It's not often that I find myself agreeing with a congressional Republican on fiscal matters, but it's hard to argue with a recent statement from Rep. Rob Woodall of the House Budget Committee. "A budget is a moral document," said the Georgia Republican. "It talks about where your values are."
That's certainly true. So what are we to make of this year's House and Senate Republican budgets? They harm seniors, use the disabled as pawns, punish the needy, pamper the wealthy, and employ deceit -- all to promote a selfish agenda for the wealthy and powerful.
There's a lot to say about these two proposals, but for now we'll restrict ourselves to two important subjects: Social Security and Medicare.
On Social Security, both the House and Senate documents mislead readers about the state of the program's finances. "[I]t is irresponsible to ignore the looming insolvency in Social Security," says the House GOP plan. "The Social Security program is on a track to bankruptcy," says the Senate proposal, adding, "The deficits will increase the publicly held debt while depleting the Social Security trust fund."
These statements are false and alarmist. The Social Security Trust Fund currently holds $2.8 trillion in assets, in the form of legally binding debt from the U.S. Treasury. (And a word to conservatives: Don't tell us that this debt is comprised of "just IOUs" -- not unless you're prepared to say that your own Treasury bonds are "just IOUs" too.)
Under current projections, and with no changes to the program, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until the mid-2030s. Even then it will be able to pay three-quarters of benefits, since it will continue to collect revenue every year. That is neither "insolvency" nor "bankruptcy" as those words are commonly understood.
To add an extra frisson of panic, the Republicans continue to oppose rebalancing the retirement and disability trust funds to ensure that disabled Americans continue to receive full benefits. That adjustment, which Congresses led by both parties have made 11 times in the past, is quite minor. But the Republicans are eager to provoke a needless crisis to promote their agenda, even if it means using the disabled as pawns.
A "moral document" indeed.
Here's another fact that these GOP budgets conveniently fail to mention: that future shortfall is easily remedied through such measures as lifting the "payroll tax cap" for high and extremely high earners, imposing a financial transaction tax on Wall Street, and increasing the average American's payroll tax by literally a few dollars a month.
Polls show that these solutions are popular with voters. In fact, large majorities of Republicans, as well as Democrats and independents, support using a tax-the-rich approach to fund an expansion of Social Security benefits. That makes sense, since growing wealth inequality and the collapse of other retirement vehicles has left most Americans facing financial insecurity in their retirement.
The Bipartisan Shuffle
Having raised their false alarms, the Republicans are surprisingly diffident about following them to their logical conclusion: benefit cuts. No wonder -- the idea is enormously unpopular with voters. Instead of pitching that, Republicans take a page from the "Grand Bargain" and "bipartisan" talk of years past.
"Truly what's needed is a long-term solution to the problems facing Social Security," says the House document. "One such proposal would be a bipartisan commission that would be required to study the structural deficiencies within the current Social Security system and report back with specific legislative proposals for Congress and the President to consider."
The Senate document echoes that sentiment. Senate Republicans say their plan "allows the President and congressional leaders to begin a bipartisan, bicameral discussion to protect Social Security, prevent a massive increase in publicly held debt" -- (note: Social Security law is forbidden by law from contributing to Federal deficits) -- "and avoid ... across-the-board Social Security benefit cuts...."
The House budget says, "Our budget calls for a bipartisan path forward in addressing the long-term structural problems within Social Security" (emphasis mine).
Well, of course it does. No politician in their right mind, not even a Republican one, would want their party associated with such widely unpopular policies. That's why Republicans, as well as Democrats who are economically conservative on this issue, are so fond of the word "bipartisan."
"Bipartisanship" is the Washington equivalent of those Agatha Christie novels where all the suspects commit the murder in the hope than none of them will be found guilty.
Bipartisanship was the watchword of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles commission. While the commission deadlocked and failed to issue a proposal, the Simpson-Bowles proposal released by its co-chairs became the outline of several failed attempts at a "Grand Bargain."
There appears to be some nostalgia for those talks among Republicans on the Hill. In discussing sequestration (mandatory government spending caps), Sen. Lindsay Graham said this last week, "I would generate some revenue by capping deductions in the tax code if Democrats help me make some small entitlement changes that buy it back ... a mini Simpson-Bowles."
Beware, Democrats. Congressional Dems like Rep. Chris Van Hollen, now seeking Sen. Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat, are already paying a political price for their past support of Simpson-Bowles. Van Hollen has, in fact, just come out in support of Social Security expansion.
For his part, President Obama appears to be in less of a mood to play along with "Grand Bargain" talk than in years past. But Social Security remains at great risk when Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Democratic president has already displayed a willingness to propose Social Security cuts of his own.
When it comes to Medicare, Senate Republicans were more inclined to punt than their House counterparts. The Senate proposal promises to match the president's projected Medicare savings of more than $400 billion -- but it doesn't say how they plan to do that. Senate Republicans would dismantle a key element of the president's cost-containment mechanism. But when it comes tor replacing it, they're vague, proposing "congressional committees [that will] work with beneficiaries and other stakeholders on the best ways to save the system and stave off insolvency."
The House proposal repeats the Republicans' extremist plan to dismantle Medicare as we know it, replacing it with a voucher system that would fail to cover the cost of private insurance. Even the GOP admits that, at least tacitly, when they describe it as a "premium support system."
There's also this: "[T]his system would set up a carefully monitored exchange for Medicare plans. Health plans that choose to participate in the Medicare exchange would agree to offer insurance to all Medicare beneficiaries, to avoid cherry-picking, and to ensure that Medicare's sickest and highest-cost beneficiaries receive coverage."
Sounds a lot like Obamacare, doesn't it? That's somewhat ironic, since Republican proposals would dismantle the Affordable Care Act without offering a viable replacement.
A Question of Values
We haven't even discussed the jury-rigged numbers yet, or the false fiscal assertions -- and Mike Enzi, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, is an accountant. Contrary to GOP assertions, these documents wouldn't balance the budget. What they would do is plunge the United States into an austerity-triggered recession reminiscent of the situation in Greece.
But for all the deception and evasion that permeates these documents, one thing comes through clearly: The Republicans have no interest in the well-being of seniors or the disabled. Theirs is an anti-tax agenda for the wealthy and an anti-social-contract agenda for everyone else.
Rep. Woodall is right. A budget is a moral document that "talks about where your values are." These documents don't paint a pretty picture.