As the clock ticked closer to a default on the nation's debt obligations, Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress scrambled to round up the necessary votes to pass an increase to the federal debt ceiling that also includes over $1 trillion in spending cuts. They met the deadline, but neither side was pleased with the outcome. The silver lining: the United States of America did not shake the world economy by breaking its financial promises.
From the beginning, President Obama has laid out the vision and provided the guidance on what needs to be done to right our financial ship and avoid economic disaster. Unfortunately, Congress has been impotent when it comes to serving the American people. Political gamesmanship, strategic brinksmanship and the preservation of rigid and untenable ideological positions have made Speaker John Boehner and his Republican caucus members impossible to work with. Indeed, an agreement in the works between President Obama and Speaker Boehner -- that included new revenues -- was imminent, until the Speaker was strong-armed by the radical fringe of his caucus and forced to walk away from negotiations with the President.
The deal passed by Congress is not ideal. It does not include new revenue even though the wealthiest people in our nation pay the least in taxes. It does not close tax loopholes that benefit the largest corporations and the richest executives that run them.
But Democrats must do more than lament what we're not getting in the deal. The governing of our nation requires a long-term view -- in essence, it is a marathon and not a sprint. Instead, we must rally to our President and continue the fight to get where we want to be.
It's important to note that most of the cuts in this deal are back-loaded, meaning the first two years will see minimal cuts to avoid damaging the rebounding economy. A 12-member "super committee" will identify $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction measures, including tax reform. And if that panel does not agree to a deal, a strong enforcement mechanism, known as an automatic sequester, will be in place to assure that real, balanced savings are achieved.
Such a mechanism has forced bipartisan agreements in the past because its provisions would be disliked by both sides. In this case, it would trigger a $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut that includes both defense and non-defense programs. However, Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, programs for civilian and military retirement, and programs for low-income families (i.e. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), federal earned income tax credits (EITC), State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)) would be held harmless.
Additionally, as this process moves forward, the tables will have been turned in terms of who can hold out and for what. The automatic sequester will have the added impact of being triggered on January 1st, 2013 -- the same day the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans is set to expire. This means that absent an agreed-upon, bipartisan, balanced deal, the president will have the power to use his veto pen to ensure nearly $1 trillion in deficit reduction by not extending the super-high-income tax cuts.
No self-respecting legislator should be an automatic rubber stamp for any administration. And no conscientious citizen should blindly trust his or her leaders. But now is not the time to circle the wagons around our Democratic family. Between Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan (which I've denounced several times in the Michigan Senate and have introduced a joint resolution doing the same) and the obstructionist House Republicans' tactics on the debt ceiling, 2012 has become a year ripe for Democratic gains, including the retaking of the Congress.
Enormous damage has been done to John Boehner's speakership. He put his credibility on the line and spent nearly all his political capital convincing and cajoling his caucus members to sign on to his plan that was scrapped in the U.S. Senate the moment it arrived from the House. For the first time in recent memory, national Republicans are not walking in lock-step. Numerous House and Senate Republicans recognize the need for more revenue, while others would prefer to see the nation default on its financial obligations. No Democratic representative or senator would allow that to happen to our country, which is why we have the current deal in front of us.
But look at the Ryan budget as the indicator of what a Republican-controlled government would achieve. Medicare would be ruined. Medicaid would be turned into a federal block grant program that would leave tens of thousands of Americans behind. Unemployed Americans would see their assistance cut short. Mental health programs across the country would cease to exist. All this and more would happen while leaving the wealthiest 2% of Americans with no obligation to sacrifice anything for the good of the country. This stands in stark contrast to President Obama's vision of real savings and deficit reduction: a plan that does not balance the federal budget on the backs of hardworking Americans and our most vulnerable citizens.
While I wish the final contents of this bill were different, turning our ire on our president, as Rep. John Conyers and a handful of his colleagues unfortunately have done, is the wrong thing to do. The responsible course of action instead is to focus on those who took the economy hostage and were willing to let hundreds of millions of Americans become collateral damage in their ideological crusade. Each day, President Obama has to contend with right-wing obstructionists in Washington D.C., a constant barrage of slanted news coverage from Fox News and talk radio and the antics of attention-grabbers like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin who've done their diligence in trying to paint him as an un-American, socialist, Manchurian candidate. And at the end of the day, he has to govern this country. Frankly, attacks from the left will do nothing to advance an agenda that helps the American people. Like any responsible family, we should keep our fights amongst ourselves behind closed doors.
And, call me crazy, but not too long ago a first-term U.S. Senator with an unusual name made millions of Americans believers in the seemingly impossible. Faced with possibly the most formidable primary opponent in a presidential election any candidate could face, he proved that he had a game plan and the competence to execute it successfully. I think it's clear that his long-term plan today is one rooted in the shared values of our Democratic family. We should not pull the rug out from underneath the president when he needs our solidarity the most.
State Senator Bert Johnson (D - Detroit) is in his first term representing Michigan's 2nd District, which includes northeast Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and the Grosse Pointe Communities.
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