Those lazy, hazy summer days of relaxing and thinking about traveling to far-off destinations is but a distant memory this year as we have been shocked back to brutal reality by the theatre of the absurd being played out in the debt ceiling fight in our nation's capitol. The thought that these are the people responsible for our collective well-being brings a chill to the spine no matter what the temperature outside.
There has been little give or take or real "bipartisan" agreement on the two main thrusts of the debate. The administration started out posturing on securing our safety nets of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but as the days have waned, the chipping away and familiar cave-ins have become evident. "No tax increases," continues to be the irrational and obsessive rallying cry of Republicans, but Obama -- still apparently on the waiting list for a spine donor -- agrees to significant cuts in our safety nets at the first sign of trouble. His plan appears to be aligning with proposals from the Deficit Commission and the "Gang of Six," who appear, oddly, to be one and the same.
Last week, Nancy Pelosi was still defending Medicare and Social Security, but suddenly absent from mention was Medicaid, a program now in deep peril as all too many doctors already refuse to accept it due to its penurious payment for their services. Now, with such mixed signals coming from even the most liberal parts of the Democratic "leadership," we can only expect more doctors to bolt from the program like rats from a sinking ship. In the debate there has even been a proposal offered up of slashing Medicaid by $1.4 trillion over 10 years, which would just about destroy the program. One can assume the effect on the Affordable Care Act, which will heavily depend on Medicaid funding for millions of new enrollees, to be disastrous. But, then again, destroying ACA was the right-wing's aim in the first place, wasn't it?
Meanwhile, on the Medicare issue, the ever-wise Joseph Stiglitz has suggested negotiating the Part D prescription drug benefit with the pharmaceutical companies, as does the VA now, which would cut $1 trillion in costs over a 10 year period -- a commonsense proposal. Of course, ending those Medicare Advantage Plans delivered by private insurers at an 11 percent additional cost would also be a big saver, since they offer similar services to traditional Medicare, but at a premium price, further fattening the coffers of the insurers. During the debate, even Obama at one point proposed cuts of $4 trillion, which is even larger than the GOP's original proposal and in agreement with the "Gang of Six" Senators, who also included in their proposal tax cuts for the wealthy and further austerity for every one else. Will this fly in the final plan, if we ever even get one? We can imagine where the bulk of the president's cuts will come from.
Worth mentioning here yet again is that Social Security does not impact the debt, and is solvent until 2036, according to its trustees, and should have been excluded from the debate altogether. If, on the other hand, that 2 percent payroll tax cut is made permanent, it could cause Social Security to experience a shortfall in 10 years, according to economist Dean Baker. But our president's frail spine once again kept him from demanding it be taken off the table.
Further "O"-fferings on Medicare cuts include ending coverage for the disabled under 55, some of the neediest Americans with often the most severe illnesses, like a friend of mine and former doctor who developed MS at age 42 and is now severely incapacitated at age 52. What of her? Also included and appearing in a major New York Times story is the projected cuts of Medicare subsidies to Teaching Hospitals across the country that turn out our doctors. New York, a world leader in medical education, will be hardest hit, with cuts in the range of $1.2 billion per year. New York educates 16,000 doctors per year who then travel the country and world to practice their craft. These teaching hospitals are often non-profits and mainly treat Medicare and Medicaid patients, so we see yet again who will be severely impacted. The New York Congressional Delegation, led by Rep. Eliot Engel, has informed Nancy Pelosi that they will not support a bill that includes these draconian cuts.
All of this is put into great perspective with a brilliant article written by economist James K. Galbraith entitled "Hawk Nation: A Guide To The Catastrophe Debt Ceiling Debate." In his article, Professor Galbraith notes:
President Obama's proposed debt ceiling deal is a disastrous solution to an imaginary fiscal crisis, but the pain it causes will be all to real." He goes on to say, "The debt ceiling was first enacted in 1917 as we were about to enter the Great War. To fund that effort, the Wilson government needed to fund Liberty Bonds. This was controversial and the debt ceiling was cover, passed to reassure the rubes that congress would be 'responsible' even while the country went to war. It was from the beginning an exercise in bad faith and has remained so every single second to the present day. This bad faith law is used to force massive cuts in public programs as the price of not reneging on the public debts of the U.S. Never mind that to force default on the public obligation of the U.S. is plainly unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th Amendment.
