With the release of what the Congressional Progressive Caucus is calling its 'Better Off Budget' on Wednesday, the most left-leaning members of Congress once again prove that good ideas do exist on Capitol Hill even if political realities threaten to make sure they go nowhere fast.
Despite being the largest single caucus on the Democratic side of the aisle, the CPC proposal will not see a winning vote in the GOP-controlled House, but that isn't keeping progressive lawmakers and outside observers from declaring it a blueprint for a more sane U.S. budget and a challenge to both the forthcoming Republican version and a more visionary alternative to the one presented by President Obama last week.
Declaring that it's possible to reduce inequality, create jobs, make crucial investments, and actually shrink the deficit at the same time, CPC co-chairs Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) presented the new budget as a direct challenge to the austerity mindset that has dominated Washington, DC since the current economic crisis began in late 2008. By paralyzing job growth and ignoring the clear and present need for public investments and a renewed set of priorities, Grijalva and Ellison argue that the budget paradigm in Congress has allowed for the steady deterioration of the working class even as the wealthiest in society are doing better than ever.
“During our economy’s best decades, Congress invested in the American workforce and every family was better off for it," the pair said in a joint statement. "But recent years have been dominated by growing inequality and a Republican majority in Congress obsessed with slashing the budget, making it harder for working Americans to find decent jobs and save for the future. The Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Better Off Budget reverses the damage their austerity agenda has inflicted on hard-working families and restores our economy to its full potential by creating 8.8 million jobs by 2017."
Calling the plan a "robust left alternative vision for America," David Callahan, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Demos think tank, outlined the budget's big ideas by highlighting these proposals:
- Mounting a sweeping New Deal-style attack on unemployment, including expansive public works.
- Overhauling the tax code to raise taxes on the wealthy back to levels that were the norm in the early postwar period, including a 49 percent top bracket, a new financial speculation tax, and making it much harder for corporations to evade taxes on foreign profits.
- Enacting a public option and other changes that would begin a much-needed next phase of health reform that builds on and improves the Affordable Care Act.
- Putting a price on carbon to decrease the use of fossil fuels and incentivize a shift to renewables, while also whacking all subsidies to oil and gas companies.
- Reducing Pentagon spending.
- Providing funds to publicly finance election campaigns.
- Actually increasing Social Security benefits.
And while Callahan acknowledges that "that good policy proposals don't add up to political power," he says the document represents both the increased capacity of a "progressive left infrastructure" in the country and proof that progressive do, in fact, have real and workable solutions to the nation's deepest challenges.
In an optimistic declaration, Callahan writes: "We have a vision. We have detailed ideas. We have a rising labor movement. And we have 71 members of Congress who are putting forth an agenda that is pretty damn bold."
Looking at both this year's effort and their past budgets, Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the CPC has consistently produced "budgets that balance significant deficit reduction over a ten year period with substantial investments in the near term to create jobs, strengthen the safety net, and reduce inequality—the kinds of investments that the budget austerity folks tell us we can’t afford."
How do they make those achievements? Pemberton says it is easily done, but only if you go after the "wasteful areas of spending that other legislators won't touch"—namely, she writes, "the enduringly large war budget (aren’t those wars ending?), tax havens for the rich, and oil company subsidies."
According to Isaiah J. Poole at the Campaign for America's Future, the 'Better Off Budget' should be lauded for putting forward "bold policies that match the severity of the problems facing working-class Americans."
In addition, Poole says, the "blunt details" of the CPC proposals set up more substantive debates that all Americans—including lawmakers and the media—"should be having about how to rebuild the economy so that it works for more than just a handful of people at the top."
One of—if not the—major problem with the budget, warns Poole, is not the visionary nature of the budget proposal, but the likely prospect that it will, like similar proposals before it, be ignored by major media outlets and lawmakers outside the CPC. He writes:
The typical impulse in Washington political and media circles is to treat the Progressive Caucus budget as a fanciful, out-of-left-field wish list. That is even with the assessments of mainstream economists that the policy prescriptions like those put forward by the Progressive Caucus are the most sensible responses to today’s slow-growth economy.
In order to combat that impulse and garner the budget the attention it deserves, Poole suggests progressive activists and voters should make two demands:
The first is of the media. The Progressive Caucus budget proposals deserve to be taken at least as seriously as the proposals being put forth by Ryan and his colleagues in the Republican House. Last year, that didn’t happen. The country needs a real discussion of its choices – to continue the tortuous, slow-growth policies borne out of conservative obstruction that are worsening income inequities or the smarter, pro-growth, full-employment policies embodied by the Progressive Caucus. Mainstream media obstructs that discussion when it does not fully inform the electorate of all of the policy options on the table.
The second is of members of Congress, including the Progressive Caucus’ fellow Democrats. Democrats know that the Progressive Caucus’s policies would move the country in the right direction, but many will vote against the budget out of fear that they will be smeared with the old “tax-and-spend” label in their districts. These members should know that thousands of Democrats in their districts want their members to cast a vote in favor of the bold policies in the Caucus budget.
Read both a summary of the budget or a more expansive and detailed version below.