A People's Budget for the People's Future

03/24/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

This week as the House and Senate vote on their respective federal budget proposals, it's important to remind ourselves that how our collective wealth is spent is the purest reflection of what we value as a country.

If you listen long enough to the voices dominating Washington, D.C. budget debates, you almost start to believe that austerity is inevitable and that the only question is how to allocate the suffering. Chairman of the House Budget Committee Tom Price's (R-Ga.) budget proposes repealing Obamacare, turning Medicare into a voucher system that no longer ensures full coverage for recipients and cutting food stamps. He uses a lot of creative math, but the gist of his budget proposal is that he wants to slash $5.47 trillion in services by 2025. If Price gets his way, over the next decade social programs that support education, housing and clean energy would be reduced by $759 billion.

The important thing to remember about budgets is that everything in them -- from how we raise money to what we fund (or don't) -- is a decision. Chairman Price has decided that major tax cuts for the rich are more important than support for the poor; and that militarism abroad is more essential than providing for those in need here in the U.S. Instead of raising additional revenue to meet our needs, Chairman Price thinks it prudent to repeal the alternative minimum tax, a crucial provision that ensures rich people end up paying something in taxes. Also added to the mix is a proposal to lower the corporate income tax rate, a measure that will largely benefit the wealthy. Of course slashing these taxes for the rich means less money to spend elsewhere.

The U.S. already has one of the lowest public spending rates among developed countries, and it is folly to shred the social safety net when we are already starting to feel the impacts of climate disruption. This is no time for austerity. Billions of dollars are needed to adapt our society to the warming that is already locked in, and billions more are needed for renewable power and smart-grid technology to make sure more emissions don't make the situation even more dire. This will require a massive, Marshall Plan-level commitment, but in the long run it will be much cheaper than doing nothing. It is impossible to imagine the country coming together to deal with climate disruption, let alone curb emissions, if we dismantle its social safety nets.

Not only is taking action now the cheaper and more just option, it's also more likely to work. Against the threat of a changing climate, our 60-year investment in the same military industrial complex can't buy us security, a sentiment that is echoed by the Pentagon itself. The best that Chairman Price's boost in military spending can do is keep the human consequences of climate change -- famine, mass migration, disease and war -- as far from our borders as possible. This effectively treats the people who did the least to cause climate change (but will suffer the most) as security problems who need to be kept out of the U.S. -- the country which has arguably gained the most from burning fossil fuels. Investing in the military means higher walls; investing in just solutions to climate change means a livable planet for future generations.

The good news is that contrary to conservative memes, the country isn't broke; we have the resources to avert this threat. The Congressional Progressive Caucus's People's Budget lays out a positive vision for government, one that would allow society to come together to combat problems like climate change and strengthen our social safety net. This vision starts with how much we have to spend and where we raise it.

The U.S. is a low-tax country and more resources would be available if the suite of tax giveaways that benefit polluting industries and the super-rich are eliminated. For example, giving $10 billion a year in subsidies to the oil and gas industry simply defies logic and rationality. More importantly though, we must enact policies that raise money and strengthen society by disincentivizing behavior that harms us all. The places to start are taxing carbon emissions and a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculation. Wall Street speculation ruined the economy and required hundreds of billions in bailouts and stimulus funding; why shouldn't we tax it? The ideas are out there. All that is required is the political will to re-order our economy in the interests of social and environmental justice, and not the economic one percent.

Budgets are about priorities. We need Congress to pass a budget that prioritizes the needs of the majority of Americans over those of the corporations and the super rich. Unfortunately, Chairman Price and the Republican leadership have, once again, put forth a scheme that benefits the big polluters who bankrolled their campaign at the expense of everyday Americans. With the Koch brothers already pledging over $880 million for the 2016 elections, the government is going to continue to be responsive to the mega-rich until the rest of us fight back at the voting booths and demand that people and the planet be made a priority.