Apparently Boehner and Cantor weren't in the room when that section was read on the first day of the 112th Congress. Let us also remember that George W. Bush raised the debt ceiling numerous times during his 8 years without a ripple or threats of impending disaster. "We are the only nation in the world with a debt ceiling," Andrea Mitchell of NBC pointed out on Sunday's Meet The Press, "Why do we have a debt ceiling? Let's get rid of it." The public is clearly showing its disgust in a poll reported on July 19th on ABC World News in which 67 percent disprove of Republicans and 57 percent disapprove of Democrats.
It also did not help this president when he caved yet again and did not recess-appoint Elizabeth Warren as the Head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, but instead selected Richard Cordray, whom Warren brought into the agency, a former Attorney General. Confirmation will be equally tough sledding for Mr. Cordray. Wall Street didn't want her, Timothy Geithner was not a fan, nor were Republicans. The story will be pretty much the same for him. And the confirmation process will be dragged out for as long as possible, so the agency will have no teeth and ability to function legally without a director at its helm. All the more reason for O to have gone with a Warren recess appointment to begin with. That frail backbone yet again. The voices of the American people -- represented by 700,000 signed petitions garnered from Public Citizen and the PCCC in support of Elizabeth Warren -apparently fell on deaf ears in the White House. Perhaps she will run for Teddy Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts against Scott Brown. It would be our gain.
And in recent days the PCCC has followed up with 200,000 pledges, sent to the Chicago headquarters of the Obama campaign, that if there are cuts to entitlements, they will not donate money or volunteer to work in his campaign. Don't you love their chutzpah? This is a fairly new organization already with a membership of 740,000, yet they are making waves and frequent news, and are considered serious players on the advocacy political scene with muscle. There is more incredible activity all around the country as organizations mobilize and expand their numbers and new organizations are being created.
I even jumped into my protest shoes several days ago and joined Color of Change to protest on the streets on New York in front of Rupert Murdoch's apartment building. Over 112,000 petitions were delivered to the doorman, but were refused. The media presence, however, was large, including the Guardian -- which broke the Murdoch story -- the BBC, Daily News, CBS, NBC, Reuters and Agency France. I suggested sending the petitions to the White House. Meanwhile, we still await word of an American side to this scandal, beyond hacking 9/11 family members' phones. More to come? Ideally, Murdoch and his sleazy empire will collapse and fade into oblivion.
At the same time, considerable action is brewing in Wisconsin, with DFA and PCCC going door to door making 14,000 stops in three Republican districts that will matter in the recall elections coming up on August 9th. Their on-the-ground operation will be professional and large to get out the vote, and their nationwide phone-banking effort will be huge. Progressives United, the new organization founded by Russ Feingold, is a strong presence in the recall as well. Wisconsin may become the battleground for a new civil rights movement -- this time for everyone who doesn't make seven figures a year. And so the nation will be watching to see if this will launch a nationwide protest on the assault of working people's rights, which started with collective bargaining being yanked from the Wisconsin state work place and has since spread to several other states.
The Move To Amend organization has also located themselves in Wisconsin, and in Madison on Aug 24-28, for the first time there will be a large Democracy Convention of organizations and individuals working together to create a new democracy and a new movement, with 9 conferences planned consisting of workshops and panels that will take on the nation's major problems and seek solutions. An impressive list of sponsors and speakers are expected, like Tom Hayden, who will deliver the keynote address, the musician Michelle Shocked and John Nichols from The Nation. Too much to describe here, so please check out their site to see the large listing of organizations and individuals involved with this inspiring undertaking.
And from another fairly new advocacy organization known as RootsAction.org, I read a quote from Michael Moore, who said "...right now, this afternoon, just 400 Americans have wealth greater than half of all Americans combined." And that is exactly what the debt ceiling debate wants to preserve. This is America's issue: inequality. The fight back is on, from the bottom up.
And finally, happy 46th Birthday, Medicare, on July 30th. Events across the country are planned in your honor by healthcare-now.org and PDA, who will also highlight the imperative need for an improved and expanded Medicare-for-All.
Here is to the next 46 years.
-With Jonathan Stone