Shutdown deal: The cloud around the silver lining

The agreement to end the shutdown and suspend the debt ceiling is a political victory for President Obama and a defeat for the tea party. It is also a victory for the working class, which bore the brunt of the shutdown, and would have been hardest hit by hitting the debt ceiling. But as Robert Reich says, “The war isn’t over. It’s only a cease-fire.” And this is clearly a class war, with the 1 percent still on the offensive against the rest of us.

The last-minute deal allows government to function at existing budget levels (almost down now to the same level as the Ryan budget first proposed in 2010) until January 15. As Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out, this means another three months of living with an awful budget. It includes the sequester – across-the-board cuts that have already cost 900,000 jobs and denied section 8 vouchers, unemployment compensation, research funds and many other programs to a large number of Americans.

It’s as if the steerage passengers and working crew of the Titanic managed to drag the captain away from the first class parties long enough to avoid the iceberg. But the ship is still on the same course, and the steerage passengers and working crew are still in overcrowded conditions living on rotten food while the rich folk on the upper decks live in luxury.

Under the last-minute agreement, a conference committee of the House and Senate is supposed to meet and come up with a new budget by December 13. As Sanders explained, this is where the real struggle takes place.

In the committee, progressive forces can fight for ending the sequester, and to provide opportunities for the 20-plus million unemployed and underemployed to have living wage, useful jobs in education, public health, research, renewable energy, and infrastructure. A good starting point is the Back to Work budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But the conference committee will have few progressives. They will have an uphill fight.

The committee is charged with a long-term plan for tax and spending policies over the next decade. This is a dangerous framework. From Wall Street to the Chamber of Commerce, from the Wall Street Journal to Thomas Friedman of the “liberal” New York Times, there is a common premise. They are united by the idea that reducing the deficit and “controlling entitlement spending” are the most important goals. Accepting that premise means abandoning any significant progress on the real needs of the country, and putting peoples needs squarely in the crosshairs, starting with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and SNAP.

We should be absolutely clear: the deficit is a phony issue. The same people who scream about the deficit had no trouble running up the bills for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and huge tax breaks for the corporations and the one percent. They resist any effort to reduce the deficit by closing tax loopholes like the ones that let vulture capitalists like Mitt Romney pay a lower tax rate than a truck driver or dental technician. The corporate agenda includes undermining the social safety net even more, so that a desperate working class has no choice but to take any job, at any pay, with no benefits, and accept any working conditions.

Although plenty of billionaires continue to back the tea party extremists, the mainstream of Wall Street and corporate America, including the Chamber of Commerce, pushed Congress to avoid a default. But they made it very clear that, while opposing tea party tactics, they are still committed to the goals of cutting Social Security and undermining the governments ability to regulate corporations in the public interest.

These mainstream corporate interests played a role in ending the immediate crisis. But the American people deserve most of the credit. There were demonstrations and protests around the country, targeting Republican and especially tea party congresspeople. Millions of phone calls and petitions were directed at Congress. Public opinion polls showed that the Republicans were headed for disaster – something that not only scared the Republican leadership, but may have helped persuade certain corporate interests that supporting the extremists was a losing game.

The popular efforts to end the crisis can also be decisive in influencing the course of the conference committee that is charged with drafting a new budget. Only popular pressure can shift the focus away from the corporate agenda which hides under the mask of deficit reduction. The most pressing immediate crisis facing the American people is availability and quality of jobs. The most urgent long-term problems are decaying infrastructure, climate and the environment, economic insecurity and inequality, and a generation of youth who are reaching maturity with jobs that do not allow them to develop their full potential, or no jobs at all.

Phone calls, letters-to-the-editor, demonstrations should demand: eliminate the debt ceiling; no more hostage-taking government shutdowns; repeal the sequester; pass the Progressive Caucus budget for the 99 percent.

Photo: Progressives credit the mass public outcry against the shutdown with forcing Republican lawmakers to back down. AP


Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.