How House Progressives Can Save the Debt Ceiling Deal and the Middle Class

Richard Eskow

As online “Countdown Clocks” count the hours before there’s a debt ceiling disaster, the spotlight is on the individuals and groups who can make or break a deal. We’ve heard a lot about the Senate’s Gang of Six, members of the Administration, House leaders Boehner and Cantor, and the radical Tea Party Republicans who allegedly hold ‘veto power’ over any proposed deal.

But another group holds at least as much power as those radical Republicans, and it has the added advantage of representing views that are widely supporting by Americans in both political parties. That group is the House Progressive Caucus.

The media coverage is revealing. Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh holds no official position in Congress except that of a freshman Representative, and his economic views are far to the right of the American mainstream. Yet as we write this, a Google News search on “Joe Walsh” (excluding “guitar” and “Eagles” to eliminate “Rocky Mountain Way” Joe Walsh) gets 1,461 hits. Rep. Keith Ellison, on the other hand, co-chairs a large Congressional caucus whose support may be vital to the passage of any deal. Yet his name only gets 157 hits – a figure that falls even more when you eliminate references to his religion.

Rep. Joe Walsh: To paraphrase his namesake, life’s been good to him so far. Rep. Keith Ellison, on the other hand, must sometimes feel as if he’s fighting in the dark. Yet the way things stand today, the Progressive Caucus’s 75 members may very well have the power to save us from a debt ceiling crisis, especially in the face of intransigence from Walsh and his fellow Tea Party radicals. That means they have the power to ensure that the deal is much stronger than the proposals now being floated in Washington.

We’ve already written about the irony of a political climate where Bernie Sanders, the Senate’s only self-proclaimed Socialist is also the Senator who’s most visibly fighting for the position that most Republicans support, together with highly visible allies like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. The House progressives are also dismissed with regularity by the press as representing their party’s “extreme left.” Yet the polling data reveals that they’re also fighting for mainstream positions. Like Sanders and Whitehouse, they’re representing the American majority – and the real political center – in this debate. And, as Dave Johnson points out, these 75 Representatives speak for most economists as well as most Americans.

The House Progressive Caucus’ deficit reduction proposal is the most fiscally conservative plan proposed so far, which only compounds the irony. When the President commented that “”if you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt and deficit just as much as if you’re a conservative,” Caucus co-chair Rep. Raul Grijalva pointed out that “The Progressive Caucus has introduced the only budget that creates a surplus by 2021 because we take seriously the need for a strong economy and manageable debt.” (More from David Dayens here.)

It’s the only budget that achieves that goal while supporting badly-needed (and politically popular) goals like job growth and entitlement protection, while restoring taxes for their wealthy to historically normal levels. It is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the only proposed budget that is not being considered by those negottiators who are so loudly proclaiming their commitment to deficit reduction during these talks. The Progressive Caucus budget, balances the budget, preserves the endangered American middle class, and protects the poor. It’s the only plan that truly deserves the name “Grand Bargain” – and it’s not even being discussed.

But that doesn’t mean House progressives need to be marginalized in this debate. Right now it appears that it will be hard for the Republican leadership to whip all of their members into voting for any debt ceiling deal. The deficit deal may be facing “life in the breakdown lane” without Joe Walsh and his gang. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who’s no liberal on the subject of entitlement cuts, predicts that no deal will be able to pass the House without significant Democratic support.

House Progressives have leverage – lots of leverage. They can make or break any deal that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell make with the White House and Senate Democrats. Now the Caucus is making its views known. Its co-chairs have sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi objecting to the inclusion of Social Security in the debt ceiling talks, backing their efforts with an organized drive to fight entitlement cuts.

The Gang of Six proposal and other deals on the table all represent a threat to jobs, growth, and economic security. The Gang’s proposal, for example, would probably reduce or eliminate deductions for employer-sponsored health care and home mortgages. Those changes, along with cuts in Social Security and Medicare, would be devastating to the middle class. Other proposed cuts would wound the poorest and most vulnerable among us. These provisions are both economically unsound and politically self-destructive for any politician who supports them.

The House Progressive Caucus finds itself in an unusual position. Despite its name, it’s fighting for views that aren’t just popular among Democrats and independents, but which in many cases are supported by a majority or plurality of Republicans. They’re arguing for ideas that make for both sounder policy and better politics than the ones currently on the table. They may find themselves in a position of great influence very soon, which would allow them to do the country and their colleagues a great service. We wish them the best.

And given their influence in this debate, a word to the media: Shouldn’t you point a few of your cameras in their direction, too?

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