Congressional leaders cannot seem to make up their minds about the reasons behind the government shutdown and a possible default on our word as a nation to pay our debts. Perhaps due to the unpopularity of shutting down the government in a last ditch effort to deny millions of uninsured Americans decent health care, many Republicans have pivoted to budget cuts and the deficit.
Political theater aside, the long-term deficit needs to be fixed, and we know what needs to happen to get the job done. Three years ago, Congress and the president created the Simpson-Bowles Commission to tell them what they didn't want to hear but already knew: a solution to the deficit needs to have everything on the table, including more revenue. It was the umpteenth report with the same recommendation: shared sacrifice for the good of the nation. They came tantalizingly close to a grand bargain but Congress balked. Now they want to create a new deficit reduction commission again while we have another shutdown and default threat.
Tragically, the shutdown is hurting real people. Kids are going without food and Head Start classes. Homeless shelters are furloughing staff. Research centers studying cures for cancer and making the next advancements in agriculture and engineering are shuttered.
The faux budget war also means we suffer from neglecting other issues. Where is the bipartisan commission on job creation and reducing poverty? Or on sustaining rural communities? Or on the exploding wealth gap, our dwindling middle class and the economic stratification of our country? Or on providing an opportunity to learn to EVERY American student? Or on climate change? Now that we have health care reform, let's improve it and stop trying to cripple it. We cannot afford to keep bickering over things we know how to solve.
Congress could, for example, ditch the worn-out talking points and start talking about the math. There is near consensus among nonpartisan economists and policy groups that a plan to reduce our nation's deficit must include not only cuts to discretionary spending (only 17 percent of the total budget), Medicare (23 percent) and Social Security (22 percent), but also cuts to military spending (19 percent) and — most importantly and most overlooked by our members of Congress — new revenue from tax reforms that simplify and balance our tax laws.
Sadly, the proposals for deficit reduction from Arkansas's congressmen are almost exclusively focused on cuts to discretionary spending, Medicare and Social Security. That will hurt the already squeezed middle class while leaving more kids hungry and tossing many elderly Americans into poverty. And it just doesn't add up. We cannot solve the problem by only targeting programs for the middle class and those least able to pay while letting big business and the super wealthy skirt their responsibility. Budgets, at the end of the day, are statements of values. What sort of value statement is favoring the super-wealthy over everyone else?
Another truth of our budget deficit is that most nonpartisan economists think that we should gradually reduce spending over time rather than make immediate sweeping cuts. They say we should invest more in the short term on transportation and education infrastructure that will pay dividends down the road while also providing jobs to stimulate our economy now. They say the short term cuts we have implemented through sequestration have actually been larger than many austerity cuts made in Europe and that they are hurting American jobs and our economic recovery.
Beware of budget negotiations that start with what they won't consider. Beware of negotiations that start with another redundant study of the obvious. Beware of proposals to cut it all now. We've known the budget solution for years — it's not rocket science. The problem is that congressional leaders seem to want to manufacture a crisis instead of fixing it.
We are paying a heavy price in government shutdowns, halting programs to help Americans pull themselves up from poverty, polarized political environments, weakened international standing and a weaker economy for ALL of us. Arkansas's congressmen even voted against food stamps to help hungry kids, thereby derailing the farm bill. We need better leadership.
Our congressional delegation now has the opportunity to deliver a non-partisan solution that makes sense for Arkansas's middle class and working poor while solving our long-term problem. Here is an opportunity for Arkansas's delegation to spell out how their plan lifts Arkansans out of poverty and moves all of us forward. I'm hoping that Arkansas voters will return to our tradition of holding our elected officials accountable for delivering on that opportunity.
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