Representative Barney Frank voted against the Budget Control Act of 2011 yesterday. The issues are complicated, the numbers are large, and the media explanations grossly oversimplified, leaving a confused American public to wring its hands over politicians' overwrought arguments clogging up their televisions. Most people just want to be left alone, not caring that all the wrangling is about them and their ability to live a decent life.
I think Barney Frank is a hero for voting against the bill, although he knew, as former Chair of the important Financial Services Committee as well as anyone that there was really no viable option to passing it. I'm certain that his "no" vote was cast because he knew that his vote wasn't needed to pass the bill. I think it's important to analyze the reasons for his vote, and to understand why we need to be very, very careful in the next few years not to let the Tea Party run the show.
Ultimately, the reason for his no vote was the fact that the budget cuts will severely hurt the middle class, the largest economic group in the country, and our country's infrastructure, which is what allows us to live a modern life, with transportation, a relatively clean environment, and jobs. This bill is but one step in a much larger political dance, with many decision points over the next few years, and we mustn't forget that we're dancing next to a cliff. When I say "we," I mean the middle class. The rich will be fine. The poor are in no position to change the course of these events. It is the middle class that will ultimately influence the decisions, though many in the middle class are caught in a situation they do not understand. It's hard to make good decisions when you don't know what's going on.
The LGBT community is going to be affected by these goings-on, whether we know it or not. Aside from the fact that these are issues that affect all Americans, there are specific programs that affecting our community that will be hit. We will see reductions in HIV/AIDS funding, programs to eliminate bullying in schools, youth homelessness that disproportionately affects LGBT kids, grants for community centers and the services they provide to our community, personnel for government human rights commissions and courts that process discrimination cases. And yet, it is also clear that we do need to reduce the insane deficit created by the Bush Administration. How quickly we do it, where the cuts are made and raising revenue are the real issues. I agree with Sara Whitman, who wrote on these pages this morning saying that it's all about revenue, revenue, revenue.
President Obama's Role In All This
I don't blame President Obama for being too soft on the Tea Party. He did make some good proposals early on, but the Tea Party is out of control with their newfound power, and just said no to everything. Ultimately, the President's job is to manage the country with the resources he gets from Congress. Sure, he can, and did push for more, but utlimately, he had little real power here. I do think that his ideological centrism ultimately contributed to the Tea Party win to some degree, because they knew that he wouldn't oppose them to the max and create a default. That being said, this debacle lies squarely in the lap of the Tea Party, and the simplistic middle class Republican voters who find their simplistic ideas about debt reduction appealing.
The Larger Context
The issues need to be set in a larger context. The Tea Party is correct in one thing: the federal government was originally envisioned as a small, weak government intended to raise an army for the common defense and to deal with interstate commerce issues. Over time, it took more and more power, until it dwarfed the state governments' economic and political power. There are very good socio-political reasons why this happened, and without a strong central government, we cannot have the modern life in the style to which we have become accustomed, with plumbing inside the house, police and emergency services ready to respond at a moment's notice, streets unclogged by poverty-stricken, disease-ridden beggars, an educated work force and electorate, and good roads enabling us to live in a decent neighborhood and still get to work.
The debt ceiling, which triggered this immediate crisis, was not the cause of the crisis. That's something routinely increased, and the increase here is relatively minor. The cause was the Tea Party caucus, which held the debt ceiling hostage to its insistence on spending cuts now. Everyone in America knows we have to reduce the debt, but the Democrats want to do it by bringing revenue back in line after the devastating Bush tax cuts, and the Republicans want to do it by slashing social spending. The Tea Party won this round by threatening to stop the otherwise-routine debt ceiling increase. This essentially increases the federal government's "credit card" limit, without which it might not have had enough cash on hand to pay immediate debts without some financial shenanigans. That would have resulted in reducing the government's credit rating, and increasing interest rates on the money it needs to borrow to smooth out its cash flow ups and downs. That's why the Tea Party threat was effective -- everyone knew that the limit had to be increased, and they could hold it up.
The compromise reached, explained in detail here (by Keith Hennessy, a conservative, but who knows how to make economics readable), essentially means that the debt ceiling will be raised but federal spending will be cut by the same amount. In other words, you're nearing your credit card limit of $15,000, so you take an increase to $17,000, but you decide to spend $2000 less over the next year. What are you going to spend less on? A) car and home repairs, B) caring for your elderly mother, or C) guns and burglar alarms? These choices essentially correspond to what we're looking at on the federal level: A) infrastructure, B) Medicare and C) the military. The Budget Control Act of 2011 essentially chooses A for right now, B for later, and C as a possibility for later. Can you see that the priorities here are all wrong? You can't get to work or have a decent lifestyle if your car's broken and the toilets don't work, and our country can't keep its middle class if our infrastructure goes to hell. You can't sleep at night if your elderly mother can't eat and also afford her medications, and our country can't keep our elderly out of the same Catch-22 if Medicare, already at the bare bones, is cut. While the bill says that there will be a little military budget cutting now and the possibility of steep military cuts later, the truth is that we've spent far too much on our military as it is and it needs much more drastic cuts. It's bloated after the Bush years and the foolish wars, and needs to go on a diet. I can understand that the Pentagon chiefs are yowling about the cuts -- who wants to go on a diet?
Kudos To Barney Frank
I applaud Barney Frank for making the point that the priorities for these cuts are all wrong. I agree with the Attleboro Sun, a newspaper that serves residents in his district, that said he did the right thing. I'm glad that we averted the debt crisis manufactured by the Tea Party, and that the bill passed, but I'm also glad that Representative Frank stood up for the middle class. We need to rein in the Tea Party's slash-and-burn philosophy at the decision points coming up in the Fall and over the next two years. Otherwise, money for LGBT services are going to dry up, like money for HIV/AIDS funding, programs to eliminate bullying in schools, youth homelessness that disproportionately affects LGBT kids, grants for community centers and the services they provide to our community, and personnel for government human rights commissions and courts that process discrimination cases. That means we need to educate the people who elected the Tea Party -- the Republicans and Independents in the heartland. They've been taken in by an aggressive group with the simplistic notion that a complex economy should be run like a household budget. It's an appealing idea, because it's easy to understand, but it's very, very wrong. Sometimes, even when you're broke, you need to borrow the money to repair the car so you can get to work. The Tea Party, instead, proposes that we imitate the joke about the guy who trained his horse to eat less and less, until, when he had finally trained it to subsist on only one piece of straw a day, the darn horse up and died on him.
(img src C-SPAN screen cap)