Let’s not let the budget deficit be used as an excuse to block legislation to meet the needs of working-class Americans

During the election campaign, the Democrats pledged to address some of the most urgent needs of working families in the first 100 hours of the new Congress. The measures include raising the minimum wage, improving the Medicare drug benefit, cutting the cost of student loans and repealing multibillion-dollar subsidies for Big Oil.

The “first 100 hours” measures are only a down payment on what is both necessary and possible. For working people, the second 100 hours, and all the hours after that, must focus on the most urgent issues, including universal health care (HR 676), the Employee Free Choice Act to allow workers to organize unions, and ending the war in Iraq.

Even the first measures, after passing the House, must be passed by the Senate and then signed by a pro-corporate president whose entire record has been hostility to workers. Winning the first 100-hours, and going on to the second, will be possible only with the same groundswell of support that brought the election night victory last November.

The Change America Now coalition of labor, environmental, civil rights and community organizations has launched a national campaign to win the 100-hours program. (Sign on at www.cancampaign.org.)

It is difficult for anyone to openly oppose popular measures like increasing the minimum wage. But big business interests and their allies in Congress have already begun a campaign of confusion and sabotage to obstruct progress. These range from parliamentary maneuvers to raising phony issues of bipartisanship.

One of the main tools that will be used to block the 100-hours program, or to prevent it from going beyond its initial, limited goals, is the federal budget deficit. The federal budget has gone from a surplus in the Clinton administration to large deficits under Bush.

Influential Republican strategists pushed a policy of deliberately bankrupting the federal government to provide an excuse for downsizing and eliminating Medicare, Social Security and all other spending on people’s needs. The Bush administration gleefully followed this strategy, using it to loot the Treasury on behalf of the richest Americans and the well-connected corporations of the military-industrial-energy complex.

The resulting deficit is widely seen as being unsustainable, and Democrats have correctly attacked the outgoing Republican Congress for its fiscal irresponsibility.

Before the election, the Democratic Party web site stated their top priority, after the first 100 hours, would be enacting “paygo” rules. They explained: “Pay as you go [means] no increasing the deficit, whether the issue is middle-class tax relief, health care or some other priority.”

But the urgent needs of working families are not just “some other priority.” With the economy slowing and a possible recession looming, meeting the people’s needs must be the top priority. Putting paygo — “no increasing the deficit” — first means robbing Peter to pay Paul: for example, cutting school lunches to increase funding for heating assistance.

It should not be necessary to rob anyone. It is possible to meet the costs of the 100-hours program, as well as the other most urgent needs, by looking at where the deficit comes from: tax cuts for the wealthy, and the military buildup. The increase in annual military spending since Bush took office is more than $150 billion, and the war in Iraq adds another $100 billion. Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthy were $130 billion in 2006.

All together, the military buildup plus tax cuts for the rich amounted to $380 billion in 2006, compared with the net deficit of $284 billion that year.

As long as the Bush tax cuts, the Bush military buildup and the Iraq war are in place, we should not accept any arguments about “paygo” or fiscal responsibility as an excuse to fail to meet the people’s needs.

I am sending my senators and representatives the following message: Give top priority to passing the 100-hour program — then go on to end the war, pass universal health care, and meet all the needs of working-class Americans. As for the deficit, as long as Halliburton is collecting cost-plus contracts in Iraq and Louisiana, and as long as Paris Hilton pays lower tax rates on the income from her trust fund than working families pay on their hard-earned paychecks, there is no excuse for anyone to be without food, shelter, education or health care. End the war. Tax the rich. Put people first.

economics @ cpusa.org


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.