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“A Lesson In Civics”: If A Budget Cut Doesn’t Impact The Wealthy, Congress Won’t Fix It

As thousands of air travelers suffered through flight delays last week, the average American got a lesson in civics: when you cut government spending, it has real life consequences. Americans are fond of saying that they want to slash government spending in the abstract, but loath to point to specific programs that they actually want to cut. With sequestration, this ambivalence has come home to roost. Because the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration affect all programs evenly, the ones that touch middle-class Americans, not just the poor, have suffered equally.

We haven’t just learned a lesson about the effects of budget cutting, though. We’ve also been able to see the priorities of Congress in stark relief. The flight delays, a result of furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, were not the first effects of sequestration. Those were visited on the poor. Yet the FAA was the only agency that saw swift and bipartisan action. After Congress was flooded with calls from angry travelers—not to mention, as lawmakers started down flight delays for their own flights home for recess—the Senate and House each passed a bill with overwhelming support within forty-eight hours. When’s the last time you remember that happening for any other issue?

The poor have long known that a budget cut passed in Congress means hardship in real life. This dynamic was in full force as sequestration went into effect. The first to be hit by the reduction in funds, by and large, were low-income Americans. Preschoolers have been kicked out of Head Start. Food pantries have closed. Native American health services have been reduced. Thousands of cancer patients on Medicare have been turned away from clinics. Meals on Wheels is delivering to fewer elderly people. The long-term unemployed will receive severely reduced benefit checks.

While these cuts have been well covered by local media, the rest of us haven’t heard much about them. Yet when furloughs delayed flights, they dominated the media, as did the cancellation of White House tours. In mainstream cable news coverage, flights were mentioned about two and a half times more than Head Start, over twice as much as cancer patients, and six and a half times more than Meals on Wheels. White House tours were even worse: they were mentioned thirty-three times as often as the sequester’s impact on the poor.

The coverage of tours and flights was likely driven by something we don’t see very often: budget cuts that impact nearly all Americans. Targeted cuts tend to focus on programs that the poor rely on, and we rarely hear those stories. But even middle-class and well-to-do Americans were feeling what it’s like to have reduced government spending in their daily lives when they went to the airport and waited an extra hour to take off. This is surely a mere inconvenience compared to losing food or housing if you’re poor, but it’s still important: Americans of all income levels may finally be learning the importance of government spending in their lives.

As Suzanne Mettler has demonstrated, many Americans do in fact benefit from government services. But few realize it. Mettler calls this the “submerged state”: the variety of public programs that are delivered in such a way, such as through the tax code, that many don’t realize they’re getting assistance. The epitome of this contradiction is the senior who shouts, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”

For this reason, perhaps, well-off Americans tend to be less concerned with spending on the social safety net and more interested in cutting government spending. This has huge consequences for our political system. A body of research has shown that the needs and desires of the poor rarely influence how their representatives vote. On the other hand, Congress’s priorities nearly duplicate those of the wealthy.

And here is the last lesson sequestration has taught us: just how much more Congress cares about what’s bothering upper-middle-class citizens than what’s going on at the bottom of the income scale. There are tons of different programs expecting a big impact from sequestration. None of them saw multiple bills introduced in the Senate, one of which was passed with huge support on both sides of the aisle and signed within a matter of days. Had they continued, the furloughs would have been more than an inconvenience. They could have meant sharply reduced economic output. But the same could be said of many of the cuts to other programs. The lesson is not that the flight delays should have gone unaddressed. It’s that if a budget cut doesn’t impact a wealthy constituency, Congress can’t to be bothered to fix it.

 

By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, April 28, 2013

April 30, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Sequestration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Everything That’s Rotten About Congress”: Fixing The Part Of Sequestration That Affects Rich People

After a month or so of the sequestration budget cuts only affecting people Congress doesn’t really care about, the cuts hit home this week when mandatory FAA furloughs caused lengthy flight delays cross the country. Suddenly, sequestration was hurting regular Americans, instead of irregular (poor) ones! Some naive observers thought this would force Congress to finally roll back the purposefully damaging cuts that were by design never intended to actually go into effect. Those observers were … sort of right! The U.S. Senate jumped into action last night and voted to … let the FAA transfer some money from the Transportation Department to pay air traffic controllers so that the sequestration can continue without inconveniencing members of Congress, most of whom will be flying home to their districts today. The system works! (For rich people, like I’ve been saying.)

The Washington Post says, “The Senate took the first step toward circumventing sequestration Thursday night,” though in fact what it did was work to ensure that the sequester continues not affecting elites, who fly regularly. I am embarrassed that I did not predict this exact outcome in my column Tuesday morning. The Senate, which can’t confirm a judge without months of delay and a constitutional crisis, passed this particular bill in about two minutes, with unanimous consent. The hope is that the House can get it taken care of today, I guess in time for everyone to fly to Aspen or wherever people whom Congress listens to fly to on Fridays.

