For years now, various gangs of senators – the Gang of Eight, or Six, or 14 - have declared dire deficit emergencies and called for austerity: Cut public spending and cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits, they tell us. And, bizarrely, most of these gangs also call for reduced tax cuts for the rich.
But the voters have just spoken. And election-day polls find big majorities – even of Republican voters – calling cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits unacceptable. And they hate the idea of giving more tax cuts to the wealthy, even if closing tax loopholes go along with those tax cuts. Most importantly, voters place a much higher priority on creating jobs and growing the economy – and they reject spending cuts that harm the still-weak economic recovery.
And now, there’s a new gang in the U.S. Senate. Politico reports that 15 Senators have signed a letter to President Obama much more in line with what voters said they wanted. Written by Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia, the letter stands up to the demands of the Senate austerity gangs and urges President Obama to reject any deal not guided by the following principles:
- Deficit reduction should not kill jobs. Investment in growth should be the priority before deficits.
- Any deal must include significant revenues, ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent and closing tax loopholes benefiting wealthy Americans and corporations. We must insist on a one-to-one ratio of revenues to spending cuts, and count the $917 billion of spending cuts already enacted.
- Any deal must protect Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security benefits from harmful cuts. We oppose changes that shift costs to states, or alter the structure of these critical programs. And any deal must reduce income inequality and protect the most vulnerable Americans.
- A deficit deal must be struck in the light of day with plenty of time for all groups to respond.
This important new force in the budget debate is bound to grow as newly-elected (and re-elected) senators, like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, come to Washington and start playing the role in the Senate that they talked about in their successful election campaigns.
But this new Gang of 15 (and growing; Harkin and Rockefeller are seeking 15 more signers) needs the help of activist citizen groups – to help them expand the number of senators willing to take a stand against deficit hawks and to build pressure on President Obama to counter the pressure he is feeling from Republican legislators, like the leaders he met with on Friday. To take action online, click here.
The inside-outside alliance is already working. As reported by The Huffington Post, Senators Harkin, Sanders and Whitehouse were joined last Thursday for a rally on Capitol Hill by activists from Social Security Works, HCAN, and the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare and many other groups. Their message: Hands off Social Security, Medicare and Medicare.
The AFL-CIO, SEIU and MoveOn and many other groups kept their activists in the field a week after the election to publicly tell politicians they helped elect to go to Washington to fight against cuts to key programs and for taxing the rich.
The letter signed by the Harkin-Rockefeller Gang of 15 (and growing) is almost identical to the wording of a full-page ad in The Washington Post that ran on November 8 and signed by 29 groups, including the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, the Campaign for America’s Future, MoveOn, the Center for Community Change, and many others. The ad in the Post declared, “The best way to reduce the deficit is to put people back to work and get our economy going again.” And we urged the President and Congress to “keep the election results in mind and resist budget cuts that slow our economy and hurt families.” A letter circulated by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and released November 8 was signed by over 150 national and local citizen groups calling on the President and Congress to prioritize job creation, oppose benefit cuts to social insurance programs, protect the safety net and require corporations and wealthy individuals to pay their fair share.
President Obama, building on the momentum of his remarkable election victory, has been impressively strong in insisting on rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent – in meetings with union and progressive leaders, in public statements and press conferences, and, most importantly, in meetings with House and Senate Republican leaders. He’s also indicated he knows Social Security contributes nothing to the deficit, and shouldn’t be part of deficit talks. But those Republicans, while barely opening the door to “revenue increases” – not higher tax rates – have insisted on “entitlement reform” as their price for a deal on revenues. If we don’t rally the country, those key programs could be sacrificed to get revenues.
Progressives should have Obama’s back on demanding actually raising rates for the wealthy. And we have to get to work on the rest of our agenda, reminding the President and legislators of all stripes that voters in the 2012 elections want them to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits – and they put a much higher priority on creating jobs than deficit reduction. And they reject imposing the kind of austerity that would put us back into recession.
On November 14, the Institute for America’s Future issued an important statement signed by 350 economists entitled “Jobs and Growth, Not Austerity.”
The statement calls for “presidential leadership — and Congressional action — to spur jobs and growth, not dangerous austerity.” The statement warns Washington leaders to heed the lessons of European countries that have tried to cut their way to growth, “inflicting austerity on a weak economy leads to deeper recession, rising unemployment and increasing misery.”
In his first public statement after his return to Washington from the political campaign, on November 9 in the Rose Garden, President Obama opened his remarks with the crucial truth: “At a time when our economy’s still recovering from the Great Recession, our top priority has to be jobs and growth. That’s the focus of the plan that I talked about during the campaign.’ He also declared: ‘We can’t cut our way to prosperity.”
The president is right about that, and it is the job of progressives to make sure the Congress doesn’t do to the U.S. economy what the Europeans have been doing to theirs.