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For GOP, Debt Ceiling Deal Was Never About Debt — It Was About Conserving Power

Conservatives weaponized the debt deal to consolidate power. Let’s use the budget to create new power structures.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy departs with Reps. Patrick McHenry and Garret Graves after a press conference following the House's passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, raising the debt ceiling on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Many mainstream accounts of the recent debt ceiling deal make it sound like the negotiations represented a give and take between spending and saving — with President Biden and Democrats aligned with spending, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republicans aligned with saving. The real interests of the Republican Party in these negotiations, however were not actually about spending, or the national debt, or even about pushing an anti-government platform. Rather, they were about consolidating power and wealth for those who already have it, from corporations and the wealthy to the U.S. itself on the global stage.

Indeed the very spark for the deal — House Republicans’ threat to tank the economy if their slash-and-burn approach to domestic programs wasn’t honored — showed a glee in naked power unencumbered by a greater sense of responsibility to the people of this country.

That exaltation of brute power is the clearest theme among key conservative demands that made their way into the deal. Perhaps no example is clearer than the preservation of funds for the promotion of U.S. power around the world. The majority of Republicans wanted, and got, a budget boost for the Pentagon — the agency responsible for using the threat of force to promote and maintain U.S. power across the globe.

Then there’s the protectionism for the power of corporations and the wealthy. Not only did so-called deficit hawks refuse any new revenue streams through higher taxes on the wealthy or corporations, but they also claimed victory for clawing back funds for the IRS. If they’re allowed to stand, the IRS cuts will mean that more wealthy tax cheats are able to get away with it — absurdly, costing the U.S. treasury more money than it saves.

Meanwhile, programs that redistribute wealth, provide aid to the poor or powerless, or restrict the power of corporations are the ones that will take budget cuts or freezes. These are the very programs that use the resources and power of the federal government to grease the wheels of economic mobility. To add insult to injury, new work requirements for food stamp and welfare recipients will make it easier for corporations and bad-faith employers to exploit the poor through low-wage work.

For any politicians earnestly looking to save the government money, limiting the enormous Pentagon budget and catching tax cheats should have been low-hanging fruit. That just the opposite happened is all the proof anyone should need that the size of the debt is not what’s truly behind these demands for most conservatives in Congress.

Instead, the perennial conservative push to defund social programs, paired with protectionism for corporations, the wealthy and the military, is conservative in another sense: It seeks to conserve power and wealth by preventing redistribution that might tip the scales of power in the country or in the world.

The antidote is to do the reverse: Reinvest in programs that boost economic mobility and those that limit power for corporations and the wealthy, and introduce new limits and accountability for programs that maintain power through force.

Putting the U.S. First Through Force

If conservative lawmakers wanted to rein in the discretionary budget that Congress allocates each year, they might have started with the programs that already account for the largest portion, 53 percent, of that spending: the Pentagon and nuclear weapons.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to do so, and even some in the Republican Party supported at least including the Pentagon in across-the-board cuts. But they were not the majority in their party, or in Congress.

The budget deal passed by Congress and signed by President Biden provides a $28 billion, or 3 percent, raise for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons compared to legislated levels for this year. That’s compared to a legislated $63 billion, or 8 percent, cut for domestic programs overall. But veterans’ programs, which are considered to be part of the nonmilitary budget, also get a boost in the deal, meaning cuts for the remaining domestic programs must go even deeper. (Side deals that aren’t in the legislation might make up for some of that, effectively resulting in a frozen budget for nonveterans’ domestic programs. In reality, that still amounts to a cut when inflation is factored in.)

Demanding more money for the Pentagon as part of this deal required conservatives to do some impressive maneuvering around facts. In the last days of negotiations, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broke a story about decades of price-gouging by Pentagon contractors. Given that contractors account for half of the Pentagon budget each year, or roughly a quarter of the discretionary budget over all, the implied savings from cracking down on price-gouging easily stretch into the billions of dollars. And no one could argue that any reduction in security would result.

Why didn’t negotiators leap at the chance to address this price-gouging, both for savings and for basic fairness and good governance?

One reason they ignored the issue is because the military-industrial complex, whose lobbying and campaign contributions, not to mention token efforts at job creation in many districts, is quite capable of rewarding loyalty from lawmakers who protect the industry’s position of power. Protecting the Pentagon budget by extension protects some very powerful corporations, and preserves a huge amount of wealth for the executives and shareholders of those companies.

