It is hard to overstate the depth of corporate corruption and political dysfunction on display in Washington, D.C. this past summer. Even veteran political cynics stood in awe.
When the bipartisan debt reduction deal was announced on the eve of the debt default deadline, Matt Taibbi expressed the popular rage well: “The general consensus is that for the second time in three years, a gang of financial terrorists has successfully extorted the Congress and the White House, threatening to blow up the planet if they didn't get what they wanted.” (rollingstone.com, 8/1/11)
A rotten deal of historic proportions has been cut. Using the looming threat of a disastrous debt default as cover, Democratic and Republican leaders rushed a bill through Congress to raise the debt ceiling and cut $2.5 trillion over ten years from the federal budget. There were no tax increases on the wealthy, not even a limited closing of some tax loopholes. Virtually all the pain will fall on working-class and poor people through cuts to programs and services.
A colossal $1 trillion in cuts will be implemented immediately, but the biggest dangers lie ahead. The bill established a bipartisan “Super Committee,” whose makeup consists of six conservative Democrats and six Republicans, appointed to cut another $1.5 trillion. The bill places stunning authority in this unelected Super Committee, whose proposals for sweeping cuts will not be subject to any amendments. Instead, cuts will be put to a simple up-or-down vote by the end of the year. And if Congress dares to vote down the Super Committee's proposal, this will automatically trigger a broad series of brutal cuts anyway!
While Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were spared from the immediate cuts, the Committee is widely expected go after these programs. In fact, the maneuver of handing such sweeping authority to an unelected committee is designed to give both parties political cover for enacting deeply unpopular attacks on these vital New Deal and Great Society programs.
The plans of Obama and congressional leaders are revealed by their appointments to the Super Committee. A study by Maplight.org shows eight of the top ten campaign contributors to Super Committee members are Wall Street banks and big corporations. Does anyone seriously think the interests of working people will be considered as this Committee imposes $1.5 trillion in cuts?
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said: “It is very clear that there will be devastating cuts to education, infrastructure, Head Start and child care, LIHEAP [low income energy assistance], community health centers, environmental protection, affordable housing, and many, many other programs.”
It doesn’t matter that the most dramatic rises in the federal debt were incurred in the last decade of multiple wars, massive tax cuts for the rich, and trillions in bailouts for Wall Street. It doesn’t matter that working people were neither responsible for nor benefited from most of that deficit creation. Democrats and Republicans, controlled by Wall Street and Corporate America, have decided that ordinary people have to pay for a crisis we did not create.
The bill actually manufactures another politically useful crisis moment, scheduled for the end of this year, by creating the “automatic trigger” for massive cuts to both defense and domestic programs if the Super Committee fails to come to an agreement or if their proposals are rejected by Congress. The Super Committee has to report its recommendations before Thanksgiving, and Congress has to vote them up or down by Christmas.
The Super Committee is also free to consider tax increases. However, Republicans already showed their willingness to push the country to the brink of disaster to avoid tax increases, so there is little reason to hope for progressive tax-change proposals from the Super Committee. Even if popular support for Social Security and Medicaid somehow scuttles these elaborate political maneuvers, the fact that Obama has put them in play is a literal invitation for Republicans to use any number of “blackmail” opportunities in the next months and years to take them up once more. Whenever Congress has to vote to extend unemployment benefits or pass the next federal budget, the whole drama can start again.