Politicians in both political parties are leaning on the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan as a political crutch to make them appear "serious" to the inside-the-Beltway crowd. But if that crutch is merely enabling a nation to hobble over the edge of a cliff, then the best thing to do is to take the crutch away and push the country and its politicians in the opposite direction.
Getting progressive activists equipped and motivated for that task was the goal of a session at an eclectic Take Back the American Dream conference panel that included a member of Congress, a labor economist and a youth activist.
A constant drumbeat of the conference, reflected in its opening session, was that progressives have the dual challenge of winning the elections in November but the political fights of December. That is the month when, as Van Jones put it, "every can that has been kicked down the road" will have to be reckoned with by Congress, including the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax break, the Pell Grant program and extended unemployment benefits. Also coming into play are automatic spending cuts that would slash deeply into domestic and military spending if Congress failed to reach a 2013 budget deal, and, a few weeks into 2013, the need for another congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling.
That's the confluence that has more than a few lawmakers grasping for the Bowles-Simpson plan, or, as Rep. Jan Schakowsky told conference attendees she liked to call it, "the B.S. plan."
Schakowsky was a member of the bipartisan committee created by President Obama that was led by former Clinton administration aide Erskine Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan ("310 million tits!") Simpson. That committee did not officially endorse the plan that Bowles and Simpson came up with for dealing with the country's fiscal challenges, but the two have continued to parade the plan as if it has some official standing, and a sizable number of people in Washington have bought into the artifice.
Schakowsky reminded conference members how bad the Bowles-Simpson plan actually is for working people: It raises the retirement age to 69, cuts benefits to current retirees by using a type of cost-of-living calculation that is designed not to keep pace with the overall inflation rate, increases the out-of-pocket costs faced by Medicare recipients, and threatens the availability and affordability of health insurance for workers by ending the tax deduction employers receive for providing the insurance. It cuts two dollars in spending for every dollar it offers to raise in revenue, and Schakowsky said that many of the ways it raises revenue would harm working people, even as it locks in permanent tax reductions for the wealthiest Americans.
As Robert Borosage said when he opened the conference, a Bowles-Simpson "grand bargain ought to be known instead as the Big Heist."
"Our economic security is at risk," Schakowsky said. "We need to organize relentlessly for Nov. 6, and then we need to be ready for Nov. 7."
Damon Silvers, economist for the AFL-CIO, said that the worst thing that we can do "would be to impose austerity in the short run and cut taxes in the long run." That is, he added, "a recipe for national decline." And yet that is the conventional wisdom driving the budget debate in Washington.
The alternative set of policies that progressives must fight for have significant majority support among the American people, Silvers pointed out. They just don't have a critical mass of bold supporters on Capitol Hill and the White House. So it will be up to the progressive movement to be more aggressive champions.
The policies include massive investments in infrastructure, rebuilding our manufacturing base and rethinking our trade deals, creating a tax system where the wealthy pay their fair share, holding banks accountable for what they did to break the economy and restructuring homeowner and student debt, protecting and expanding Social Security, and ensuring that higher education is a right available to every young adult who wants to pursue it. These remedies, he added, have to implemented at a scale commensurate to the problem; for example, we should be thinking of infrastructure investments in trillions, not billions.
Molly Katchpole, who spoke before Silvers, told the conference that people in her age group—between 21 and 30—will be one-third of the electorate in 2016, some 80 million people. This group will be massively affected by the decisions that will be made after the November elections, yet, she said, "The budget battles we're having totally underrepresent young people."
Katchpole, who now works with Rebuild the Dream, challenged the conference to get directly involved in an issue that is top-of-mind for this group: student debt. If Congress does not act by July 1, interest rates on government Stafford Loans will double to almost 7 percent. That will $6 billion in the next year alone to the debt burden that Stafford Loan recipients will have to bear. The average student would be paying more than $5,000 in additional interest costs.
Congressional action has been stymied because House Republicans have refused to support keeping the rates at their current level without "paying for" that decision with over-the-top demands, such as cuts in health care programs that are part of the Affordable Care Act.
Katchpole asked the conference attendees to pledge to call their member of Congress on Tuesday to ask them to vote to keep the Stafford Loans at their current rates, without the political shenanigans being played by the Tea Party faction dominating the House.
"Let's look at this interest rate fight as the first step," Katchpole said. if we can't win on student loans, she asked, "how will ever win in December?"