Tuesday, February 22, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Flim-flam politicians

Deceptive retailers who employ the bait-and-switch are pikers compared with politicians, who make it a centerpiece of national policy. Rather than substitute an inferior or more expensive product for the one advertised, as an appliance dealer might do, the politicians use one crisis—say, budget deficits or unemployment—to produce ends that have nothing to do with the crisis. 

We see it at the state Capitol this month as Republicans and a few Democrats give huge tax breaks to the state’s richest people and corporations (aka political contributors) by claiming that they are doing it so that the rich will start new businesses and create jobs for the legions of unemployed. 

But the U. S. House of Representatives has elevated the bait-and-switch to new levels. Everyone is alarmed about the federal budget deficit, which surged to $1.4 trillion in the first full year of the current recession, and they want something done about it. The new Republican majority in the House answered the call by passing a budget that cuts $60 billion from the discretionary budget, and then preened like heroes. 

But two things must be understood. (1) The $60 billion is a trifle in a deficit that will balloon past $1.5 trillion. (2) The discretionary programs they want to slash have little to do with the deficits.  Except for national security services and health programs, discretionary spending has risen very modestly since the last balanced-budget year of 2001. 

The causes of the gargantuan deficit are too well documented: the Bush tax cuts of 2001-04, which mainly gave relief to the affluent and corporations and sent deficits past $500 billion a year even before the recession; a drop in federal tax revenues of more than $500 billion a year after the recession hit in 2007; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the massive surge in Medicare costs after the passage of Bush’s Medicare drug act in 2004, which paid huge new subsidies to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries; and President Obama’s middle-class tax cuts and rebates and jobs programs in 2009, which have now nearly played out. Federal taxes in Obama’s first year, by the way, were the smallest share of the U. S. economy since 1950. 

But the House tackled none of those elephants. Its spending cuts clearly were not aimed at getting the federal budget under control but curtailing or hamstringing programs the Republican Party and its principal constituencies have long opposed. We will see the damage in Arkansas. 

The politics sometimes has been embarrassing. Arkansas’ new congressman from the Third District, Steve Womack, became the poster child for budget gimmickry. His contribution to balancing the budget was to try to amend the budget bill to block any spending on White House teleprompters, the electronic cue card that allows a person to seem like he’s speaking extemporaneously when he is actually reading from a text. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush used them on practically every public occasion, but Womack would never have tried to prevent them from using the speaking aid, only the black guy with the funny name, nor would he imply that Reagan and Bush were spending us into bankruptcy by using a teleprompter. Womack pulled his amendment after Congresswoman Jackie Speier took the floor to ridicule it. She said the GOP budget amendments were a combination “of the silly, the dangerous and the hypocritical.” 

The Republican budget would wreck the Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to begin regulating greenhouse gases. The coal and petroleum industries took heart from the cuts. Other cuts would block the implementation of some parts of the new health-insurance reform laws, eradicate some aid to public education, eliminate family-planning and teen-pregnancy prevention programs, slash Pell grants for low-income college students, end federal support for public broadcasting, halt financing for AmeriCorps (the national service program that pays bright young college graduates to do public-service jobs like teaching in desperately poor schools in the Arkansas Delta), hamstring the regulation of financial institutions under the financial reform law that is supposed to prevent another financial collapse like that of 2008, slash the Social Security Administration and slow the flow of benefits to the elderly and disabled, curtail food aid for poor pregnant women and women with children up to the age of 5, decimate civil legal assistance to the poor in Arkansas, close federal fish hatcheries that are a key to Arkansas tourism, close community health clinics that serve poor children—the list goes on. Even the Weather Service in Arkansas will have to cut its staff and services. 

The Senate will not go along with the cuts, of course, and many in the House want to shut down the whole government rather than let those services continue. Meantime, the growth of the national debt will not skip a beat.  

Look, the House will say, didn’t we do our part?