NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, December 13th, 2013

United States needs and deserves a budget that puts people – and the planet – first

Congress votes and the deal’s done. What does it mean?

Washington’s senior U.S. Senator Patty Murray and her negotiating partner Congressman Paul Ryan have averted yet another budget crisis heading into the 2014 budget negotiations. The Senate still has to vote, but the House has, by a surprisingly large margin, gone ahead and signed off on the modest deal.

The agreement doesn’t extend deferred pay for the unemployed or prevent us from getting close to another default in early 2014, but it will eliminate the threat of another government shutdown in the near future.

What happened? A bargain was struck, but what does it entail? Too much of the news coverage to date has been about the politics of the agreement, not the impact or the scope. The American people now have a chance to analyze the details.

These budget negotiations were about sequestration and who gets what share of the federal discretionary budget. What’s the discretionary budget? It is the $1.5 trillion out of a total budget of $3.8 trillion proposed by the Obama Administration to run our federal government agencies in 2014.

The Republican game plan for the discretionary budget is consistent at least: squeeze more blood out of the civilian agencies and public employees that have been bled dry as a result of two overseas entanglements, two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy, and the recent effects of sequestration.

Democrats seem to be in a “hold the line” stance, which essentially institutionalizes the draconian blows to health, education, housing, and environmental funding absorbed during the past thirteen years.

What if we demanded real budget negotiations where both sides argue for a budget that achieves meaningful gains for the American people and see who offers a fair deal? Just look at the way today’s budget rewards U.S. military and intelligence agencies. They win fifty-seven percent of the discretionary budget.

Every other federal mission gets peanuts. Education and veterans? Six percent each. Housing and health? Five percent each. And get this: international affairs (State Department and the United Nations), energy and environment, science, and transportation get just three percent each, or twelve percent collectively.

A budget is a moral document. It is a statement of choices.

Today’s federal budget reflects a clear choice: fund the military while forcing our other vital public services to compete for the leftovers.

The Congressional Budget Office has explored ways to rethink how to spend tax dollars. Instead of cutting $25 billion from unemployment benefits and foregoing the potential creation of almost 200,000 living-wage jobs, we could reduce military combat units to generate $552 billion through 2023.

Or, let’s examine those generous corporate tax loopholes and deductions that make it rare for corporations to pay their fair share of a thirty-five percent corporate income tax rate. If the rate were increased by just one percent – at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high – our available discretionary tax dollars would grow by $113 billion. These numbers have a way of changing the way we define “success” in a budget negotiation, don’t they?

These are examples of how to change the way we think about funding the critical needs of our people and nation. Just a few months ago, intransigent Republicans manufactured a sixteen-day federal government shutdown.

Few in Congress seemed to feel the shocks to ordinary Americans, but the rest of us sure did. Furloughs, layoffs, and delinquent paychecks meant millions of families held their breath and hoped for an end to the crisis before their rent or mortgages came due. It is a good moment to ask: what are we doing to ourselves?

Cuts to bloated military budgets will not hurt our nation’s long-or short-term interests. But hikes to student loan rates along with indefinite sequestration cuts hurt all of us. According to Inside HigherEd, the effects of sequestration alone have been catastrophic: $1 billion in cuts to universities means lost research into new cancer treatments, the causes of Alzheimer’s, and cures for HIV/AIDS.

In contrast, just imagine the impact of reallocating $100 billion from military and intelligence budgets to fund early learning and higher education initiatives that expand research, increase student aid, make college loans more affordable, and pave the way for universal preschool in all fifty states.

More than twenty-five years ago, a Pentagon official requested my help. His office was trying to figure out how Soviet leaders would react to proposals to cut strategic nuclear arsenals by fifty percent. Back then, we never talked about how much money the United States was spending on its strategic military power. It is time to start talking about it. The U.S. military budget is consuming our common wealth.

Yet the debate revolves around how to spread the losses across agencies and programs already in free fall. Details matter. It is time to stop inflicting more pain. We deserve and must demand that the next budget deal hold promise for all of us.

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