After that Congress will be done fixing all the various problems with the design and implementation of the sequestration:

But House action on a broader deal to undo the across-the-board cuts appears remote. House conservatives say much of the impact has been exaggerated by the White House, and they have relished the success of forcing visible spending cuts on a Democratic administration.

“I think it’s the first time we’ve saved money in Washington, D.C.,” said Representative Raúl Labrador, Republican of Idaho. “I think we need to move on from the subject.”

Move on, people who may become homeless! We fixed the airports, what more do you want?

There was a big to-do yesterday about a Politico story insisting — explosively! morning-winningly! — that Congress was trying to exempt itself from Obamacare. Because this is Politico, the story was based on equal parts misunderstanding of policy and desire to create a fuss. The actual story is that Republicans proposed forcing members of Congress and their staffs to only use healthcare plans created by Obamacare or available in the exchanges. Democrats passed the amendment, as a sort of fuck you. But the exchanges are designed for people who don’t have employers who pay for healthcare. Congressional staffers get employer-sponsored health benefits. The exchanges are explicitly not designed for employees of large employers who pay for healthcare, so some people are right now trying to figure out how to make sure staffers continue to get healthcare. It may end up not being a big deal, or it may require a tweak to the law. But it’s not a scandal. (Honestly, it’s all a pretty good argument for ditching employer-based healthcare in favor of universal single-payer but then again everything is.)

But the fuss was already created. The story will live forever, and no amount of debunking in the world will kill the popular myth that Congress attempted to secretly “exempt” itself from Obamacare. So self-serving!

Their staffers are generally the poorest people members of Congress know, and trying to make sure their healthcare is paid for is seriously the closest our legislature gets to altruism. But while the story of Congress working to make sure its staffers don’t have to shoulder the entirety of their premium costs because of Republican political stuntmanship was treated as a scandal and an example of everything rotten about Congress, the story of Congress hurriedly making sure the well-off minority of Americans who fly regularly don’t get briefly inconvenienced — while ignoring the costs of brutal cuts on programs for low-income Americans facing housing or hunger crises — is treated as a wonderful and encouraging display of bipartisanship.

Have a great flight home, senators!

By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, April 26, 2013

April 27, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Sequestration | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“You Didn’t Forewarn Us”: Republicans Can’t Decide If They Support Sequestration

As travelers across the country began feeling the consequences of sequester cuts at airports this week, legislators were busy determining who to blame for the increase in disrupted travel. From the beginning Democrats have been consistent in their message—”the sequester will hurt Americans, instead we need a combination of responsible cuts and significant revenue.”

The Republican response to the sequester, on the other hand, has been divided and unclear. Before the cuts materialized, some Republicans were charging Democrats with being “dramatic,” some even welcoming the cuts. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) said, “It is going to happen. It is 2.4 percent of the budget, and it is not the end of the world. We want the savings. We want to bank those savings, and we want to move on.” Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) echoed those same sentiments: “We had a grand total of three phone calls concerned about it. They don’t buy the scare tactics. Most Americans are going to wake up Friday morning and yawn.”

Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) blamed President Obama for the effects of the sequester, admitted the president never wanted the sequester to happen, and then half-embraced the imminent cuts. Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel said, “We support replacing the indiscriminate cuts in the sequester with smarter cuts and reforms (of an equal amount).”

Others like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) didn’t find the cuts to be deep enough. “Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America’s credit rating. Both parties will have to agree to cut, or we will never fix our fiscal mess,” Paul said in his Tea Party response to the State of the Union.

Now that the cuts have taken place and public outrage over delayed and canceled air travel has increased, Republicans have adopted a new argument—”why didn’t anyone tell us the cuts would be this bad?” In a House Committee on Appropriations hearing, Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY) blamed Federal Aviation Administration Chief Michael Huerta: “You didn’t forewarn us that this was coming; you didn’t ask advice about how we should handle it.”

Republicans have evolved full circle on this issue—from criticizing President Obama, to claiming victory for the cuts, to now indicating they had no idea the cuts would be so severe. White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to these claims on Monday. “We made it clear that there would be these kinds of negative effects if Congress failed to take reasonable action to avert the sequester,” he said. “Policy that everyone who was involved in writing it knew at the time and has made clear ever since was never designed to be implemented. It was designed to be bad policy and, therefore, to be avoided.”

 

By: Allison Brito, The National Memo, April 25, 2013

April 26, 2013 Posted by | Sequester | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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