Austerity will win again

October 16, 2013

Whatever bill finally wins congressional approval for funding the government and raising the debt ceiling will contain further devastating cuts in government spending.

ROY "WRONG WAY" RIEGELS went down in football history for his memorable dash toward the end zone in the 1929 Rose Bowl. Midway through the second quarter, Riegels, who played the equivalent of middle linebacker for the University of California Berkeley team, picked up a fumbled football and started out for the goal line, nearly 70 yards away.

Only it was the other team's goal line. His teammates dragged him down on the one-yard line, setting up a 2-point safety that lost the game and the national championship for the Golden Bears.

Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have something in common with Wrong Way Riegels.

With Washington lumbering toward a deal to end the government shutdown and the threat of a default, the Democrats may win a political victory over the fumbling House Republicans, who have had to give up most of what they were demanding before they would vote to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.

But it's happening in the Republican end zone. The media are largely ignoring it, but the spending plan both sides agree on was first put forward by the GOP. Whatever happens with the issues still in dispute, the deal, when it happens, will lock in government funding levels that are drastically lower than what the Obama White House put forward, and much closer to the proposals of the Tea Partiers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner

THE GOVERNMENT shutdown began at the start of the month when House Republicans, driven by the fervor of their most conservative members, refused to pass a "continuing resolution" to finance government operations unless there was a provision that delayed or defunded the Affordable Care Act, Barack Obama's health care law.

The frontal assault on "Obamacare" is off the table now. Senate Democrats and House Republicans still had differences between them early in the week, but these were mainly about how far to kick the can down the road before more Congressional votes will be required to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. The changes in the health care law being proposed now are fairly minor.

Congress could still stumble into a debt default if the House Republican leadership can't round up enough votes by Thursday--the day that the government's money to pay its debts supposedly runs out--for one or another compromise. But at this point, the Republicans have had to admit defeat on their latest attempt to destroy the health care law.

Yet passing unnoticed, outside the glare of the media spotlight on the partisan battles, is the consensus between Democrats and Republicans on deep cuts in funding levels for the federal government.

As the liberal Center for American Progress showed at the end of September--in an article meant to prove how reasonable the Democrats have been--the Senate Democrats' original "continuing resolution" set a funding level for discretionary spending in fiscal year 2014 of $986 billion when spread out over the full year. That's a further 7 percent cut from the Senate's budget plan passed only six months ago.

Compared to budget proposals from previous years, this spending reduction, when it passes, looks even deeper.

When Obama took office in 2009, for example, his first-year budget proposed a total of $1.203 trillion in discretionary spending in 2014--the Senate's continuing resolution proposal is a nearly 18 percent cut.

When Republicans swept into the House majority in the 2010 elections, incoming House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan came up with a GOP budget plan that was denounced by Democrats for its destructive cuts. Ryan set discretionary spending at $1.095 trillion in 2014--about 10 percent more than the Senate Democrats proposed to stop the government from shutting down.

Most telling of all: The funding levels in the deal to raise the debt ceiling and restart the government are much closer to Ryan's latest budget proposal, put forward earlier this year, than the Senate's budget plan.

A lot of people--not just liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress that align their politics with the Democrats, but ordinary people who hate the Republicans and their Tea Party-fueled fanaticism--will celebrate the end of the shutdown as a victory over the Republican maniacs.

But it's not a victory at all--not for our side. The eventual agreement is certain to represent another long stride down the road of austerity--and a further blow to working class living standards.

IT'S WORTH noting that it took the threat of a default on the national debt--with unknown but likely catastrophic consequences for the world financial system--to start untangling the stalemate at the top of the "the world's greatest democracy." And even that may not be enough to get a resolution by the Thursday deadline.

Still, Republicans were perfectly willing to leave the government closed indefinitely, in defiance of the wishes of the vast majority of the public that they, too, supposedly represent. Only when the alarm was raised about the federal government welshing on its debts--and raised with particular urgency by Wall Street and Corporate America--did the House Republicans back away from their obsession with the health care law.

Republicans are getting the blame for the shutdown and the debt ceiling debacle--74 percent of people disapprove of how the GOP has handled the crisis, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, meaning that a significant part of the Republicans' own base is fed up with them.

But congressional Republicans are used to rock-bottom approval ratings among the general public. More concerning for any but the most diehard ideologues is the growing anger of the ruling class, whose interests the GOP exists to serve. The New York Times reported last week that "several trade association officials warned...they were considering helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington."

That may still be more of a threat than an actual plan for the 2014 elections, but it certainly exemplifies the exasperation of Corporate America toward its favorite political party.

Still, as discredited as they have become, even in the eyes of big business, the Republicans, including their Tea Partying right wing, have played an undeniably important role in carrying through the public-sector austerity component of the wider ruling class offensive.

With every frenzied proposal to slash the federal budget by half or cut more taxes or close down the Department of Education or repeal the Obama health care law, the Republican right yanks mainstream politics further in its direction. Not only is the GOP's right-wing base energized, but the supposedly "moderate" wing of the party is silenced--while the Democrats pose as the "responsible" compromisers and ultimately embrace policies and political positions that are closer to where the right-wingers started out.

At a time of partisan warfare like now, it seems like the Democrats and Republicans couldn't be more different. But in reality, they share a common commitment to the same agenda--of defending and promoting the interests of Corporate America and Wall Street, while demanding harsher and harsher sacrifices from the rest of us.

What can break this cycle? At different points, many people have hoped the Democrats might slow the attacks if only they would show some spine and take on the Republicans. In the case of the shutdown, however, the Democratic leadership has mostly stood its ground, refusing to cave to GOP blackmail, as they have so often in the past. But the ground they stood is a further drastic cut in programs that working people rely on.

Later in his life, Wrong Way Riegels was able to laugh about his Rose Bowl blunder. "If I had to do it again," he'd say, "I'd still run in the same direction, for I surely thought I was going the right way."

That's the Wrong Way Democrats' attitude, too, but it's no joke. When they do battle with the Republicans again over the federal budget, they'll run in the same direction, because they think they're going the right way.

But it's the wrong way for working people. They need to be tackled before they score more points for the other side.

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