With the potential for a government shutdown “medium to high right now” in the words of one long-time scholar of government, one might conclude that Democrats and Republicans are arguing over a lot of money, and, certainly, tens of billions of dollars would be a whole lot of money for you or me. But in terms of the overall federal budget, the debate has bogged down over what really is a miniscule amount.
How, then, are we facing the possibility of the first federal shutdown in 15 years? The answer is, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently explained, about more than dollars and cents. He is absolutely right when he says, “It’s about principles and priorities. What we cut is much more important than how much we cut.” This isn’t just about “waste, fraud and abuse.” I’ve written before that if it were, Congress simply could enact the recent recommendations of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office on how to streamline federal operations, and call it a day.
Of course, the ongoing budget battle is anything but nonpartisan. What’s going on here is a contest between two very different ideas of what the federal government should be doing. Republicans want to cut deeply at programs ranging from healthcare, to education, and the environment. Democrats, for instance, have proposed saving $20 billion right on the spot by eliminating federal tax giveaways to big oil companies that are already posting record profits anyway. Apparently, however, Republicans would rather keep that kind of corporate welfare and instead target the health clinics, schools, and other functions that middle-class Americans rely upon every day. In fact, as Washington budget analyst Michael Linden points out, the House Republican budget plan targets everyone but the rich. Many liberals and Democrats are just as eager as conservative Republicans to tame the federal deficit. It’s a matter of how to do it the right way.
I’ve also written before about Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who as a member of President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, put forward her own plan to deal with the country’s red ink. Schakowsky, however, wants to trim the deficit without “further eroding the middle class in America.”
Many of us see this as a question of basic fairness. The Republican budget cuts would hurt Americans like senior citizens, veterans, students and others — none of whom helped to cause the 2008 financial crisis, received bailouts, or caused the recession to occur. Sen. Reid correctly notes, “Punishing innocent bystanders like seniors, women, veterans and students will not lead us to recovery,”
Not to mention the fact that Republicans began screaming about the deficit only after they secured an extension of tax cuts late last year for the sorts of millionaires and billionaires who did get the bailouts. Those tax cuts, of course, are paid for with deficit spending. Now that millionaires and billionaires got their tax cuts and other federal goodies, why is it that now the rest of us are expected to pay for them? Sen. Bernie Sanders says, “It is insane that we give tax breaks to the very richest people in the country who are doing phenomenally well and we sock it to the middle class and working families seeing a decline in their standard of living. This is Robin Hood in reverse,”
So don’t believe it when the Republicans complain about out-of-control spending or high budget deficits. This fight is about nothing more than basic fairness.