If you've ever questioned whether the so-called "Super Committee" represents a breakdown in the democratic process, yesterday's proposal from the group's Democratic members should put your doubts to rest. The system's seriously broken when unelected super-legislators from both parties keep trying to top each other in proposing inhumane and unpopular programs.
The party of the donkey is about to give itself a real ass-kicking.
Representatives from the "party of the people" want to cut Medicare and Social Security, and they're looking for bragging rights on who'd cut government more in a time of need.
If the regular folks' party is trying to impose this much pain on the elderly, poor, and disabled, what's the rich people's party going to do: sacrifice babies in Times Square on live television?
Change That Shatters
As I read the proposal I kept asking myself: Who are they trying to impress? Certainly not the electorate, which overwhelmingly rejects the positions they're advocating. And certainly not the Republicans, since even these Dems aren't naive enough to think their proposal will be accepted. So who?
The "Super Dems" are proposing twice as much in deficit cuts as the Committee's mandated to find. That bit of pointless grandstanding reinforces conservative notions that government spending is evil and deficits are our most urgent problem.
It's straight out of the Bill Clinton playbook. But Clinton operated in a period of artificially pumped up, bubble-fueled prosperity. Americans hunger for better policies now. That hunger helped Democrats win the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008. (Seems so long ago, doesn't it?) The Democratic Party website still proudly proclaims the Party's slogan: "Change That Matters."
Change? These are the same Republican Lite policies Clinton ran on in 1992. But we're a sadder and wiser nation now. We've reaped the bitter fruits of economic inequality and endured a disastrous crash as a result of these bipartisan policies. We've moved on, but these Democrats haven't. They're still slavishly (if meekly) echoing the failed conservative ideas of the past.
Their plan calls for $400 billion in Medicare and Medicaid savings, half or which would come from benefit cuts for the seniors, disabled, and low-income people who rely on these programs. The higher out-of-pocket costs for these vulnerable populations would leave many of them with less to spend on necessities, taking billions out of the economy and creating even more economic stagnation. Not to mention the hardship and suffering ...
The other $200 billion would presumably be found by cutting provider reimbursements - which makes sense if done wisely, but which will only create shortages and access problems if done foolishly. (Wise or foolish: Bets, anyone?)
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Democrats also support moving the government to a "chained CPI" cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) calculation for Social Security. That would shortchange everybody receiving benefits, including people already receiving them.
The current COLA is already a raw deal for seniors, disabled people, and the poor, and now these Dems want to double down on it. The chained-CPI would also raise taxes on people who aren't already in the highest tax bracket by accelerating "bracket creep."
So let's sum up what we've heard so far: Democrats want to cut Social Security and Medicare, and they also want to raise taxes on everybody but the rich. Enjoy your "change," America.
In a nod to their base, the Democrats are also proposing $300 billion in stimulus spending. But reports were vague on the specifics, with the Journal reporting only that "aides familiar with the Democratic plan say it also called for as much as $300 billion in spending for programs to create jobs and spur economic growth."
The Super Dems also also say they want $1 trillion in new revenue, but they don't say where it should come from. That means some or all of it could be raised by reducing or eliminating provisions like employer health and mortgage interest deductions that help the struggling middle class.
But then, why expend a lot of effort on a proposal you know is doomed from the start and which you don't intend to fight for? If that sounds too cynical, rest assured: We'd love to be proven wrong, and the Democrats on the Super Committee can prove us wrong with a word. That word is "no." If the Super Committee Dems announce that they'll say "no" to any plan that doesn't include stimulus funds, we'll gladly provide a full refund on the cynicism.
A Smart Plan
What would an intelligent plan look like? It would be designed around three simple principles:
Arbitrary deficit reduction targets are meaningless and foolish. Why are we having a debate about whether to cut the deficit by $1.5 trillion or $3 trillion? We don't know how big our economy will become in the coming years. We don't know how much money will be coming in, or how much we'll need to spend.
The best way to ensure a healthy Federal budget is to ensure a healthy national economy. When more people have jobs, the economy improves. And when the economy improves, more people have jobs. So we should be talking about jobs, jobs, jobs: As the economy grows through government investment, more people will have them. People with jobs pay taxes, so the government's bottom line will improve.
Government needs to learn a fundamental business principle: Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.
No plan should take effect until we've achieved normal employment levels. Many of these proposals have been given start dates in coming years. But no plan to cut spending, especially spending that directly or indirectly affects employment, should take effect until overall employment returns to normal levels.
Now for a word from the party's sponsors: the voters who put them in office.
When the Democrats were swept into office in 2008, here's what their platform said about Social Security: "We will fulfill our obligation to strengthen Social Security and to make sure that it provides guaranteed benefits Americans can count on, now and in future."
And here's what it said about Medicare: "We will protect and strengthen Medicare by cutting costs, protecting seniors from fraud, and fixing Medicare's prescription drug program."
Thought the Super Dems might want to tape this to the refrigerator or something before the next Committee meeting.
It's like a Zen koan: What is the sound of one ass kicking itself? These proposals aren't just destructive. They're self-destructive. Pick a poll, any poll, and you'll see how unpopular these ideas are. Overwhelming majorities of Americans - including a majority of Republicans - oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare to fix the deficits. And strong majorities want higher taxes on the wealthy, a topic which the Super Dems are waffling about.
It's a political kamikaze stunt for Dems to adopt the GOP's "less government" theme. Ask yourself: If you want some government-cutting done, are you going to hire a Democrat or a Republican? If you want to fire government workers, are you going to hire Mitt Romney - who has a long track record of firing people -- or Barack Obama? Every minute spent bragging that "we'll cut more" is a minute spent convincing people to vote for your opponent.
The President's repeating the mistakes he made during the healthcare and financial reform debates, and he's turning negotiations over to the same failed crowd. He's considered the leader of his party, but once again he's letting the party lead him instead. And when it's all over the GOP will run the same play it used last year, positioning itself as the party that defended Medicare. These Dems are helping them do it.
Which brings us back to the question: Who are they trying to impress? The big-money donors who have pivoted back to the GOP, but will still throw them a few bucks now and then? Billionaire Pete Peterson and the other foundations and think tank benefactors who might them sinecures after they retire? Their fellow inhabitants of a warped Washington culture that views Grandma-sacrifice as a totemic act of courage?
Stop them before they triangulate again
Maybe all of the above. But their self-preservation rests on getting re-elected. Do they expect a grateful nation will rush to the polls next year saying, "They didn't cut government enough, but at least they tried"? Twenty-four million Americans are un- or under-employed, and they all have family, friends, and neighbors. That's a lot of voters to convince that their misery is less important than who chose a bigger deficit-cutting number.
They Super Committee, the President, and other Democratic leaders need to get the message from voters, loud and clear. Maybe public pressure can save them from their self-inflicted impending doom. As Smokey the Bear might say, only you can prevent ass-kickings.
Any proposal they present will be defeated. They know that. So why do they keep offering watered down right-wing plans like this one? Why don't they start offering bold, courageous alternatives to the conservative economic madness that's failing in Europe and here at home? People admire someone who goes down fighting, but they want to go down equivocating - or surrendering. In the end, they'll just go down. And if they aren't stopped they'll take the rest of their party with them.
Strange. They know they can't succeed legislatively, yet they keep putting themselves on record as favoring destructive and unpopular policies.
It's sad but true: These guys don't even know how to fail right.