September 20, 2013

When it comes to the economy, the White House is talking tough to the Republicans ... about the debt ceiling. It's true that the threat to shut down the government by refusing to honor its debt obligations is downright un-American. The Administration's right to call them out for that. But there's a larger question: Who's going to give the American people some straight talk about the GOP's economic ideas?

Forget the debt ceiling for a moment, if you can. Forget the GOP's attempt to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act. Who is going to explain to the American people how profoundly misguided, and even immoral, the Republicans' entire economic agenda has become?

Granted, it's a big job. First, there's the House's underhanded "continuing resolution", which freezes in place "sequestration" cuts that are $70 billion below the figure which both parties agreed to in prior negotiations. Apparently trustworthiness is not a strong trait among today's Republicans.

Then there's the wanton cruelty in this budget: The cuts to the TRIO program which helps poor Americans get a higher education and better themselves. Reductions in the SNAP program for hungry Americans, which provides the average recipient with $133 per month in assistance.

Sen. Bernie Sanders lists some of the effects of sequester-based cuts: 57,000 children losing access to Head Start programs. Tens of thousands of seniors dropped from Meals on Wheels. Cuts to housing assistance for the elderly, disabled, and others that will affect 147,000 households. 70,000 college students without a work-study program. Cancer patients losing Medicare-financed treatments. Roughly 400,000 elderly and other low-income households losing heating assistance during the upcoming winter months.

If the GOP's Continuing Resolution is adopted, more cuts will follow: Head Start and the heating-assistance program will suffer further cuts. Education funds for low-income children and the disabled will be slashed. Not that the Republicans are entirely ungenerous: Their plan increases spending for defense by $20 billion, most of which will wind up in the pockets of wealthy defense contractors.

That's the cruelty in the Republican economic plan. Then there's the stupidity. The Congressional Budget Office has already estimated that sequestration cuts will cost the economy 900,000 jobs and shrink our national economy by 0.7 percent.

For reference, that's 900,000 jobs out of an economy that's in desperate need of more, not, less employment. We're far from a recovery when it comes to unemployment in this country:


And that's 0.7 percent out of an economy that, with some wise stewardship, might grow instead - and in a way that boosts income for the 99 percent, not just the wealthiest among us:


When it comes to the deficit Republicans should be declaring victory, not calling for more spending cuts. After all, the deficit is plummeting:


The problem is, it's falling too fast. Lost jobs and lost wages add up to a shrinking economy.

The President and his staff are certainly taking a firmer stance on the negotiation process. Gene Sperling, head of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, told reporters this weekend that President Obama "is not going to negotiate over whether we should be paying our bills."

And Ezra Klein, a reliable reflector of White House moods, said this on MSNBC: "The White House has complete religion on the debt ceiling... This White House does not want their legacy to be (that) they set in motion the chain of events that led to America's role as an economic corner stone of the world being degraded."

But those objections are about process, not economic policy. On the fiscal front, the White House is boasting about deficit reduction instead of focusing on the case for urgently-needed spending. And even as Boehner raises the stakes with his Continuing Resolution, both the Senate and White House budget proposals hew faithfully to the stark and austere budget cuts agreed upon in the last round of negotiations.

If the Democrats stick to that approach, once again they'll be negotiating against themselves.

They're right to oppose Boehner's attempt to extend the sequestration cuts. But the President is only intermittently making the case for the increased government investment - in infrastructure, education, and other job-creating programs - that's necessary to get this economy back on track. He should drop the deficit boasting, which only reinforces the right's flawed logic, and stick to discussing the additional spending this country so urgently needs.

When it comes to economic substance, rather than legislative process, this still tends to be a one-sided conversation. The conservative monologue is not being met with a singular, clear counter-argument based on economic common sense.

Sure, they'll all have to try to work out an agreement at some point. But before they do that, Democrats should take a tip from Tip O'Neill. The President's team loves to celebrate the former Democratic Speaker for "having a beer" with President Ronald Reagan and working through tough fiscal issues with the conservative icon.

But O'Neill always began by making it clear where he and his party stood, and how deeply they disagreed with Reagan and the Republicans. He wasn't afraid to describe Reagan as "a cheerleader for selfishness" or to pronounce his budget proposals "dead on arrival."

If Reagan was a cheerleader for selfishness, Boehner & Company are pit bulls for it. They need to be opposed forcefully, in plain and direct language. Before the deal-making begins, the American people deserve a little truth-telling.

It's good to hear the President and his party explain why the legislative process must be protected from Republican extremism. It's time for them to do the same thing for the economy.

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