than $86 million in secret contributions from the health-care industry last year - 40 percent of the chamber's spending. This year, the chamber spent nearly $33 million in secret donations on the elections, virtually all for Republican candidates vowing to repeal health-care reform.

The chamber's priorities - lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations, repealing health care, rolling back Wall Street reform - reflect those of its contributors. They are also totally divorced from the priorities of the American people, who are overwhelmingly focused on jobs and the economy.

It should not surprise anyone that the priorities announced by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the Republican congressional leaders, reflect those of the chamber and not citizens. McConnell promises to vote again and again on repeal of health reform. Republican committee chairs have promised to roll back bank regulations and to weaken environmental and consumer protections. And they have pledged to cut $100 billion from domestic programs, largely those directed at the vulnerable. Not surprisingly, they are likely to filibuster to block a vote on the Disclose Act, which would shed light on the identity of the secret campaign donors.

"Where are the jobs?" That was House speaker-presumptive John Boehner's mantra during the election campaign. But jobs are as AWOL in the Republican priorities as is compassion for the unemployed.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company