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Our Brave New Budget Dystopia

(Photo: funky pancake/Flickr)

As Congress members return from recess this week and resume their budget battles, I hope they will be meek, cautious and circumspect. I hope they will walk on lots of eggshells and tread softly on thin ice. I hope they'll think too hard before acting.

Why? Because over the course of the past three months, a host of terrible ideas have been lauded simply for being fearless – i.e. too potentially catastrophic to actually implement. This trend puts us in serious danger of ending up with a budget plan that is a little less extreme, but still catastrophic enough to qualify as “bold” by these strange new standards.

First, a bafflingly significant contingent of the House passed Paul Ryan's humanity-slashing budget proposal, praised by much of the media as “bold,” “serious” and “courageous.” Meanwhile, all 47 Senate Republicans endorsed a balanced-budget amendment that would require supermajority votes to approve any spending in excess of revenues – or to increase revenue (what?). And now, support is building quickly in the Senate for a bipartisan-but-“bold” spending-cap bill. The legislation, cosponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), would impose a rigid annual limit on federal spending, decapitating Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Pre-emptive nuclear attacks are bold. So are bullfighting and extreme asparagus-eating competitions. So was the invasion of Iraq.

Since when is boldness, in itself, a virtue, regardless of how it's applied?

Thankfully, House Democrats rejected the Ryan budget as not-so-bold (“it is not courageous to provide additional tax breaks for millionaires while ending the Medicare guarantee for seniors,” Rep. Chris Van Holland pointed out). But the recent push for the Corker-McCaskill spending cap bill demonstrates that the brainless-fearlessness contagion is seeping into the Senate Democratic ranks.

The spending cap legislation would limit federal spending to 20.6 percent of GDP within ten years. That's a giant, arbitrary, regressive slash: Currently, spending makes up about 24.7 percent of GDP … and under Reagan, it made up 22 percent. This drastic reduction would mean a series of growing cuts to key programs, including $856 billion in Medicare, $547 billion in Medicaid and $1.3 trillion in Social Security over the first nine years, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). And with the US population getting older and health care more expensive, the cost of these programs is expected to rise in the coming decades, making the Corker-McCaskill cuts all the more draconian.

“This is a bold step,” said McCaskill on the Senate floor.

It is bold – so bold, in fact, that it leaves the country wide open for a fresh recession, and provides little room to promote recovery, should a recession hit, according to the CBPP:

Imposing an arbitrary limit on federal spending would risk tipping faltering economies into recession, make recessions deeper, and make recovery from a recession more difficult…. Attempting to limit federal spending to a fixed share of GDP would “impinge on the stabilizers on the spending side of the budget,” as CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf testified last week. Taking away these stabilizers, Elmendorf warned, “risks making the economy less stable [and] risks exacerbating the swings in the business cycle.”

So, the spending cap-induced cuts would know no mercy, especially during times of economic downturn. Beyond Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, other crucial programs would fall prey: food stamps, veterans' benefits, unemployment insurance, and more. In fact, within a couple of decades, the Corker-McCaskill bill could put Ryan's “courageous” plan to shame on the insanity-o-meter. The CBPP states that, “in some years, even the radical proposals in the Ryan plan would barely prove sufficient or fall a bit short of meeting the Corker-McCaskill target.”

The spending cap bill would squish the wiggle room that allows the government – and individuals – to respond flexibly to crises. But that's because wiggle room is for wimps, according to Senator Corker.

“What Senator McCaskill and I are offering is a legislative straitjacket, a way of forcing Congress to dramatically cut spending over 10 years,” Corker said in a press release.

Other luminaries “offering” to boldly stuff our country into a straitjacket include Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) (though my fingers really resisted typing a D next to his name), who recently signed on to co-sponsor the bill, along with an assortment of slash-happy Republicans. They're now on the hunt for just a few more Democrats to take the plunge.

Determining our budget priorities by way of the “bold” standard – emphasizing the courage to slash over the protection of Americans' lives and liberties – could twist our social contract into a grotesque distortion of itself for generations to come.

What's missing right now is a critical discussion of what “courage” actually means when it comes to budgetary decision making. Is it a tendency toward risk taking, or at least, risk proposing? Maybe – but the question then becomes, who is really at risk when the hammer comes down?

In early April, The Chicago Tribune cheered the new criterion. “Paul Ryan and his allies aren't waiting for a perfect moment that, in Washington, never comes,” The Tribune crowed in an editorial. “On Tuesday, they did what real leaders do. They risked their necks.”

But are Ryan and friends the ones who'll suffer if Medicaid is axed, if the food stamp program is decimated, if unemployment insurance goes down the tubes? Are Bob Corker and friends dependent on the Social Security checks that may dwindle and vanish in a couple of decades, should their austerity dreams come true?

These deficit warriors are risking not their own necks, but the necks (and bank accounts, and homes and college educations) of the poor, the sick and the unemployed, while resisting taxes on the wealthy and the comfortable with all their might.

It's an Orwellian nightmare: The new bold is an excuse for extreme cowardice, measuring courage by an ability to put other, more vulnerable people at risk, to volunteer the less powerful for new and painful sacrifices. Meanwhile, the possibility of real budget-cut courage (e.g. taking on Wall Street and war spending) fizzles amid the rhetorical contortions.

As the budget games resume this week, Senate Democrats (at least, the ones who are not Manchin) must question this language and challenge those catchy turns of phrase. If the spending-cap bill would put anyone in a “straightjacket,” it's not Corker. It's the American people. And from what I hear, straightjackets are pretty hard to get out of. It's time for the Democrats to take a stand for the Americans whose necks are really at risk in this debate – and give Republicans and Democrublicans alike a taste of true bravery.

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