It is no surprise that the 2013 federal budget proposal that President Obama released today is deemed "dead on arrival" in Congress. Most White House budget proposals are. That, however, does not make it irrelevant, especially in an election year that is a contest between two starkly different visions of what America and its government should be.
One does not have to accept all of the specific choices in the administration's budget to appreciate the fact that the administration is trying to lay the groundwork for a broad and sustainable economic recovery, while the administration's opponents continue to be hell-bent on austerity policies that would stall that recovery.
President Obama explained his vision today in an address today at the Northern Virginia Community College. As reported by Politico:
“At a time when our economy is growing and creating jobs at a faster clip, we’ve got to do everything in our power to keep this recovery on track,” Obama said at Northern Virginia Community College. “We can settle for a country where a few people do really, really well, and everybody else struggles to get by, or we can restore an economy where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, everybody plays by the same set of rules, from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported today that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, in addition to their usual complaints that Obama's policies would leave "America drowning in debt," reprised a version of their Medicare privatization plan. Yes, that same voucher plan that was roundly rejected by a majority of Americans when Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, persuaded House Republicans to back it last year. That plan exemplifies the Republican economic agenda: A few people would do really, really well as congressional conservatives fight to maintain inequitable, record-low tax rates for the wealthiest Americans; everybody else would struggle to get by in a world where what were once shared commitments, such as Medicare to maintain the health of seniors, are turned into yet another opportunity for private gain and another source of economic insecurity for the vast majority of Americans.
This contrast will be exemplified vividly this week when the House of Representatives begins debate on funding for the nation's transportation network. The White House budget includes a $476 billion, six-year funding commitment for highways and public transportation, and administration officials were working with the Senate toward turning that commitment into legislation.
This is a huge spending commitment to make, but President Obama recognizes correctly that some investments can't be compromised, even at a time of large budget deficits. Even so, this is a fraction of what groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers say America needs for a globally competitive economy. Nonetheless, this transportation spending will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in the near term in areas ranging from construction to engineering to beautification, and in the long term this spending will establish a platform for a more efficient and greener economy.
Conservatives are girding to attack this. They argue that the funding source that has traditionally paid for road and transit improvements, the gasoline tax, won't yield enough money to pay for the president's spending plan. (At the same time, they object to increasing the gas tax so that it could.) House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he wants to curtail federal support for public transportation, a direct slap at tens of millions of workers (and job-seekers) who depend on buses and trains to get to work. Other cuts would slap the face of commuters who use bike paths or parents whose children are protected by the federal Safe Routes to School program. And, to pay for what spending they are willing to sign off on, key conservatives in Congress are attaching to the bill oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, and forcing approval of the game-over-for-the-planet Keystone XL pipeline, risking environmental havoc at a time when we should be moving away from a fossil-fuel economy.
The contrast plays out throughout the budget. While the White House is embracing such policies as the "Buffett Rule," which would tax unearned income at the same level as wages and pushing for more fairness in the tax code, congressional conservatives accuse the administration of "class warfare"—even as they continue their own "class warfare" against government programs that provide millions of economically struggling Americans with a level of economic security and a means to climb the economic ladder.
The particulars of the Obama 2013 budget may not survive the Washington political grinder, but here's what should: the debate between a government that works for the benefit of ordinary people, operating on the principles that we should all work together to rise together and that those who benefit the most have the most obligation to support the opportunity of others, and a government that works the hardest for those with the most, and, to paraphrase the words of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, "doesn't worry" about those with the least.
In the coming days progressives in Congress will offer their own budget framework, which will draw the contrast in even more stark terms, and demonstrate that we as a nation do not have to accept the conservative austerity economics that are playing out to such disastrous effect in countries such as Greece. Whether it's the Obama administration budget or a progressive alternative, it is important to show that one set of budget decisions will point millions of Americans closer to their American dream of broadly shared prosperity, while conservative critics will drive us toward a dystopian economic future.