But there’s an even deeper consolidation of power at work for Pentagon budget boosters. The military is the first, and most important, tool for maintaining U.S. primacy in the world. For all the talk of promoting freedom and democracy, conservatives in Congress recognize that the preservation of U.S. power around the world rests largely on the threat of military force.

From that perspective, even the $28 billion raise for the Pentagon doesn’t look like enough. Some conservative lawmakers (and a few Democrats) are already promising to renege on the budget deal’s caps for the Pentagon. Those calls often cite needs to counter Russia (in Ukraine) and China (generally). It’s a symptom of the Washington consensus (but far from unanimous) that the military watchword for the 21st century is “great power competition” — the need for the U.S. to guard its position as the world’s single superpower.

There is a recent precedent for budget busters’ moves in favor of the Pentagon. During the 2010s, when both domestic and military spending was subject to budget caps under the 2011 Budget Control Act (which expired in 2021), legislators added billions of dollars every year for the Pentagon outside of the budget deal. They hijacked Afghanistan and Iraq war funding bills to pad the Pentagon budget. This time around, hawks are already promising to stuff future Ukraine aid bills with Pentagon spending that didn’t make the cut in the recent deal.

The Debt Ceiling Deal’s Wealth Protectionism

If lawmakers were looking to slash the national debt, another place they’d logically look would be tax revenues. And again, that’s just the opposite of the conservative demands that ultimately found their way into the deal.

The perennial conservative push to defund social programs, paired with protectionism for corporations, the wealthy and the military, is conservative in another sense: It seeks to conserve power and wealth.

The deal’s protections for wealth and corporations are overt: from budget cuts that will eventually curb the IRS’s ability to enforce tax law, to the complete exclusion of any new revenue streams through higher taxes on the wealthy or corporations, to the inclusion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline that is a direct gift to the fossil fuel industry (and one company in particular, Equitrans Midstream), conservative wins amount to one gift after another to entrenched power and wealth.

All of this is in fact, counterproductive to lowering the long-term national debt. The loss of potential revenue is straightforward, but the mounting costs of climate crisis shouldn’t be overlooked either, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline will only add to those costs.

All of these measures instead serve to entrench wealth and power among those who already hold it, whether wealthy individuals or corporations. In fact, just like with the Pentagon budget, conservatives have indicated they aren’t through with the IRS: They want to cut the IRS budget even further, regardless of consequences for the national debt.

This protectionism for the wealthy is coupled with the deal’s budget cuts or freezes for domestic programs that buffer the extreme inequality in the U.S. today or rein in corporate power, including federal programs for housing, public health, public education, nutrition, and regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. And new work requirements for food and welfare benefits are designed to put poor people at the mercy of low-wage employers — a boon for immoral corporations and their bottom lines.

The result puts a heavier thumb on the economic scales in favor of the wealthy and corporations, while dealing a blow to the poor and supposedly powerless.

Rebalancing the Scales

One thing the deal makes crystal clear is the depth of connection between federal spending priorities and the reinforcement — or potential for realignment — of power.

Just as conservatives have weaponized the budget through this deal to consolidate power through the military and through the preservation of wealth, progressives can use the budget to create new power structures. That would look like more direct investments in people and in addressing the root causes of inequality, fewer rewards and protections for the already-powerful, and a recognition that might doesn’t make right when it comes to military force and so-called power projection.

To accomplish all that, progressives need to wield the power they do have. Conservatives may have moved to consolidate power in the new budget, but movements pushed back and won some fights, too: Many of the worst plans of House Republicans did not come to pass. The deal’s cuts to domestic programs are far less than they demanded, and will last only two years instead of ten. Onerous requirements for Medicaid recipients intended to cut Medicaid’s rolls did not move forward.

Movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, the People Over Pentagon coalition, and countless others continue the fight. The Poor People’s Campaign has demanded a Third Reconstruction (named for the “reconstructions” in the post-Civil War and 1960s civil rights eras) with an ambitious agenda that would completely remake the federal budget to stop poverty, racism, environmental degradation and militarism. The People Over Pentagon Campaign has called for $100 billion cut to the Pentagon budget, to be reinvested in human needs. These and other progressive movements won’t stop until human needs take precedence over the desires of entrenched power.

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