Today the Presidential Deficit Commission's co-chairs released a radically right-wing budget proposal. They acted without any prior announcement, just three weeks before the entire Commission was scheduled to deliver its collective report. Consider it as a sneak attack on the middle class, a pre-dawn raid on the American dream.
Many things can and will be said about this draft proposal, but first and foremost it must be considered an admission of failure. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson were asked by the President to lead a commission that was to agree on a set of proposals most of its members could endorse. This proposal is their admission that they've failed, and it should be read with that failure of leadership in mind.
It's also important to remember that this is not an isolated act. The release of their proposal today was the culmination of a highly coordinated and extremely well-funded assault led by deficit hawks willing to harm our already-weak economy in order to cut government, and who would slash important programs like Social Security and Medicare to advance their agenda.
And the timing of this proposal was no accident. Simpson and Bowles know they don't have the 14 votes they need to issue a report. Releasing this proposal may be a desperate attempt to pressure some of their Commission own members. Or they may be trying to deliver some "shock and awe" by issuing a proposal so extreme that any subsequent package of cuts, no matter how unfair, will seem reasonable by comparison.
Whatever their motives, the President who appointed this Commission is now in an ideal position to reject their conclusions. For one thing, endorsing them would violate his campaign promise not raise the retirement age or to cut Social Security benefits. (Check it our here.) Instead he should reiterate his argument that we need to reduce runaway health care costs, not cut or cap Medicare benefits, if we want to fix the deficit. As for Simpson and Bowles, this attempted end run around their own Commission shows they've failed to carry out the mission he gave them. It would have been more honorable if they had simply resigned. Since they haven't, the President should look elsewhere for good ideas.
Because of the covert way this was done, only their ideological allies were given a preview of the proposal. But an initial reading makes it clear that their agenda is a radical upward redistribution of national wealth and resources, with budget policy as the vehicle and "deficit reduction" as the rhetorical smokescreen.
The bald guy says everybody should get a haircut
It's the perfect metaphor for this proposal: The cue-ball-headed Mr. Simpson is proposing an "across-the-board 'haircut'" for public programs while saying absolutely nothing about Bush's tax cuts, a budget-busting bonanza for the ultra wealthy that Republicans are pledging to defend at all costs.
Their proposal calls for great sacrifices from the elderly, college students, and veterans. Surely, people will say, a plan that asks so much of those in need must also call for increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans. After all, their tax burden will be lower than it was for most of the 20th Century, even if the Bush cuts are allowed to expire. So they'll share in the sacrifice too, right?
Nope. When it comes to asking the super rich to pay their fair share, these deficit hawks suddenly go silent. If these Commissioners lack the political will to call for rolling back the Bush tax cuts, they should go back to Wyoming and North Carolina.
The US economy and the global economic system are still struggling to recover from the worst recession since the 1930s. The nation urgently needs more jobs and increased economic growth. Instead the co-chairs have laid out a reckless set of proposals that would impose crippling austerity on the US government precisely when we need a strong increase in public investment.
This plan is a recipe for pushing the economy into another recession.
In the past, Bowles and Simpson have given lip service to the reality that any spending cuts must wait until we've achieved a strong economic recovery and sustained growth. But the document they released today would send the economy right off a cliff. They're proposing major cuts to public spending that start in 2012, when most economists expect the economy will still be weak and fragile. Even if your only goal is a balanced budget, that's a bad idea. A smart deficit hawk would first work to create jobs, increase income, and expand business activity, all of which reduce deficits in the long run. These are not smart deficit hawks.
Co-Chairs Simpson and Bowles acknowledge that Social Security contributes nothing to the Federal deficit. That doesn't prevent them from pushing cost-of-living changes that would harm current retirees, along with future increases in the retirement age that would reduce benefits even more for those who retire in the years to come.
The Campaign for America's Future just conducted election day polling which found that strong majorities of Americans - including Tea Party supporters - strongly oppose the cuts they're proposing. Most voters of all political persuasions prefer eliminating the cap that limits the taxes wealthy individuals now pay for Social Security. The truly 'bipartisan' solution, embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, is to lift the tax cap while protecting benefits. That's the exact opposite of what Simpson and Bowles have proposed.
At a time when most Americans are worried about their jobs and everyone has just taken a huge hit to their retirement savings, any politician who embraces these proposals is committing political suicide. And any leader who has the public's best interests at heart will understand that these ideas must be rejected.
Roger Hickey is Co-Director of the Campaign for America's Future. He was a leader of the campaign to stop the privatization of Social Security, and he is a founder and member of the steering committee of Health Care for America Now. In the late 1980s he and Jeff Faux created the Economic Policy Institute.
Richard (RJ) Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign For America's Future. He is also a former executive with experience in health care, benefits, and risk management, and a policy consultant who has worked in the United States and in over 20 countries.