Republican budget blackmail works again

November 3, 2015

Democrats are once again celebrating the fact that the Republicans didn't get away with a budget cut bloodbath--which shows how low the bar is set, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

"TODAY'S VOTE is a victory for bipartisanship and for the American people," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said of the two-year budget deal that passed the Senate on October 31.

Well, he's half right.

The budget deal, which President Obama approved before the November 3 deadline set by the Treasury Department, is being hailed as the embodiment of compromise in action. The demands of Tea Party Republicans for deeper and crueler cuts in social spending were pushed aside by an alliance of "moderate" Republicans, congressional Democrats and the Obama administration.

The agreement diverts yet more money and resources to the already bloated U.S. war machine--something that politicians from both parties largely agree on. And it takes care of the issue of the debt ceiling through March 2017 so the federal government can keep borrowing and stay out of default--and it puts off any further threats of a government shutdown until after the 2016 elections.

According to Democratic political leaders, whatever concessions they made on Medicare and Social Security cuts are dwarfed by what the Republican maniacs had in store. So, sure, on those terms, the not-very-moderate Republican moderates and the Democrats have something they can call a "victory."

John Boehner at a White House meeting with Barack Obama
John Boehner at a White House meeting with Barack Obama

But as for a "victory for the American people," not so much.

Like other budget deals before it, this one follows what has become a familiar pattern in Washington: The Republicans demand everything on their right-wing wish list, and the Democrats claim victory if they don't give away everything. It may seem like the Republicans aren't getting their way, but the right wing actually succeeds in shifting the terms of the eventual "compromise" toward more and more punitive cuts.

THE BUDGET agreement is the last act of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who announced his surprise resignation on September 25 amid protests by right-wing "Freedom Caucus" Republicans that Boehner was too moderate and failed to represent the GOP's real interests.

This agreement, which Boehner worked through carefully with Obama and congressional Democrats, averted a replay of the government shutdown in 2013, and pushed any future budget debate until after the 2016 elections.

The deal is also seen as Boehner's parting gift to his replacement, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who can take over the speaker's job without having to navigate a contentious budget battle and risk looking weak in the eyes of the right wing of his party. In Boehner's words, he didn't want the new speaker "to walk into a dirty barn full of you know what."

Last week, Ryan was elected the new speaker on a promise to be anything but weak. Before this, Ryan chaired the House Budget Committee for four years, where he repeatedly took aim at federal employees' pay and benefits, pushing for a wage freeze in his 2012 budget plan. He also called for an end to student loan reimbursements and a retirement program for staffers in his 2015 proposal.

In many ways, Ryan epitomizes the dynamic in Washington, where the Republicans have so successfully shifted the goalposts to the right that the one-time Tea Party favorite Ryan is seen as a voice of moderation and the former "Republican Revolutionary" Boehner is considered an seasoned elder statesmen.

Ryan supported the final budget proposal, but said the process by which it came together "stinks"--and promised that "under new management," the "people's business" would be conducted differently.

In fact, despite the Republicans' complaining--and a meager one-hour-and-22-minute filibuster by Kentucky's libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, who dressed for Halloween as the spooky national debt--the budget passed the Senate by a 64-35 vote, on the strength of united Democratic Party support.

Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, endorsed the bill, writing in a statement before the Senate vote that while he thought the deal "increases Pentagon spending too much" and "doesn't ask the most profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share," still "it's much better than across-the-board budget cuts, increased premiums for Medicare, cuts to Social Security and the constant threat we won't pay our bills."

Sanders' endorsement, emphasizing practicality over liberal principles, helped set the tone for his fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) members in the House, who voiced their frustrations with the budget proposal early on, but supported it in the end. "This deal meets the minimum requirements for the Progressive Caucus," said CPC co-chairs Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). "It merely keeps the lights on, and does not fully address the needs of working Americans."

Pretty inspiring stuff.

STILL, THE Obama administration and its supporters are claiming that they've won a great victory. The main reason for this is that the current deal eliminates restrictions from the Budget Control Act of 2011 that enforced a strict limit on the debt and triggered automatic government spending cuts. With this change, Republicans lose one of their more powerful weapons against Democrats during budget negotiations--the threat of a government shutdown.

"This shouldn't be mistaken for some overarching grand bargain, but there's a lot in here the White House likes and not much they don't," the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Jared Bernstein told the New York Times. "Most importantly, if the deal prevails, they won't have to deal with budget nonsense for the rest of the term, which has got to look pretty sweet."

The deal will lift sequester spending caps and increase discretionary spending by about $80 billion over two years--well after Obama's presidency is over. But if the Obama administration celebrating getting rid of this provision last week, it should be remembered that the Democrats conceded to the sequester only four years ago--during a budget deal negotiation when every Republican threat was met with a Democratic compromise.

And while the budget isn't as bad after the draconian measures demanded by Republicans were stripped out, it's still plenty bad for poor and working-class Americans. This is especially true for some of the most vulnerable--like seniors and the disabled, who depend on Social Security and Medicare.

While the debt proposal denied Republicans their proposal to cut 20 percent of benefits to some 11 million Social Security disability recipients, it doesn't leave the program untouched--not by a long shot. Changes in Social Security take about one-third of the bill's 144-page length.

Some $4 billion in savings over 10 years is supposed to come from a medical evaluation requirement that delays new benefits for some people. Currently, 20 states are allowed to award disability benefits without the recipient receiving an independent medical evaluation. After this agreement goes into effect, a doctor will also need to review the application, even if a trained Social Security officer already has.

Disability rights activists predict that this unnecessary step will almost certainly delay, and perhaps deny, needed benefits. Disability benefits applicants who appeal an initial rejection of their claims already wait 470 days on average for a hearing because there aren't enough administrative law judges.

The proposal also shifts the blame onto recipients with several provisions to curb fraud, including greater income reporting from recipients and the creation of a new felony category--"conspiracy to commit Social Security fraud." Every state would have special fraud investigation units that new applicants would have to go through in order to receive their benefits.

The budget agreement attempts to avoid big cuts to Social Security and Medicare with temporary fixes, like diverting 0.57 percentage points of payroll taxes away from the broader Social Security program to the disability program, instead of requiring employers to pay higher payroll taxes.

Meanwhile, as vital programs like this shuffle money from one area to another, the military is guaranteed half of its spending outright. The budget deal would add $50 billion in spending for this fiscal year alone--divided equally between defense and domestic programs. An additional $16 billion will go to emergency war spending, half for the military, half for the State Department.

This underscores the real priorities of the Democrats who are supposedly defending us against the Republicans' attack on our social services. As Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, summed it up: "When hostage takers release their hostages, we are, of course, relieved that the hostages are no longer in harm's way, but this is nothing to celebrate. That the ransom isn't steeper is also not something to celebrate."

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