Just two days after Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., claimed that the "Gang of Six" that he’s a member of was making "enormous progress" toward coming up with a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan, a series of news reports indicated that the process is unraveling, in part because of pushback by some Senate Democrats.
Our message to the people leading the pushback: Keep pushing.
Each day that the recovery falters, it becomes all the more clear that following the conservative framing of the budget debate—that the high federal deficit is the problem and a deep cut in spending is the cure—is to go down the road to economic disaster, especially for middle- and low-income families. We need to invest now in the foundations of a growing economy, putting people to work now to lay the groundwork for the future shared prosperity that will be the ultimate solution for lowering the deficit.
Earlier today, the payroll processing firm ADP said that it estimates 179,000 private sector jobs were created during the month of April. That was below an already meager prediction of 200,000 jobs, and hardly enough new jobs to keep the economy treading water. That does not augur well for the official government unemployment report for April due out Friday. Combine that with the earlier Commerce Department report that first-quarter gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of just 1.8 percent, and you have a clear picture of an economy that will have chronic unemployment and a slowly shrinking middle-class for the remainder of this decade, if not longer.
That reality makes this precisely the wrong time to talk about cutting back on education and job training, backing off from public works and upending the safety net.
It is safe to assume that this is a major reason that some Democrats in a private Senate caucus meeting gave what The Huffington Post said were "brutal reviews" to a deficit-reduction plan Conrad now says he will advance independently of the two other Democrats and three Republicans in his "gang."
The details of that plan are not public, but Conrad says that the proposal would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade. Conrad says Social Security won’t be in the budget-cutting, and neither would anything resembling the Medicare privatization plan that’s in the House Republican budget. Those moves are to his credit.
But the strident conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said, "I can’t imagine that the Conrad budget won’t be somewhat better than the president’s budget — it’s got to be," and The Hill reported that "After being briefed on Conrad’s plan, fiscal conservative Democrats seemed pleased."
But Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., was quoted in The Washington Post as saying the Conrad plan would “balance the budget on the backs of the sick, the elderly and the poor, who are already hurting.” And Sen. Benjamin Cardin said he needed to see as a "starting point" a plan with Republican support of "shared sacrifice" that would include the wealthy and corporations.
Ask beleaguered middle-class citizens thoughtful questions about what they want to see out of Washington—not just cheap bumper-sticker questions like "do you think Congress should raise the debt ceiling?" but questions that speak to the kind of serious choices that elected leaders are elected to make—and their message is quite clear. It is: Get the economy moving again. Reduce the deficit, but not by going after the people struggling at the lower end of the economic spectrum, but by asking the people at the top who are prospering in spite of today’s economic doldrums. Cutting health care for seniors and the poor and maintaining tax subsidies for oil companies does not reflect the priorities of a majority of Americans.
It would be one thing if the "Gang of Six" was destined to offer a bipartisan plan that would favor strategic spending to speed up the economic recovery and set the stage for the sustainable, long-term growth of a new, middle-class economy. It would be one thing if they also had the courage to overhaul the tax code to get wealthier Americans to carry the share of the load they historically carried before the false conservative promise of the 2000s that tax cuts for the wealthy would mean jobs and prosperity for everyone else. Those approaches could enjoy popular support outside the Beltway. But, given the intransigence on the right and the reticence among Democrats, all of that was a pipe-dream.
The only hope, really, is for a majority argument is that up to now has been underrepresented in the halls of Congress to be taken up unabashedly by courageous voices in the House and Senate, cheered on by those of us who oppose economic "Gang" violence and who know America can do better than austerity for the many and fragile prosperity for the few.