Congress seems to be resting on its laurels.
In a fit of bipartisanship — or at least what passes for bipartisanship in Washington these days — Congress last month approved a budget deal hammered out by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Patty Murray of Washington. The new budget has been called a breakthrough, ending the gridlock and the down-to-the-wire spending deals that have been Congress’s modus operandi since 2010.
Pundits hailed the deal, suggesting that it obviates threats of a government shutdown for two years. Analysts argued that Republicans supported the agreement because they learned a painful lesson about closing the government after the October debacle.
Certainly, any budget deal — even a bad one — is better than no deal. Keeping the government running is far preferable to closing it. And the extent to which the budget pact overturns sequestration — about a third of those automatic spending cuts are eliminated — benefits all Americans.
But make no mistake about it, the budget deal was bad, based on mistaken assumptions about economic growth and human behavior that have governed the Republican Party since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and which have so dominated the national conversation for the last three or four decades as to intimidate Democrats into meekly supporting conservative policies which the party of FDR ought to oppose.
The poor and those temporarily down on their luck were victims in the agreement, notably in the continuing failure of Congress to fully fund the food stamp program and to extend long-term unemployment benefits. A Congress proud of its passage of any budget deal has since done nothing more than mount a wan attempt to restore unemployment benefits. Right-wing Republicans easily beat back that effort.
Conservative Republicans believe the poor are poor because of personal defects and that government programs aimed at helping the poor only encourage a culture of welfare. Similarly, many Republicans believe such humane programs as long-term unemployment benefits in times of economic hardship only encourage the unemployed to cease looking for work, as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul boldly stated. He may have been the only prominent Republican to offer such a view publicly, though many in his party privately share his opinion. In any event, Paul hardly broke new ground in GOP thought: There is not much difference between his opining that unemployment relief does “a disservice to the people you’re trying to help” and Mitt Romney’s 47 percent.
The national dialogue has moved so far to the right that few dare oppose the GOP mantra of no tax increases and draconian spending cuts. Republican calls for austerity in government get few challengers, when in fact austerity is precisely the wrong cure for our economic ills.
In the name of austerity Congress in 2013 took money out of the economy, slowed economic growth, and deterred job creation. The independent research firm Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that budget tightening reduced annual GDP growth by 0.7 precent since 2010 and raised the unemployment rate by 0.8 percent, representing a cost of 1.2 million jobs.
True the economy continues to grow, albeit sluggishly. But most of that growth has wound up in the hands of the wealthy, with little of it trickling down to the poor and the middle class.
It’s time for progressives to push the Democratic Party to break free of the reigning consensus regarding economic austerity. Progressives must encourage Democrats to advocate raising the minimum wage and extend unemployment relief for starters. Beyond that, progressives must redirect the national dialogue by addressing the problems of income inequality, exacerbated in recent years by the skewed nature of the recovery.
In other words, it’s time for Democrats to be Democrats and advocate policies worthy of their antecedents, of the New Deal of FDR and the War on Poverty of the 1960s.