Concessions disguised as compromise

December 17, 2013

Nicole Colson reports on the latest budget deal that leaves workers out in the cold.

YOU KNOW when conservative Tea Party favorite Paul Ryan makes a triumphant announcement, it can't be good for working people--even if Patty Murray, a Democratic senator with a reputation as a liberal, is standing next to him.

Last week, Ryan and Murray, chairs of the Budget Committees in the House and Senate, respectively, announced their agreement at a press conference, prompting relief that another government shutdown will be averted after the last debacle, which not only hit federal workers' paychecks, but also threatened vital social services for the most vulnerable in society.

The media immediately declared that the GOP had caved in negotiations, merely because House Republicans were describing something--anything--as a "compromise." But working people will be the real losers in this latest deal, which fails to extend supplemental unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless and avoids any new taxes on the wealthy.

According to the New York Times, "The agreement, which would finance the government through September 30, 2015, would eliminate about $63 billion in across-the-board domestic and military cuts. But it would provide $23 billion in deficit reduction by extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers through 2023, two years beyond the cuts set by the Budget Control Act of 2011."

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan discuss the budget deal they negotiated
Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan discuss the budget deal they negotiated

Nevertheless, Democrats are claiming they won in the budget deal. They won't talk about provisions like increased pension contributions from federal workers, worth at least $6 billion. In other words, the ongoing attack on public-sector workers' pensions at the state level is being quietly written into the fine print of the federal budget.

It's true that prominent Tea Party politicians and conservative groups labeled the deal a sellout by their one-time darling Ryan. "Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and a group influential with rank-and-file House Republicans, came out against the deal even before it was announced, as did Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch," the Times reported.

But why shouldn't Ryan and the Republicans jump at the deal the Democrats gave them? It contains pretty much exactly what they've been asking for--no taxes on the wealthy, increases in military spending, and continued austerity for workers and the poor.

As Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, the Democrats' agreement to give up on extending long-term unemployment benefits was the key to the deal:

Extended benefits weren't renewed, so 1.3 million workers will be cut off at the end of this month, and many more will see their benefits run out in the months that follow. And if you take a longer perspective--if you look at what has happened since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010--what you see is a triumph of anti-government ideology that has had enormously destructive effects on American workers.

Rep. Mark Pocan--one of 32 House Demorats who voted "no" on the budget deal--spelled out the reality of the "compromise":

At the end of the day, the bill abandons 1.3 million Americans who desperately need unemployment insurance, and does nothing to promote economic growth or job creation. Furthermore, the legislation is paid for on the backs of the middle class and military families, while not touching the wealthiest amongst us and allowing corporations to continue to benefit from tax loopholes.

FOR HIS part, Barack Obama expressed sympathy with those angry about the budget deal.

Correction: Republicans angry with the budget deal. "This agreement doesn't include everything I'd like--and I know many Republicans feel the same way," Obama said. "That's the nature of compromise."

But throughout his presidency, Obama has agreed for working people--who have taken the brunt of unprecedented cuts--to do most of the "compromising." Once again, to get a budget deal, the Democrats accepted deeply unpopular cuts--despite the polls showing that Americans would rather prioritize spending on social services and unemployment than on deficit reduction, and that a solid majority favors increasing taxes on the wealthy. Instead of push for these popular ideas, however, Democrats agreed to a budget that is much closer to what Paul Ryan wanted all along.

As Krugman points out, contrary to popular belief, the federal government has been getting smaller under Obama:

[T]he actual numbers show that over the past three years we've been living through an era of unprecedented government downsizing. Government employment is down sharply; so is total government spending (including state and local governments) adjusted for inflation, which has fallen almost 3 percent since 2010 and around 5 percent per capita.

And when I say unprecedented, I mean just that. We haven't seen anything like the recent government cutbacks since the 1950s, and probably since the demobilization that followed World War II.

What has been cut? It's a complex picture, but the most obvious cuts have been in education, infrastructure, research and conservation.

In other words, the cuts are coming overwhelmingly in areas Republicans have long clamored for "deficit reduction"--as opposed to, for example, the Pentagon's bloated budget. And with every new "crisis" in Washington, the Democrats retreat some more, allowing Republicans to move the goal posts even further to the right.

The latest cuts enshrined in the budget deal come after workers have already taken a beating. As Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, explained in a statement, the agreement is "an endorsement of austerity at the expense of all of us." According to Ross:

There is no reason to cheer an agreement that requires unwarranted pension cuts for federal workers, including VA nurses who earned that pension, underfunds nutrition programs and fails to extend assistance for the long-term unemployed...

Austerity budgeting, reflected in this latest deal, continues the disturbing focus by politicians in both parties in Washington, who should be fighting for jobs at living wages, restoration of the disgraceful cuts in food stamps, health care for all, housing assistance, and other human needs, not simply how to please Wall Street and the banks.

And it all comes, as Nation commentator John Nichols put it, with "a Democratic stamp of approval" on "the worst ideas of Wall Street–aligned Republicans."

The irony is that while the end of the government shutdown in October was hailed as a triumph over the obstructionist Tea Partiers and right-wing Republicans more generally, Washington is carrying out the deepest cuts of the entire Great Recession. The Murray-Ryan budget deal will actually have less discretionary spending in 2014 than Paul Ryan's original budget proposal from less than four years ago when Republicans won control of the House--a proposal reviled by Democrats as the work of a budget-cutting maniac.

"It's about compromising for the sake of compromise," wrote the Atlantic's Matthew O'Brien. "So if one side keeps moving further and further, say, right, they can eventually get a 'compromise' that gets them more than they asked for at the beginning."

This has been the pattern for several years now. Back in September, before the government shutdown, Michael Linden and Harry Stein of the Center for American Progress showed that what Democrats were proposing then as a "compromise" was what Republicans had been asking for all along:

The Senate-passed measure to keep the government operating represents an enormous compromise by progressives to avoid a damaging government shutdown. The Democrat-controlled Senate agreed to temporary funding levels that are far closer to the Republican-controlled House budget plan than they are to the Senate's own budget for fiscal year 2014.

As for the latest deal, the only thing the Democrats "negotiated" was how big of a hit working people will take in the latest round of austerity. And this isn't the last "compromise," either. Republicans will have a chance to demand more cuts in March when the government's authority to borrow money to pay for its debts runs out again--setting up another potential "crisis" that will require more concessions.

Working people need more, not less. And we won't get it if the Democrats are the ones representing us at the bargaining table.

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