The House-Senate budget negotiations, scheduled to begin on Wednesday, are an opportunity for our leaders to finally have a meaningful discussion about healing our damaged economy. That's the discussion Washington should have been having all along, but which it hasn't had yet. How will we know whether that's finally changed, or which politicians are genuinely looking out for the public's interests?
This four-point document, "Principles for Debate on the Budget in the Economy," is an excellent place to start. It provides a baseline for reasonable negotiations, and represents the interests of the millions of Americans who belong to the organizations which signed it. We've adapted its four points to serve as a scorecard for grading your representatives during these budget talks.
End the sequestration cuts.
The so-called "sequester" must be ended immediately. That's not an end point for negotiations, as the Republicans seem to believe. It's a starting point for meaningful debate.
The jury is already in on sequestration. It, and the spending cuts which preceded it, have cost the economy nearly 1,000,000 jobs, according a relatively conservative study. It's absurd to maintain, as Republicans are doing, that Democrats should make sacrifices in return for ending these cuts.
What they're really demanding is that Americans make sacrifices. Sequestration is hurting businesses, costing us jobs, and resulting in less economic growth.
Protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
No matter how many times the public tells its public officials otherwise through the polls, those officials keep insisting that a "moderate" viewpoint calls for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. So let's go over the numbers again, based on the most recent findings from Lake Research:
82 percent of all voters oppose Social Security cuts.
82 percent of all Republican voters oppose Social Security cuts.
So do 83 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents.
None of these programs is facing an immediate fiscal problem. Social Security's very long-term issues are easily remedied by lifting the payroll tax, possibly in combination with a financial transaction tax. What's more, most Americans would be willing to pay higher payroll taxes in return for higher (rather than lower) Social Security benefits. Medicare and Medicaid financing would be best remedied with stronger price controls and more effective restraints on runaway profit-taking in the healthcare sector.
Whenever a politician insists that we need "sensible" or "smarter" performs to these programs, they should lose a lot of points on your scorecard.
Protect those who are most in need.
Our current economic difficulties are the direct result of runaway wealth inequity, the loss of social mobility, and the excessive Wall Street risk-taking which capsized the economy in 2008. For this reason, it's unforgivable to consider cutting programs for those who are most at risk.
Nevertheless, Republicans have proposed vicious cuts to the SNAP food stamp program. Assistance for the long-term unemployed is also under assault, as are job training programs and other programs for the elderly (in addition to Social Security and Medicare) such as Meals on Wheels.
Education opens the door of opportunity, even in inequitable times like these. It's unconscionable to think of cutting education funds at this point in history. It's equally unconscionable to think of cutting funds for home heating, infant nutrition, or other programs which benefit the poor (of which there are now a record 46.5 million), the elderly, and other Americans in need.
Deduct lots of points for any politician who wants to cut these programs. And deduct 102 points (out of a possible hundred!) from any politician who talks about these kinds of cuts while at the same time fighting to protect tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. Since that includes virtually every Republican in Congress, they're not going to score very well, are they?
Stop giving tax breaks for sending American jobs overseas.
It should be a given that powerful corporations should pay their fair share of taxes. And yet corporate tax rates -- the real rates they pay, not the ones on the books -- are at or near a sixty year low. What makes that an even more bitter pill to swallow is that large corporations are getting tax breaks for sending jobs overseas. That has to stop -- immediately.
Ending that tax subsidy would generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. That money could be used to create jobs, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and provide more educational opportunity for young Americans.
Go beyond the baseline.
These four points represent the baseline for reasonable budget talks. That doesn't mean our political leaders should stop at the baseline. These four points represent the core elements of a constructive plan to repair our economy.
And in repairing our economy, we will also be doing more to bring down long-term deficits -- through reform of for-profit healthcare, increased revenue, and investment in a growing economy. A program like that will lead to greater fiscal health, for the government and for its citizens.