Progressive Caucus Challenge Lets Talk Serious Economic Recovery

Isaiah J. Poole

While the rest of Congress is arguing over how to continue a payroll tax cut that will not dramatically improve the economy over the next year, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus planned to introduce legislation today that its leaders assert would create more than 4 million jobs and reduce the deficit by more than $2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Just as the Progressive Caucus People’s Budget was the only serious proposal offered in Congress to meaningfully address both the short-term need for economic stimulus and the long-term need for deficit reduction, “The Restore the American Dream for the 99% Act” is the most serious effort to bring together the tools needed to address today’s economic crisis. It is a direct answer to the economic anger at the heart of the Occupy movement.

It is also destined in today’s political environment to the same fate as the People’s Budget—in other words, utter defeat, assuming it even manages to come to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. The legislation’s value is as a statement of the kind of budget policy discussion America needs—and it is a sharp contrast from the latest poison pill offered by congressional Republicans, which seeks to force on the American public the potentially environmentally catastrophic Keystone XL pipeline in exchange for another year of a payroll tax cut that has helped add up to about $1,000 year to workers’ take-home pay.

Progressive Caucus co-chairmen Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., are scheduled to present the legislation at a news conference today inside the Capitol.

The legislation would authorize the creation of several “corps” that will quickly offer jobs to unemployed people doing such essential work as repairing school buildings, maintaining public parks, completing neighborhood energy efficiency and conservation projects, and providing health care and other public services in underserved areas. One of the corps would be devoted to rehiring teachers and first responders laid off by cash-strapped state and local governments.

Under the legislation would also mandate that 75 percent of the goods and services the federal government buys be made in America, toughen initiatives designed to help small businesses get federal contracts, and allocate $50 billion for highway, public transportation, and electrical grid improvement projects. To counter China’s currency manipulation, which artificially drives down the cost of Chinese imports, the legislation would set a countervailing tariff. It would also include language protecting the long-term unemployed and wounded veterans from hiring discrimination.

Included in the bill are provisions that would raise $800 billion through a surcharge on millionaires, end tax subsidies for fossil fuel companies, and impose a small excise tax on the sale of stocks and bonds. It would extract budget savings through such steps as ending the war in Afghanistan as well as cutting close to $200 billion from the defense budget through such measures as eliminating unneeded weapons systems and cutting in half the military forces now based in Europe.

Also, the legislation tackles some of the unfinished business of health care reform: it creates a pubic health insurance option that would be available through health care exchanges, which is expected to drive down federal health care spending by almost $90 billion. Allowing Medicare to bargain with pharmaceutical companies to get bulk discounts, a move that Republicans and some drug-company-funded Democrats have blocked in the past, would help save more than $150 billion.

To preserve Social Security benefits and the financial integrity of the Social Security trust fund, the legislation would raise the cap on earnings taxed by Social Security above its current $106,800.

This legislation helps set up the debate we should be having about the direction of the country in the coming months. The Republicans, of course, would like the country focused on its dissatisfaction with an unemployment rate well above 8 percent as President Obama enters the fourth year of his presidency. They do not want the country to count the number of proposals they rejected that would have lifted the economy, and the fortunes of working-class and middle-class households, had it not been for their unrelenting obstruction. They certainly don’t want people to count the job-killing toll of the Republican proposals, which can be seen in states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures.

The Progressive Caucus legislation offers a different choice. We can put people to work today building the foundation of the economy of the future, or allow the stubborn subservience of congressional conservatives to millionaires and big corporations to cause more economic pain, widen the gulf between the very wealthy and struggling workers, and fuel more Occupy movements.

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