Like a broken record that just keeps on spinning, the Tea Party -- now with the compliance of House Speaker John Boehner -- is threatening to shut down the federal government if Obamacare is not de-funded. The Speaker has finally caved to the far right faction of his caucus, a capitulation that will hopefully wind up costing him and the Republicans dearly in 2014. It was a dumb move in 1995 during the Clinton administration when Newt Gingrich pulled the same stunt, resulting in a lowered credit rating for the U.S. and the Newt losing his cherished position as House Speaker. Today, a government shutdown is little more than a hollow threat, as the president has said he will not negotiate on this issue under any circumstances.
How many times will this crowd of Tea Party nutjobs go to the same empty well? Obamacare was passed by both houses of Congress, signed into law by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court, yet 42 times House Republicans have forced votes to try -- and fail -- to kill Obamacare, resulting in only wasted time and even more wasted money with each effort. The GOP should have gotten the point and stopped this silliness long ago, instead of continuing to beat this dead horse just because they and their billionaire-boys-club patrons don't like the law. Could its potential success be scaring the stuffing out of them? What if it succeeds, flaws and all? And is this really the way to run the government, Mr. Boehner, by threatening to hold the country hostage and acting like a pack of spoiled toddlers who want the playpen all for themselves? The next budget must be completed by September 30th and implemented on October 1st to fund government operations for the next year. If it can't get passed, a shutdown looms.
But it is not just healthcare where the Republicans are alienating large segments of the U.S. population. The sequester will be felt by all of us if an alternative is not found by September 30th.The collective national belt is tight enough, and the sequester and its $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years -- with an $85 billion cut kicking in this year -- must be stopped. Half of those cuts come from the military, with the other half coming from countless domestic programs, including air traffic controllers, meat inspectors and hundreds of thousands of federal workers, as well as Head Start, Meals on Wheels, unemployment insurance and much more. Economists have warned that these cuts could stall the economic recovery and cause the loss of 750,000 jobs. The current budget negotiation has also brought Paul Ryan's budget plan back out from under its rock as Republicans continue to seek cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and more. This past Sunday on CNN's State of The Union, White House advisor Gene Sperling said, "...the thinking at the White House is that with 'entitlement reform,' they (the Republicans) would be willing to have tax reform." Indeed, for two years this has been the Republicans' mantra in order to agree to tax hikes.
The GOP has also added more angst to the lives of millions by voting to cut funding for the food stamp program S.N.A.P. by $40 billion over 10 years, while calling for stricter enrollment requirements and drug tests for participants. In the greater scheme of government spending, cutting $4 billion per year is a negligible amount when it comes to deficit reduction, and it makes absolutely no sense to make these cuts when this program provides a vital safety net for almost 48 million Americans today. That number ballooned from 26 million in 2007, according to Paul Krugman in his column "Free To Be Hungry" in the New York Times on Monday. This is a testament to the continuing state of our economy, and many of those who use S.N.A.P. do so while working two part-time jobs that earn them low wages also without health benefits. Krugman also mentioned that the income of the top 1% grew 31% from 2009 through 2012. This same theme was echoed on Bill Moyers' program Moyers & Company on PBS, where guest Robert Reich noted that income inequality reached a new peak in 2012, with the 1 percent taking home 95 percent of the gains between 2009 and 2012. What was even more shocking was his statement that 42 percent of children born into poverty will remain in poverty as adults. Here's a challenge for Congress to act now to break this cycle.
Taxpayers also continue to subsidize major corporations -- especially retail sellers, who have been cutting working hours and paying the minimum wage so that our government can deliver healthcare and food stamps to their employees. Adding insult to injury, those same corporations regularly ship their money to offshore havens to avoid paying taxes. What does it say about our values as a nation to have so many in our government seeking to deny healthcare and nutrition to a population in desperate need of both? So many of these needy souls are children, who must have nutrition as they head off to school for a day of learning. They are our future, and to deprive them of the resources they need to grow into healthy adults and contributing members of our society is tantamount to child abuse.
