House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer laid out his bottom-line principles for how he believed the deficit should be addressed in a speech today before the Bipartisan Policy Institute. None of the five elements he listed address what voters say is the No. 1 economic problem: putting Americans back to work.
Hoyer, in fact, didn’t even mention the job-creation proposal that is touted on his own website — a "Make It In America" plan that he has said would rebuild American manufacturing and create well-paying jobs. There are several bills pending that would enact features of the Make It in America" initiative, including ones that would fund billions of dollars worth of transportation and other infrastructure projects, establish an infrastructure bank to help draw in private investment, and require more goods purchased with federal tax dollars be made in America.
Instead of using his speech to command attention to the need for bipartisan action to put Americans back to work—an action that would make a significant deficit-reduction contribution on its own—Hoyer emphasized the extent to which he was in league with the Washington establishment on cutting the budget while bashing those he labeled ideologues on both sides.
"A responsible answer to our debt should have at least five elements: deficit-reducing tax reform; cuts to discretionary spending, both defense and non-defense; action to keep our entitlements strong; a failsafe mechanism; and fairness for all Americans," he said.
What makes this lapse particularly unfortunate is that Hoyer correctly identified the employment boom during the Clinton administration—a total of 22 million jobs gained during his two terms—as the key reason Clinton left office in 2001 with the federal budget in surplus. That was in spite of dire predictions by conservatives that the tax increases he signed into law would hobble the economy.
Hoyer also was right in citing the fiscal policies of the Bush administration that followed as the reason those budget surpluses turned into the record-setting deficits that the country is now saddled with. "It’s hard to imagine a fiscal record more profligate: approving tax cuts, wars, and a prescription drug entitlement, all without paying for them. These policies, combined with the economic collapse that took place on President Bush’s watch, are still the greatest drivers of our deficit—and the greatest reason we need to act to ensure that American pays what it owes," Hoyer said.
Further, Hoyer nailed the three lessons that policymakers should have learned from the past decade of failed economic policy: "First, lower tax rates for the wealthy mean lower revenue … Second, tax cuts that primarily advantage the wealthiest among us have, in fact, been a major contributor to our debt … Third, … lower taxes didn’t prevent a recession under President Reagan or middle-class stagnation followed by economic collapse under President Bush. Nor did the Clinton tax rates prevent a decade of historic prosperity."
But when it comes to a plan for how we undo the damage done by the right’s failed economic policies, Hoyer offers choice phrases from the austerity playbook: "both parties come together to pay our bills," "make tough choices," "cuts to discretionary spending,""have a failsafe that can impose further cuts in spending and revenue."
Hoyer does draw a distinction between his views and the conservative extremism at the heart—if you could call it that—of the House Republican budget blueprint that privatizes Medicare, guts Medicaid and slashes programs for low- and middle-income people in the name of deficit reduction while simultaneously making the deficit worse by cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
But imagine how much more powerful Hoyer’s speech could have been if he borrowed from the Progressive Caucus budget and made the point that its authors have made eloquently—that a laser focus on addressing the nation’s short-term unemployment crisis sets the stage for effectively addressing the deficit over the long term.
That happens to be the approach that a majority of voters are longing to hear from their elected officials. They aren’t likely to be moved by me-too austerity speeches by Democrats that don’t even call attention to positive, job-creating legislation on their own agenda.