So many critical issues remain un-addressed by Congress as the Republicans flail around with their Obamacare boondoggle and continuing crusades against the poor. The Dodd/Frank bill, while not perfect, nonetheless needs full implementation and funding to rein in undisciplined financial institutions, as four of the largest banks are now bigger than they were five years ago before our economy went into the tank. Senator Elizabeth Warren is also working across the aisle with John McCain on a 21st-century Glass/Steagall bill, which must also be passed. The banks need to be broken up and made to operate as they once did, as separate savings institutions and commercial banks, and no bank should be too big to fail -- or jail. This would also help to avert another financial meltdown, which could certainly happen again if unregulated banks are allowed to continue their reckless, casino gambling practices. A small "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions would also be a good move, as well as raising Social Security benefits to give seniors money to spend on more than food, housing and healthcare. Social Security -- funded with money that we hard-working Americans contribute throughout our working careers, which is then returned to us upon retirement in monthly benefits -- remains one of our most effective government programs, with $2.7 trillion in its trust fund, and raising benefits would aid our still-faltering economy, which is still far from robust in part because wages are stagnant and so many people remain in debt and only able to purchase bare necessities.
One way we could create thousands of jobs would be by repairing those 65,605 structurally defective bridges in the U.S., according to the AP. This report also included data on 20,808 bridges deemed "fracture critical," meaning that they are at "...risk of collapsing if a single, vital component fails." The AP review consisted of 607,380 bridges in the federal government's National Bridge Inventory. How many jobs would be created by a program to fix these critical pieces of our infrastructure, and how much money would it pump into our economy? And how about fixing our roads, tunnels, railways, schools, libraries and other public buildings? A major jobs program is at the ready if Congress does the job they are being paid to do: working to address the needs of our country and its citizens.
Oh, yes, and let's finally raise the minimum wage to a livable rate and redefine exactly what the poverty level is and the income level at which it actually begins. It is time to go back to the drawing board on the official federal poverty measurement, which was formulated in 1969 and is "pointless and unproductive," according to Bill Moyers. In 1999, the poverty level was $11,060 for a family of two. Today, the poverty level would be $15,510 for that same family using the 1969 criteria, which is way out of date.
On the other hand, those who have fared very well in recent years are the 400 richest Americans, who added $300 billion to their total wealth in the past year, alone. An even more shocking statistic is that in 2009 their total income was $1.27 trillion, but by 2012 it had soared to over $2 trillion. A glaring counter-point to this ballooning wealth for these fortunate few is the fact that the median household income in the U.S. went from $55,000.00 in 2007 down to $52,000.00 in 2012, according to a September 17th article in the New York Daily News entitled "Recession? What Recession?" In New York City -- the richest city in the country -- the poverty level rose from 18.5 percent in 2007 to 21.2 percent in 2012, and of the 20 most populated American cities, New York came in at the top in wealth disparity, an epidemic that is pervading our nation.
"Inequality" and "poverty" are words we must begin to hear in Congress and the White House, and our "leaders" in D.C. must address the fact that we are, indeed, becoming "A Tale of Two Americas." We owe a thanks to Bill de Blasio for so clearly shining light on this growing division in New York City in the recent Democratic primary here, which delivered a win to him and a chance to be the Dem candidate for mayor. From the back of the pack he soared in a few short months on this message that resonated with New Yorkers. His message was a Tale of Two Cities -- the "haves" and "have-nots." Are you listening Congress?
As for raising the debt ceiling, that has usually been an orderly event that occurred in a timely manner, without the rancor we have seen in recent years. We have always honored our debts and paid them, as we must continue to do. True, our deficit is dropping, but it is common sense that to get the economy moving forward again, our government must make investments and spend money. We bailed out the automotive industry and the financial institutions, and it is now time to invest in the people of this country and bail them out, too, while rebuilding our country. Austerity isn't working, as several countries abroad have discovered. They have changed direction, and we must, too. But unless we generate jobs that pay a decent wage, there will simply be no money for people to spend, and our economy will continue to stagnate -- a pretty basic concept it would seem, at least to some of us.
- with Jonathan Stone